Molecular Sinology

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.

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This entry was posted in Book of Odes, Chinese Culture, I-ching, Sinology. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Molecular Sinology

  1. Jonathan Ferguson says:

    Reblogged this on jonathan1723 and commented:
    The article says:
    “probably involve a resynthesis of western humanism with the Chinese classics.”
    In my opinion, there is a already some kind of resynthesis of western humanism and/or posthumanism with China already. I am not sure what the difference is? I am not sure what difference a (hypothetical) major catastrophic series of events would make…?

    Rather, I believe that such catastrophic events (which I sincerely hope do not happen), could just as easily result in an atavistic hypertraditionalism (I’m tempted to say “more easily,” rather than just as easily).

    If such is the case, then I think any speculations on some major shift in the order of governance are dangerous, as they may (even if unintentionally) contribute to atavistic forces within China, who may wish to roll back any progressive policies and the gains in recent decades for many individuals in China.

    It is very important that Western scholars, such as myself, do not provide any assistance towards any potential delegitimation of the current constitutional order. The consequences of any significant shift in the political order would inevitably be catastrophic, and I would not want to have that on my conscience.

    In any case, I think the current order is fairly secure, and that this is a good thing.

  2. Zegreus Moole says:

    What I am saying is likely to be considered radical, and I admit that you could link this with atavism. And you are correct to point out that an atavistic metaphysics could be dangerous. However, perhaps you do not appreciate that my discourse is conservative. What you refer to as atavism may encompass what I would call metaphysics. My writing is experimenting with concepts, and is not opposing any regime. My concern is to facilitate the birth of a new Chinese heuristic that operates as a global. I mentioned that some western newspapers like Guardian and New York Times were basically predicting the party’s demise. I should have mentioned that this fact says more about the state of diplomacy than any real crises in China. It was the statement that Xi had rejected “Western Constitutionalism” that caught my attention. I don’t think there is any imminent danger of a constitutional crises in China. It’s rather a symbolic crises, which isn’t necessarily so dangerous. They are the most patriotic people who ever lived. Maybe they don’t even need a constitution – maybe Xi is right to dump that bureaucratic western bullshit. When I suggested that there could be an epochal event in the not-so-distant future, I was not thinking of anything that would destabilize the existing order, but rather the birth of something else, such as another China altogether that would exist on another dimension. I admit that this is quite a radical idea, but it seems to me that a new China is in fact emerging which may be unrelated to the government in Beijing. This is all about de-ethnicizing China. So instead of the One-China that they have with Taiwan, sinology should pursue a “more than two Chinas policy”. Many China’s can coexist in the age of neoliberal globalization, and the topology of outside and inside is quite complex. Perhaps atavism is not so dangerous in this environment. I always assumed there were atavistic connections between events in Chinese history, like Taiping, Boxers, Great Leap, and Cultural Revolution, but it seems that series is exhausted. If there were a danger in sino-atavism, then it would be related to an ethnic-Han atavism. That would be the danger of a sadistic biostate that tortures the minorities. So that is why sinology has to be de-ethnicized, which Confucianism has always insisted on. The mandate of heaven is not the property of one ethnicity. The true problems for sinology today I think concern the broader picture of ethnic strife in Asia. That is what most urgently deserves study if we are to avoid a century of ethnic catastrophes..

  3. Jonathan Ferguson says:

    Thank you for your comment, Zegreus Moole. I apologise, for when I spoke of “atavism,” I really meant some individuals in China who were hypernationalistic (although I also do not wish to invoke any moral panic about a so-called “nationalistic China peril.”) I was not intending to characterise your own ideas in this way.

    (For what it is worth, I also do not assume that hypernationalism is somehow “mainstream” in China, however defined).

    If I understand you correctly, you are speaking of a kind of pluralism. I often think there is a distinction (albeit problematic) between what I would call “regulated pluralism” and “spontaneous pluralism.”

    The latter term could be read in Hayekian terms, or possibly Foucauldian terms (in both cases, bottom-up versus top-down).

    Do you have any views on this distinction in relation to China?

    Indeed, I am conscious that (in the UK for example) there is a form of corporatist and assimilationist “regulated pluralism” where the government serves as the arbiter of plurality, while at the same time assimilating individuals into holistic “communities” which are intended as interchangeable blank tokens, to be manipulated like pawns on a chessboard (although, of course, many individuals resist being spoken for and regulated in this way).

    As one UK politician said: “we/WE” (sic) are all in this together.” Hmm…

    Of course, there might be different ideological or material constraints (contextual factors) in China, compared to China, which would render value judgments extremely complex for these matters.

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