Guest Post: On the Development of Chinese Government

The following is a guest post.

Some Thoughts on the Development of Chinese Government

By Colin Glassey – August 21, 2009

One element of Chinese government which has been poorly presented in English is the way the Chinese system of Imperial government can be viewed as a system that evolved – slowly and fitfully – over 2,000 years. Far from being a monolithic or unchanging system there was change in the Imperial system from beginning to end. The change was driven not only by external forces but was also caused by the Emperors and their powerful advisors with the aid of the official historians who periodically wrote "report cards" about the strengths and failings of the previous dynasty in the form of official histories.

It is fair to say that most of the changes in the Imperial system of China were largely human directed changes based on a careful analysis of lessons from the past. This "evolution based on the examples of history" is nearly unique in governments (until the American revolutionaries consciously created their new government in the late 1780s). By sharp contrast, the European "method" (if one can call it such) for improving governments was "survival of the fittest". In other words, in Europe, states with good governments "ate" states with less effective systems and so, over time, good governments survived, and bad ones disappeared. (And yes, this is a gross generalization which slights people like Caesar Augustus, Peter the Great, Louis XIV, etc.).

The period of greatest change was usually at the start of a new dynasty as the new Emperor felt singularly unconstrained by the examples and precedent of the past. Based on my reading of Chinese history the following major periods of change are seen:

  1. The creation of the first system by the First Emperor (Shi Huang Di): circa 215 B.C.E. Powerful and effective in the short term but in many ways a failure and condemned by later historians and thinkers. Despite the failures, in broad outlines, the Imperial system of the first Emperor continued for hundreds of years into the Han.
  2. The Han of Emperor Wu Di: circa 90 B.C.E. This marks the point where Confucian ideology gained official (and permanent) approval as the ideology of Chinese government. The Legalist school of the First Emperor was officially "dead".
  3. The response to the Wang Mang usurpation: circa 30 C.E. Wang Mang, a top official took over and ruled for some 13 years. The new "Eastern" Han made a number of changes to prevent any future "Wang Mang" events from happening.
  4. The founding of the Sui Dynasty: circa 585 C.E. Following the collapse of the Han and hundreds of years of warfare between the successor states, the Sui created a new system of government that made significant modifications to the Han system.
  5. The response to the rebellion of An Lushan: circa 810. An Lushan's rebellion nearly destroyed the Tang and only gradually did the Imperial court figure out ways to reassert authority over the provinces. The reforms were not successful but they laid the groundwork for the Song.
  6. The Song founding: circa 965. The Song instituted major – and very long lasting – changes to the Imperial system based on the failure of the Tang government. In many ways the Song system was a remarkable achievement. All later imperial systems were based on the Song.
  7. The Ming founding: circa 1390. The Ming founder was one of the great political thinkers in history and while he kept a great deal of the Song system, he made many changes and then he tried to make them permanent by creating a book of "Ancestral Injunctions" – in some respects this was the first Constitution of China. Political change in the Ming after his death was glacial due to his efforts (for better and for worse).
  8. The Manchu (Qing) government of the Kangxi Emperor: circa 1680. This was the final form of the Imperial system, a hybrid of the Ming system with special Manchu elements grafted on. It corrected some of the obvious problems with the Ming system and it allowed China to expand territorially and economically to the greatest extent in its history.

These eight periods of government change are somewhat inaccurate. To talk about change at these points while ignoring the gradual changes that occurred at other times within the Song or Ming dynasties is – clearly – a generalization. Hopefully the benefits outweigh the costs.

Rating the degree and importance of the changes that occurred is also fraught with guesswork and error. However, in broad terms this is what happened:

  1. The First Emperor (Shi Huang Di) took the government of his home state of Chin (Qin) and imposed it on the other states that he conquered (Han, Zhao, Yan, Wei, and Chu). He set up the basic form of Imperial government. You can't get a bigger "change" than this.
  2. Emperor Wu Di formally accepted the principals of Confucianism in his management of the state. A small change, a mere matter of philosophy, and yet, profound in its implications.
  3. The usurpation of Wang Mang resulted in the rise to power of the direct Imperial family members at the top level of decision-making, especially the male relatives of the mother of the Emperor. Again, a fairly small change but the fall of the Han can be directly traced to this change.
  4. The Sui took their hybrid Chinese/Northern Horse Lord system and imposed it on the whole of China. For a time, women had real power and the Emperor was a military figure. This was a major change in Imperial government.
  5. The An Lushan rebellion forced the Imperial government into a wrenching and long lasting turn away from military power as the basis of the government and towards giving all real power to the educated elite. This was a small change to the system, and none of the Tang emperors were able to fully implement it.
  6. The Song completed the transition started by the Tang and implemented the world's first "modern" government: a bureaucracy based on merit. There is a great deal to admire about the Song system but their military ineffectiveness is a major weakness. This was a huge change to the Imperial system.
  7. The Ming tried to correct the problems of the Song – military leadership becoming a hereditary class, the Emperor by law forced to remain at the center of the government, etc. The problems with the Ming were subtle and took hundreds to years to manifest fully. The importance of the Ming changes grow upon careful reflection.
  8. The Manchu (Qing) in turn tried to correct the weaknesses of the Ming system with a new hereditary military class, the "Banner system", and an expansionist attitude towards their northern and western neighbors. Under the three great Manchu emperors China was the largest, richest, and most powerful state in the world. The changes here were actually quite small. In a real sense the Ming could have "become" the Manchu if they had wanted to.

One could argue that the changes in the Imperial system seem fairly small. The differences between the Egyptian Pharonic system, the Athenian Democracy, and the Roman Republic (to take three European governments) are probably greater than any of the differences in the Chinese Imperial system from beginning to end. So – from the perspective of people schooled in huge differences found in European systems of government over 4,000 years of history – the changes in the Chinese Imperial system could be thought of as of little consequence. I believe the changes are very interesting, because I see the modifications as conscious efforts to correct the mistakes of the past on the path toward making a more perfect government, much like we see modern governments trying to react "intelligently" to changes in the world around them. In this limited way, the Chinese governmental changes exhibit a modern mind-set.

I will go futher and argue that the Chinese Imperial government improved over the centuries. At the least, they fixed problems that led to serious breakdowns in earlier years. The Imperial system in its final form was far from a perfect government but it was a system I believe we in the present day can learn from.

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0 thoughts on “Guest Post: On the Development of Chinese Government”

  1. In Europe, or in France at least, our history program begins in Egypt. Not because Egypt is geographically a part of Europe, but because Europe has been shaped by Mediterranean countries and civilizations to a certain extend (like Turkey, or even the old Phoenicia). Let’s say Europe, as a civilization, begins in Egypt/Phoenicia, then it takes form in Greece, then Italy and so on..
    And as far as it goes, i am pretty sure China will be a part of Europe pretty soon :p

    Like

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