How can so large a country be made coherent? What is its story? And how can it balance individual opportunity with collective harmony? Meet the minds who made, and are making, Chinaby Rana Mitter / May 14, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
The minds who shaped the past
The most influential Chinese person of all time, Confucius was the moral philosopher who gave China some of its most enduring markers of identity. Confucius lived at a time when the rulers of China’s small kingdoms were at constant war with one another. He advocated an alternative to force: rituals and ethical behaviour. There had to be order in society, which, for him, meant control by rulers over subjects and men over women; but he also argued that the strong also owed a duty of care to the weak. Not particularly influential in his own lifetime, Confucius gained huge status in the Han dynasty (206BC to 220AD). The Chinese state continued to draw on Confucian norms into the early 20th century, but he was sidelined and often attacked by a succession of leaders, until Hu Jintao revived his ideas at the start of the 21st century. The sage’s books—often reworked as “self-help” manuals—still stack up in bookshops across the country.
Some countries don’t care that much for their history. China really does; historical analogies shape everyday conversations in boardrooms, schools and ministries. Sima Qian was not China’s first historian, but he may have been its first modern one even though he lived in the first century BC. He was a court historian who wrote at the height of China’s first great dynasty, the Han. He played different sources off against one another, collected oral evidence from participants in major events, and even used fiction as a source (anticipating post-modern ideas that all history is fiction, sort of). His work could get him into trouble; speaking an unwelcome truth to his emperor led to Sima Qian being castrated. But to this day, his Shi Ji (Records of the Grand Historian) stands as China’s answer to Livy and Herodotus.
Even today, Li Qingzhao is known as one of China’s greatest poets. She lived during one of the most turbulent chapter in Chinese history—the Song dynasty of the 12th century. This gave her a life of two distinct halves. She grew up as part of China’s culture of highly-regulated court bureaucracy, with a husband who was a senior official, and she became his superior in literary terms as she developed her skill in classical Chinese poetry. But in 1127, a neighbouring people invaded China, forcing the dynasty to flee and re-establish itself with a new capital. Li wandered for years, trying to preserve as much of her family’s collection of literary classics as possible. Eventually, she settled in the new capital of Hangzhou where she turned to politics, writing a series of broadsides condemning the Song rulers for succumbing to the invaders, establishing an enduring reputation as a true patriot.