A statue of Confucius at the Beijing Temple of Confucius © Mx. Granger / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
Un vrai dialogue entre les êtres et, a fortiori, entre les cultures est difficile. S’il ne se contente pas de propos superficiels, un dialogue exige des intervenants qu’ils dépassent les apparences — lesquelles n’offrent le plus souvent que des différences de surface —, et qu’ils acceptent de plonger dans la profondeur de leur être, là où résident les quelques questions fondamentales, donc universelles, qui se posent aux humains.
François Cheng, L’Éternité n’est pas de trop (2002, p. 7)
Illuminating the character of China risks presenting a highly favourable image of its history, politics, and culture – often attributing a long civilisational heritage to a Party-state that enjoys but little. A new publication by Jean-François Billeter makes a compelling case for a comparative perspective with Europe.
From the Jesuit’s first encounter with China to the philosophers of the Victorian age, Europeans cultivated notions of that geographic space and its political system. Having been conceived in times immemorial, Chinese civilisation, it is said, continues to be guided by the ethical-religious prescripts of Confucianism. Many contemporary commentators follow this same kind of reasoning, often not realising that their arguments hold no water.
Even more so than the Soviet Union before it, the rise of China presents us with the emergence of great power, driven by immense economic success but led by a socialist Party-state. Because of this seeming contradiction, some are quick to avert any and all fear by noting that a rise to power on such sloppy foundations cannot continue. Others note that China’s rise demonstrates the efficiency of state capitalism, as opposed to that of the market (Hung, 2015). Whatever the case may be, the rise of China simultaneously instils fears of a worldwide takeover by the Chinese, as it does admiration for what, by the measure of economic growth, must become the Chinese century.
One must admit that the rise of China is an extraordinary event. It unfolds in time, much like it does in space. It is commonplace to refer to Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening-up of the country, yet it is in the period following Tiananmen where the origins of China’s economic boom reside. Xi Jinping, the ubiquitous Chairman of the Communist Party, summarised it perhaps best of all: China stood up under Mao, got rich under Deng, and was now getting strong.
China’s rise, however, is not a natural development, let alone a flaw in the history of the world that must be corrected. This idea of China returning to its rightful place, presented in the form of China’s 5,000 years of history, holds that China’s traditional position is in the middle of a wide tributary constellation and reigning by divine mandate over the secular All-Under-Heaven. China, as one catchy phrase puts it, is “a civilization pretending to be a nation-state” (Pye, 1992, p. 1162).
This civilisational approach, echoing faux Confucianism, notes that China’s domination of the world is more favourable than its current form, for it will be novel and more friendly. What exactly this future holds other than idealistic descriptions of what’s to come, is never quite clear. The troubling confusion stems from subsuming the political nature of the socialist Party-state within that largely imperceptible trend of history.
Fortunately, the engagement with China continues to be the topic of wide debate, heated polemics but also mistaken divinations on a Party-state that is less mysterious than orientalist exotism or Pekingologists may suggest. Understanding China, it is true, is too important to leave to Sinologists. Yet it is exactly that field that can grapple much more critically with this material, if alone for having made many of these flawed assumptions previously.
In Pourquoi l’Europe, Jean-François Billeter ponders what it means to be European in the face of China,” and, by consequence, what it means to be Chinese. It is a book driven by an ambition to understand the “causality of history” and the forces that so fundamentally shaped the historical, political, and cultural characteristics of Europe and China. It is a collection of short essays – reflections – in which the Swiss scholar draws on previous work, among which most controversially is his Contre François Jullien (2006), a polemical hit-piece that refuted the notion of China’s alterity, present in the work of the French philosopher François Jullien.
For Billeter, it was the Zhou dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BCE) that laid the foundations of China’s political tradition, and its ethical system of the Rujia 儒家 (commonly known as Confucianism), as well as the basis of its writing system. That “pre-imperial Antiquity,” akin to the Graeco-Roman tradition in Europe, was founded upon the desire to transform a military alliance into a lasting institution. Out of these principalities emerged individual states, which went to war and would give rise to the first imperial dynasty, that of the Qin (221 to 206 BCE). This quite laudable introduction to Chinese history will be of interest to those newcomers to the study; more experienced individuals would also do well to take note.
Interestingly, Billeter describes Chinese history as one of culture 文 and military prowess 武; a not unsatisfying variation on what Wang Gungwu calls the relationship between culture and history 史 (Wang, 2021). In fact, Billeter’s take on this topic is even more revealing for the military nature of Chinese history, where victor justice, at least in the compiling of dynastic histories, was the business of the day. From the Zhou onwards, Billeter contends, China’s history can be characterised by a “strategic conception of power,” rather than a political one. The legalist tradition of the Qin (221 to 206 BCE) then provided an institutionalisation of such a central notion of governing power, while the Han’s restoration of Confucianism established a clear, hierarchical order.
In combination and much more than merely the vestiges of this latter tradition, there emerged a “double ritualisation of absolute authority and respect for the ruler.” The Han (202 BCE – 220 CE), or at least the political tradition that it cemented, is here equivalent to Ancient Rome, but it survived – in one form or another – until 1911. Imperial decline, to Billeter, however, set in during the seventeenth century, with the arrival of the Manchu Qing dynasty, whose non-Han origins are often used to explain its eventual collapse (see below).
Today, the main predicament for the Party-state, according to Billeter, is how to become a great power while staying true to that Chinese political tradition that started with the illustrious Zhou. It must do so not only by discouraging “any ideas that may call their [position] into question,” as well as exploiting “all resources that they require to make China the foremost power and [ensuring] that it remains so.” This endeavour translates into a very historical, if artificial, statecraft that risks, all too often, of becoming displaying “monarchical tendencies” within the Party-state that, by its very definition, rejects such feudalism.
Finally arriving at the European dimension of the work, Billeter notes that in comparison to China, Europe lacks a plan. It does not know where it is going. However, it plays a crucial role through its democratic institutions and the ideals they represent. In a direct rejection of cultural relativism, which Billeter calls a culturalist argument, he states that “the Chinese tradition […] promotes [different] values which no one may criticise in name of their own.” This relativism, as rightfully noted, is often mixed with the most virulent forms of Chinese nationalism. Against such Party-state interpretations of Chinese culture, Tu Wei-ming of Harvard already noted that Chinese culture is, quite to the contrary and simply: “the generic term symbolising the vicissitudes of the material and spiritual accomplishments of the Chinese people” (Tu, 1991).
Readily promoted by the Chinese government, it follows that the notions of freedom and democracy in China are a priori rejected “because they are not Chinese [which is] a different tradition.” For reasons of legitimacy, the CCP of course gladly accepts its inherited position with the long history of China. Its attitude towards such Confucianist nativism, however, is rather more ambiguous. Is the CCP ready to give up its socialist nature in favour of Confucianism? Such an essential forfeiting of its existence seems doubtful at best. It is one of the questions this work fails to resolve.
Although Billeter’s expertise to present these concise takes on Chinese history must be lauded, the limited exploration of these arguments within this format is to be lamented. The work precludes, for example, a wider exploration of how Taoism and, by extension, Buddhism came to serve as the “cosmological, natural ordering of things” beyond a mere nod to Sinification; a concept that is itself also not explored but features as highly controversial in the field (Ho, 1998; Rawski, 1996). Similarly, while Billeter acknowledges that the Manchu state manipulated the tradition of the Chinese imperial institutions to such an extent as to dominate China; the book also suggests that this moribund imperial house lacked dynamism from its very beginning. Mercifully, recent historiography engages with this topic much more clearly (Munkh-Erdene, 2021).
To understand China, the CCP may not be taken at its word. Indeed, Chinese culture does not require to be restored or rejuvenated because it is a force that is ubiquitous and belongs to us all; as much as our culture belongs to the Chinese. With this work, Billeter presents an excellent exercise on Malraux’s conception of China as “l'autre pôle de l'expérience humaine” (in Leys, n.d.) which rejects the constraints of nationalism in favour of universal culture. Given the constraints of this work, that approach has perhaps not gone far enough, with the idea of “China” still singularly limited to the contemporary People’s Republic, with little to no regard for the Chinese/Sinophone world beyond those borders; and, crucially, in Europe itself.
To approach China from Europe, it may be easier to accept that “never the twain shall meet,” yet that is a stance that is no longer valid – if it ever was. Let Billeter’s work be a guidebook.
Axel Dessein is a Sinologist from Belgium, who is currently a The Leverhulme Trust Fellow at the Centre for Grand Strategy, King’s College London. His doctoral thesis focuses on how certain ideas of China attribute a long civilisation heritage to the contemporary Party-state. He holds a BA/MA in Oriental Languages and Cultures: China from Ghent University. You can follow him on Twitter.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.
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