Why China matters – also in political philosophy

China is also becoming increasingly powerful in the economic, political, and military field with implication for the entire global balance of power. Finally, and not least important, China is one of the world’s richest civilizations with a continuous history of more than two thousand years. Its philosophers, writers, and visual artists deserve our recognition and admiration.

There are in addition some special reasons why political philosophers should pay attention to China. Our political philosophy has tended so far to be narrowly focused on our own Western tradition. It focuses till today almost exclusively on the Greeks of the classical age, the Romans of the Imperial age, and on European politics from the sixteenth century onwards with the addition, more recently of US American politics. As far as other political traditions are concerned, our political philosophers have either ignored them or simply applied their Western concepts and theories to the rest of the world. We have become used, for instance, to take just one example, to speak of the Chinese Empire projecting in this way our conception of the Roman and modern European empires to China. But are they really the same? The Chinese name for their state is “zhongguo” which means “middle realm” and thus speaks of a geographical order, not of a dominion. And were the Chinese rulers “emperors” in the same sense as the Romans? The Chinese emperor or “huangdi” was primarily a mediator between heaven and earth, whereas the Roman emperors were typically military commanders, as their title already indicates.

The classical Chinese philosophers have concerned themselves extensively with political matters and we would do well to study their writings – both for their intrinsic interest and asking ourselves to what extent they can illuminate contemporary Chinese politics. Is it, for instance, the case, as has been suggested, that the Communist Party of China has, in fact, recreated the Confucian bureaucratic order?

In looking at China, we may also discover that it operates with a very different large-scale picture of political history. Our Western view of that history has been, certainly since the Enlightenment, of political development as a linear, progressive movement. This may not be the predominant Chinese view. Luo Guanzhong’s historical novel The Romance of the Three Kingdom’s, written in the 14th century, tells the story of the disintegration of the “empire” and the rise and fall of local kingdoms at the end of the Han dynasty. The novel begins famously with the words: “Unity succeeds with division and division follows unity. One is bound to be replaced by the other after a long span of time. This is the way with things in the world.” The words suggest a cyclical course of development and this picture appears particularly apposite with respect to Chinese history in which the unity of the realm and its divisions have been a recurrent theme. We need to look, perhaps, at the preoccupation of China’s present rulers with the unity of China, and hence their obsession with the hankering for independence in Taiwan and Hong Kong, in this light.

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