Confucius and nationalism

June 14th, 2007

[A short note before I begin: Being neither a Confucian scholar nor an historian, I’m probably going to make a right fool of myself with this post. But what the hell, that’s what blogging is all about, so here goes.]

[update: Prof Crane responded in the comment section of his post- linked below- and throws the idea of “culturalism” into the mix, which I think is worth checking out. Follow the link below and see for yourself.]

Sam Crane of the Useless Tree has a fascinating and very thought-provoking post on Confucianism and nationalism, or should that be the abuse of Confucianism to bolster nationalism. I don’t really want to talk about his main point- that Confucianism can not be used to bolster or justify nationalism- I mean, he does that well enough and there’s nothing I can add to this discussion. But his post set my mind off on yet another tangent, back to some things that Jeremiah of the Granite Studio got me thinking about a while ago.

I can’t remember what it was exactly that Jeremiah posted that got me thinking this way, but a few months back he did a series of posts which got me thinking about such things as nationalism, national identity, the definitions of ‘China’ and ‘Chinese’, and how all of these things relate to Chinese history. Or, what makes things that happened hundreds or thousands of years ago on land that now falls within the borders of the People’s Republic ‘Chinese history’? Might seem like a simple question, but the reality of Chinese history very quickly muddies the waters.

I mean, ask any class of regular Chinese English students which was the first dynasty in Chinese history. I guarantee you, after a moment of confusion, several will answer, “The Qin!” Wrong. That was the first dynasty to cover a unified China. Check in any history book or any dictionary that includes a list of the Chinese dynasties and you’ll see Xia, Shang, Zhou, Spring and Autumn Period, and Warring States Period and then Qin.

[tangent: My Xinhua Zidian bilingual edition lists Western Zhou from about (yes, they wrote ‘about’) 1066 BC (very precise-looking date for an ‘about’) to 771 BC, then Eastern Zhou from 770 BC to 256 BC, Spring and Autumn from 770 BC to 476 BC, and Warring States from 475 BC to 221 BC, with Western and Eastern Zhou being two subsets of Zhou, Spring and Autumn and Warring States being two subsets of Eastern Zhou. I don’t really understand the technicalities here, so I won’t attempt to explain any of this.]

Back to the topic, go on to remind them that the Qin was only the first dynasty to unite China and that there were, in fact, earlier dynasties, and you’ll still be very lucky if anybody mentions the Xia, although there’s a good chance somebody will start talking about the legendary and mythical rulers of pre-Xia times. If that happens, they’ll most likely say “Yellow Emperor!”, as if one emperor makes a dynasty.

Anyway, if we go by the typical first reaction to that question, the Qin Dynasty, because it was the first to unite China, then:

  1. Are Confucius and Lao Zi even Chinese? Remember, they lived before the Qin.
  2. Hang on a minute, if Qin is the first Chinese dynasty because it was the first to unite China, then just what the hell were they uniting? If the Qin represents the beginning of China, which is what “first dynasty” would imply, then the pre-Qin world contained no China, so it wasn’t uniting China, it was founding China. Now the Yellow Emperor is going to be really mad to hear about that.

And a multitude of other questions of that ilk. Indeed, if the Qin was the first, then what existed before then?

Now, clearly, ‘Chinese history’, whatever that may be, stretches back before the Qin. Qin was, after all, one of the states doing all that warring. And it would seem that a lot of modern China’s national and cultural identity is taken from the pre-Qin world- a prime example being the nationalistic abuse of Confucius that Sam Crane was railing against in that post linked to above. The Yellow Emperor is also another prime example- he is still an object of veneration, if not outright worship.

Now let’s go back to Prof Crane’s post. Here are three translations of a passage from the Analects, 3.5, a passage that Prof Crane tells us contains basically the only reference to anything approaching ‘China’ or a ‘nation’ Confucius is known to have made:

First up, the David Hinton version:

The Master said: “Those wild tribes in the far north and east – they still honor their sovereigns. They’re nothing like us: we Chinese have given up such things.”

Second, Ames and Rosemont:

The Master said: “The Yi and Di barbarian tribes with rulers are not as viable as the various Chinese states without them.”

Third, Simon Leys:

The Master said: ” Barbarians who have rulers are inferior to the various nations of China who are without.”

Prof Crane then quotes part of a footnote Leys has on this passage:

…this important passage raises fascinating problems of interpretation. There are two ways of reading it – with opposite meanings. It say either “Barbarians who are fortunate enough to have rulers are still inferior to Chinese who do not have such luck,” or “Even barbarians have rulers – in this respect, they are unlike (i.e. better than) the Chinese who do not have any.”

Through the ages, commentators have inclined now to the first reading, now to the second, in a way that often reflected their own historical circumstances….

Now I have to say I have no idea what this passage means or how it should be translated. Unfortunately, if I do still have a copy of the Analects, it is either in New Zealand or in Yanqing, so I can’t check it myself. And if I could, my complete lack of knowledge of Classical Chinese would mean that I have nothing to add to any discussion of the translation or meaning of this passage. But the key here, the way I see it, is the second paragraph of that footnote from Leys:

Through the ages, commentators have inclined now to the first reading, now to the second, in a way that often reflected their own historical circumstances….

[yeah, I decided to highlight what I think is the key phrase]

And you know, I think we can apply that to modern people and our views of history.

A little more quoting from Prof Crane, then I’ll stop plagiarising and get around to making my point (assuming, of course, that I do actually have a point to make):

Chinese nationalism, as we know it today, is a product of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as are virtually all modern nationalisms everywhere. Indeed, it did not really become a mass nationalism until the 1930s, when Japan invaded (following the analysis of Chalmers Johnson), or maybe the 1920s (if we buy the argument of Arthur Waldron).

[note: not sure if Prof Crane’s links are going to work here.]

Y’know, I would’ve traced the origins of Chinese nationalism back to the late Qing, perhaps using 1840 and the Opium War as a convenient starting point. My understanding of that period, which I have to state out loud, clearly, right here, comes as much from Hong Kong films as from history books, of course, so I’m hardly in a position to dispute the analysis of real scholars. But my understanding is that the late Qing saw a rising Han (汉, for the sake of maximum clarity) nationalism in reaction to both foreign invasion and an increasingly corrupt, decadent and clearly collapsing Qing. The Qing was founded by the Manchus, remember, and I was under the impression that many Han of the late Qing viewed the Qing as the descendants of barbarian, foreign invaders, and that the world would be put right when they were replaced with a Han government and the 洋鬼å­? (amazing how that word pops up so quickly on my pinyin input doohickey!) put back on their ships and sent home. And then, of course, came the 1911 revolution, the Republic and the Kuomintang with its distinctly modern, Western ideas learned in places like Japan and Europe. One of these new-fangled ideas was, of course, a distinctly modern, Western concept of Nationalism and such things as the inviolable, indivisible nation-state.

Now, one thing I should make clear: I do not intend to equate ‘modern’ and ‘Western’. That would be a serious, serious mistake that I’ve seen far too many Chinese people make. What I mean by modern, Western ideas like Nationalism is that the idea came from the West, and is therefore Western in origin, and that it is a very modern concept, a very recent phenomenon. In terms of the development of Nationalism, the West isn’t really terribly different from China. Anyway, modern does not equal Western.

So where was I? Trying to get to the point, whatever that may be….

Right, so Nationalism, it would seem to me, is a very modern idea with its origins in the West. It’s an idea that has spread rapidly around the world and has, in many places, produced some rather odd, spectacularly weird, and viciously brutal results.

And many of these results can be seen in modern people’s interpretations of history and applications of history to the modern world. I could give you plenty of examples from all corners of the globe, but that would inevitably stir up far more trouble than I really want to deal with. The application of Nationalism to history has resulted in some seriously insane politics, the kind of politics I’d rather keep well, well away from my blog.

So if Nationalism is so thoroughly warping our understanding of history, what are we to do?

Well, we could go back to Confucius. I much prefer Lao Zi, personally, but Confucius would seem to fit the bill here. Now, remember, I’m no Confucian scholar and I’m probably about to make a right fool of myself, but anyway, my understanding of Confucius is that he looked back to an earlier period in which the Chinese nation was as it should be, that period being the Zhou. And no, I’m not accusing him of any kind of proto-nationalism. My understanding was that he saw the Zhou as being Civilisation. He was obviously aware of the existence of barbarian peoples around the borders of China, but I suspect that he thought that with proper education, they too could be civilised. In any case, I don’t think he saw the Chinese nation in the highly politicised way we see the nation-state today. I think he saw it in a cultural sense, somewhat similar to the pre-Bismarck Germany.

I mean, my understanding of ‘China’ in this sense is that around the time of the Xia Dynasty, the concept of ‘Hua Xia/å?Žå¤?’, meaning the collective of the Chinese peoples, a ‘nation’ in the sense of a cultural identity, developed. And this is how the Qin could be the first dynasty to unite China and not the dynasty that founded China. The Qin brought all the Chinese states and peoples together into one political unit for the first time.

So, when looking at Chinese history, especially pre-Qin history, we must be careful not to approach it with our concept of the modern nation-state. The same applies when looking at Chinese philosophy, especially of the pre-Qin period. Actually, the same applies everywhere.

I think we also need to understand that China developed out of a group of different, but mostly Sinitic, peoples coming together in ancient times exchanging ideas, languages, technologies, cultures, and gradually building themselves up into what became the Xia Dynasty and Huaxia, which then gradually, over all these thousands of years, developed into the modern China we all know and love today.

I think I’ll need to get lunch before I try writing any more of this.

Right, so now that I have displayed for the world to see my complete ignorance of Confucianism and Chinese history, you can all laugh at me.


10 Responses to “Confucius and nationalism”

  1. John Says:

    [tangent: My Xinhua Zidian bilingual edition lists Western Zhou from about (yes, they wrote ‘about’) 1066 BC (very precise-looking date for an ‘about’) to 771 BC, then Eastern Zhou from 770 BC to 256 BC, Spring and Autumn from 770 BC to 476 BC, and Warring States from 475 BC to 221 BC, with Western and Eastern Zhou being two subsets of Zhou, Spring and Autumn and Warring States being two subsets of Eastern Zhou. I don’t really understand the technicalities here, so I won’t attempt to explain any of this.]

    I noted similar incongruities when I read The Three Kingdoms. I concluded that this was a fudge of the truth, which is that these are dates for separate political entities which coexisted for a time.

    I think you have a good point about the founding of an actual place called China. There was no such thing as England really until the 11th century. Before that, the country was divided between the Saxons and the Norse; and before that you had the Heptarchy which the Vikings effectively wiped out.

    The translation of the Analects which I have translates 3.5 as

    Confucius said, “A backward state with a rule and no rights is inferior to a cultured state with rites, even if it has no ruler.

    The translations you quote seem to be very interpretive, but the original statement is very elliptical looking – twelve characters in all. The modern Chinese translation which accompanies it is much longer.

    Nationalism might warp the view of history, but is it yours or someone else’s. If the latter, then you should be able to be a little more objective. For example, nationalism is probably behind those lists of dynasties, even the ones that overlapped and belong to a time before there was such a place as China. I tend to think that Han unity is another myth bolstered by nationalism, but I’m foreign so I have no reason to accept it.

    China’s too big and too various to be anything more than a single cartographic entity. But get beyond the thing on the map to the layers underneath, and each province seems to function like a nation state by itself with its own policies and agendas. But the myth binds them together, and at times the ties have weakened in the past so that unity is just an idea.

    Perhaps Confucius really saw the Han as a cultural entity rather than a political one. However, I think from your discussion that the Qin founded China by uniting a group of people who shared certain cultural characteristics. It’d be interesting to know whether they regarded themselves as a single, albeit disparate people speaking a group of mutually intelligible languages, or whether that was a piece of Qin propaganda, that they were all the same and unity must be a Good Thing.

    There. I’ve said something. Now I suppose I’ve made myself look foolish as well.

  2. wangbo Says:

    On the contrary, you raise points I wish I could’ve thought of.

    Your translation of the Analects just leaves me even more confused about what Confucius was supposed to have said.

    Myth-making would seem to be a large part of nationalism that all nations engage in to keep the nation-state and the ‘cultural entity’ unified. It would also seem to be a large part of ethnic identity.

    How did the pre-Qin people see themselves? As subjects of separate states within the cultural realm of Huaxia? As one ethnic group divided among several states? Did the states bear any resemblance to modern states, or were they more tribal in their structure, or somewhere in between?

    The word ‘Han’ doesn’t seem appropriate. So far as I know, that wasn’t used to refer to the people of Huaxia until after the Han Dynasty. Or had Huaxia already become Zhonghua by that stage?

    What you’ve managed to achieve, John, is make me ask even more questions.

  3. Brendan Says:

    Quick post from work – -the passage in question says


    It’s interesting to see the different translations of what is really a pretty straightforward sentence, though there is the question of whether to translate ä¸?如 as ‘unlike’ or ‘inferior to’ (as it would be in Modern Chinese). The sentence is, ‘The Master said: That the Yi and Di have rulers is [unlike|inferior to] the absence [of rulers] in the Xia [states].’ (At least, I’m guessing that 诸å¤? there means ‘assorted Xia states.’ No evidence for that, just a guess.)

  4. wangbo Says:

    Don’t know why your comment got sent off to moderation limbo, but I rescued it.

    Thanks for that, Brendan, but as straight-forward as that sentence may be for you, it still takes a lot of work for me. So if I’m getting this right, the key question here is how to translate ‘ä¸?如’?
    Also, do we need more of a context here? Or would a Confucian scholar pick up on all the references I seem to be missing?

    Damn, writing this post has just made me more confused.

  5. Brendan Says:

    Oh, I’m sure I’m missing something — my history is lousy, and Confucius isn’t exactly my area of specialty. Plus, as I said, my classical Chinese is rusty, and there are probably subtleties in there that I’m simply not seeing. I’ll see what I’ve got on the subject once I get home.

  6. wangbo Says:

    Thanks, Brendan.

  7. John Says:

    To me, without knowing a scrap of Classical Chinese, it appears that though the sentence is straightforward, it seems to have implications – allusions if you like – which hinge on how the Di, the Yi and the Xia were viewed; a bit like comparing Athens with Sparta and Boeotia as models of different societies, Athens being the epitome of civilised society. Sparta at once says “militaristic” and Boeotia “rural, uncouth, backward”.

  8. wangbo Says:

    Yi and Di=Boeotia; Xia=Athens. Right? Now, there must be more implications to this. Was Confucius just being a snob? Or did he have something constructive to teach his disciples?

  9. John Says:

    Yes, Di and Yi = Boeotia/Sparta; Xia = Athens.

    Probably Confucius is being a snob and a pedagogue simultaneously. Is he implying that the Xia are more civilised because the rites are sufficient to guide the people correctly, whereas the Di and the Yi must be led because, lacking the rites, those nations don’t know any better?

  10. wangbo Says:

    Good ideas, but I think we need a real Confucian to help sort this out.