Is knowledge about China’s imperial heritage important for understanding Chinese government and society today?

Not only would I argue that knowledge about China’s imperial heritage is important for understanding Chinese government and society today, I would say that knowledge about China’s imperial heritage is necessary for doing so. As an aside, I believe that this question touches upon a broader characteristic of political science, in which no country’s political system, political culture, or geopolitical role can be properly understood outside of that country’s historical context. If the field of history describes what major political decisions have been made, the field of political science describes how and why those political decisions came to be; underlying these two fields is the fact that events in the past come to intimately shape and define the characteristics of a country’s contemporary policy-making and political systems. It is thus impossible for the political scientist to adequately understand a country without first grounding themselves in the major characteristics of that country’s past. Nonetheless, in the specific case of China, a number of specific features and characteristics of China’s past and the legacy of its imperial heritage have shaped, and continue to define, contemporary Chinese government and society. Among them are the legacy of Imperial hegemony and China’s “national humiliation,” which drives contemporary Chinese nationalism and assertive foreign policy, the legacy of the “peasant rebellion,” which underlies the agrarian, peasant-based foundation of Maoist theory and China’s Communist Revolution, and the legacy of Imperial China’s bureaucratic and Confucian traditions, which continue to lend cultural legitimacy to China’s bureaucratic, authoritarian, single-party political system.

The Chinese civilization is among the oldest in the world, having lasted continuously for thousands of years. Throughout the breadth of Imperial history, China had not only been a center of rich artistic, religious, cultural, scientific, and technical advancement, but had also been among the strongest powers in the Asia-Pacific. The strength of Chinese civilization was reflected in the fact that foreign conquerors, rather than imposing their cultural norms and values on the Chinese, instead took Chinese culture as their own. As such, when it comes to their heritage, the Chinese have much to be proud about, and this pride manifests itself in growing contemporary nationalism. Connected intricately to this rich history and the nationalism which it breeds is the period of “national humiliation” China suffered at the hands of Western imperialist powers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, during which China was relegated to a second- or third-tier colonial status and in which Chinese values and culture came under increasing attack by the West. The period of “national humiliation” was a striking blow to the Chinese psyche, and almost all subsequent political events in China can be seen as an attempt to overcome that humiliation; indeed, the Chinese Communist Party, by premising a great deal of its legitimacy on its continued success in bringing economic and geopolitical growth to China, has taken on the role of restoring China to the eminence it once possessed. The increasingly assertive and aggressive foreign policy that characterizes Xi Jinping’s administration, which is driven by and in turn drives Chinese nationalism, is just another manifestation of the Chinese attempt to restore China to its “rightful” position of power and prestige on the regional and global stages.

The tradition of the “peasant rebellion” is a distinct, and perhaps unique, characteristic of Imperial Chinese history. Throughout much of the Imperial period, mass peasant movements, frustrated by the failure of ruling dynasties to uphold the “Mandate of Heaven,” challenged, and occasionally overthrew, the ruling regime. Near the end of Imperial history, the Taiping and Boxer Rebellions, both mass peasant movements, further challenged the Chinese state. Indeed, the proto-communist elements of the former and the anti-imperialist motivation of the latter were harbingers of the rhetoric which would serve as the basis of China’s Communist Revolution. Mao based the ideological and theoretical premises of his communist movement on the agrarian peasant and mass mobilization, no doubt drawing inspiration from the historical precedent set by past “peasant rebellions.” There are, to be fair, endless criticisms of Mao’s ideological basis, which was arguably less peasant-based than the usual narrative portrays it to be, and, especially since the Reform Era, China’s peasants have played an increasingly less prominent role in the Chinese state. Yet, nonetheless, in order to understand the contemporary Chinese state and Communist Party, one must first understand its origins in the Maoist era, and, in turn, to understand the Maoist Era, one must first be grounded in an understanding of the precedents set by the tradition of the “peasant rebellion.” Also of growing significance in contemporary China is the issue of rural agitation, in which disgruntled peasants are increasingly willing to organize and protest against perceived offenses by the state. These modern day “peasant rebellions,” too, are grounded in and likely influenced by the historical precedent set by those of the past.

There is also the legacy of Imperial China’s bureaucratic and Confucian heritage, which today influences the character and culture of China’s political system. The Imperial Chinese system was long characterized by a massive, well-trained, and competitive bureaucracy that was ultimately answerable to the ruling Emperor. The contemporary Chinese state, characterized by a well-organized hierarchy of power, a large state sector, and a significant wealth of bureaucratic institutions ultimately answerable to the highest echelons of the Chinese Communist Party, can be seen as a continuation of this organizational tradition from China’s historical heritage. China’s Confucian tradition, which instilled values of deference to authority and respect for elders, is, despite various attempts during the Maoist years to undermine or eliminate it, still a pervasive part of the Chinese political culture. Most of China’s upper leadership, who wield the bulk of power in the Chinese system, are “elderly,” and, though other, modern factors such as improvements in the quality life may keep China’s population politically subdued and apathetic, the underlying Confucian value of deference to authority undoubtedly plays some role in reinforcing authoritarian, one-party rule. After all, cultural norm and values, especially those as long-lasting and deeply entrenched as China’s Confucianism, serve as the foundation by which individuals perceive, interact with, and form expectations of their state and society.

Accordingly, knowledge of China’s Imperial heritage is crucial for an understanding of contemporary Chinese government and society. Many facets of the Imperial era, such as the tradition of the “peasant rebellion,” the bureaucratic and Confucian organization of the Chinese state and society, and the period of “national humiliation” in Chinese history, all directly and indirectly influence and shape the modern day characteristics of China. Of course, China is not a unique when it comes to the necessity for a background understanding of its history; a political scientist studying any country must first ground themselves in the historical context of that country before they can truly “understand” its present day characteristics. After all, political science and history are two deeply intertwined fields, perhaps even more interconnected than political scientists and historians often wish to them credit.