Newspapers are reporting a political crises in China, and some have even predicted the imminent demise of the communist state. The end of the Soviet Union is getting discussed, and president Xi is getting portrayed as an anti-Gorbachev, because he has rejected the path of opening with the West. One Western idea that Xi has denounced is “constitutionalism”, and this raises the issue of how China is constituted. The following are some materialist musings on the nature of Chinese political constitution, and what is at stake in this question.
华夏 (huaxia) was the earliest geographical concept of China, and that name is still used today. Xia is the first historical dynasty, and is usually placed towards the end of the second millennium BC, though there is hardly any archeological record. On ancient maps, Huaxia appears as an area south of the Yantze river bordered in all directions by distinct breeds barbarians: the 夷 (yi) in the east, the 蛮 (man) in the south, the 戎 (rong) in the west, and the 狄 (di) in the north. These ethnic concepts oriented sovereignty in its territory, and informed the empire’s perception and comportment in the four primary directions. The groups to the north and west were considered fiercer, and more difficult to subdue, while they were also ethnically closest to the lineages of the ruling dynasties. Those in the south were considered more as harmless primitives. New dynasties tended to arise in the north and west frontier area, and then would gravitate towards the center as they ascended to supremacy. The Xia are a gap in the text before the beginning of the historical record, because they lacked a durable medium for writing, and so the textual trail of China only begins with the oracle bones of the Shang. According to the Han histories, the Xia received the Mandate of Heaven from the mythical demigods who ruled during the previous period (Fuxi, Nuwa etc.). Chinese chronology begins with a chthonic-imaginary age of demigods, followed by the unwritten age of the Xia, and then the oracular age of the Shang and Zhou. Chinese writing technology is originally oracular and shamanistic, and outside of script most of the archeology is bronze. The fact that the term “shaman” comes from the ethnography of Siberia helps to map the geography of Chinese sovereignty. This is a relation that extends beyond East Asia, because the mystery cults of Indo-European societies have been linked ethnographically with steppes shamanism as well.
King Wen 文of Zhou inherited a small fiefdom on the north-west frontiers of Huaxia, perhaps in Gansu or Inner Mongolia. Wen is critical for the discourse of Chinese culture because the two oldest books are associated with him. He is known as the author of the I-Ching, and the poetry in the Book of Odes refers to him. His name 文 is literally “culture” 文化. He moved the capital from the north-west frontier area in towards the center of the Shang empire on the banks of the Wei River, where he met his wife Taisi. Their love forms the erotic origin of Chinese civilization. Their joyful spirit was versified, most famously her collecting plants on the banks of the Wei. They produced many children. They were an ideal loving couple, but they had their double in the sadistic Shang emperor and his wicked consort Daji, who spent their days having innocent people tortured for amusement. Once the evil Shang emperor imprisoned king Wen, until the peasants protested and forced his release. The eruption of popular will is a recurring scenario in Chinese politics. Wen never lived to defeat his enemy, but his son King Wu would go on to defeat the Shang and become the first Zhou emperor. This is a critical moment where good overcomes evil that repeats at the foundation of subsequent dynasties. King Wen is the original event of China, the idea of the Mandate of Heaven as a morality of the sovereign communicated through the I-Ching and the Book of Odes. The early Zhou is the original idea of China, the model of wise emperors who correctly divine the will of heaven. The later centuries when Zhou was in decline and local kingdoms were rising up are called the Spring and Autumn period. That was the time of the great teachers, like Confucius and Laozi, who raised up the cult of King Wen文 (culture) and established the early Zhou as an ethical ideal of sovereignty stemming from the Mandate of Heaven. The situation in the Spring and Autumn Period, with the fading harmony of the old empire, and the tension of the newly emerging autonomous kingdoms, this opened a horizon for cultural praxis. Problems naturally emerged concerning conflicted fidelity and ordinances which demanded intellectual sophistication, and in order to achieve peace Zhou was reconstructed as a philosophical ideal. A class of wandering scholars (游士) emerged to service the conceptual discourse needs of the independent regimes. This was the age of the “hundred schools”, and personas like Confucius were like muses that allowed for the refinement of the discourses. That relatively peaceful Spring and Autumn period came to an end as the metaphysical discourse shifted towards the political realism of Xunzi, who is comparable to European thinkers like Machiavelli or Hobbes. The idealism of Spring and Autumn scholars (most importantly Mencius), gradually gave way to the rise of the martial legalism of the Warring States period, and eventually the unification of the Huaxia by the First Emperor of the legalistic Qin dynasty.
Chinese symbols have proven able to rejuvinate, and the reproductive machine of King Wen and Queen Taisi has proven immortal. Nothing spells sovereignty like 文。There is a good possibility for a change of dynasty in the not-so-distant future, and that will probably involve a resynthesis of western humanism with the Chinese classics. What we are witnessing now in China is a declining neocolonial machine, whose future is fraught by the conflicted association between Han ethnicity and the Mandate of Heaven. Throughout history the Mandate has fallen to clans without Han lineage many times, like Mongols and Manchurians, and so the Chinese political system is not ethnically biased. This point has been emphasized by neo-Confucianism. But as the PRC officials attempt to ethnicize the party’s relation with the people today, it seems that approach could accelerate their downfall. There is a conflict between the Mandate and the ethnicization of the state, since the Mandate is universal in principle and cannot succumb to the stains of ethnic partiality. A well-known Confucian proverb seems appropriate: “the friendship of the rabble is sweet like honey, the friendship of gentlemen is clear like water.” The neutrality of the unaffected gentleman affords him clear judgment that must be protected from the passions of the tribe. Many Han today believe they are emerging from centuries of foreign manipulation, but there are structural questions about how the people and the sovereign can share the same ethnicity. Perhaps the system’s efficacy may require some internal margin of difference. Around the periphery are the ethnic crises in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan… there are recent reports of Burmese refugees flowing into Yunan. How is Chinese sovereignty oriented geographically? How does it conceptualize international flows? Perhaps it is the symbolic relation with ethnic others that constitutes the Mandate of Heaven as an ethical Sittlichkeit (Hegel) that orients geo-ethnic traffic.