Manufacturing Chinese history cheaply

In Ross Terrill’s The New Chinese Empire he makes the assertion that Mao Zedong was the heir of the moralist Confucian tradition, while Deng Xiaoping’s stances looked more toward pragmatic Legalism. I don’t want to rehash why Terrill presented this strange framework as a central thesis in his book. Rather, there was an instance that I found memorable where he observed that Deng was much more particular about pointing out territorial losses that China had suffered with foreign dignitaries than Mao. Deng was more conventionally nationalistic.

I always felt that this required some chutzpah on Deng’s part. The map above shows clearly why I found it curious: the maximal extend of the Chinese Empire in the 19th century was to due to the imperial ambitions of the Manchu people, under whose yoke the Han experienced centuries of being a subordinate group. Of course it is true that just as Greece conquered Rome, so the Manchus assimilated into Chinese society to such an extent that today they have basically been absorbed by the Han in all but name. And famously, rulers such as the Kangxi Emperor and the Qianlong Emperor, became for their Han subjects, that is the vast majority of them, paragons of the Confucian potentate.

But the Manchus always remained Manchus, self-conscious that they were a ruling people. They struggled against their assimilation, and in their conquests outside of their civilized Chinese heartland the emperors became Manchurian warlords (the Kangxi Emperor in particular paints a broadly as a steppe warlord when he deigned to take on that persona). They were a people from from beyond the Great Wall, who had good relations with the Khalkha Mongols, and cultivated the Buddhist statelets of greater Tibet. In China, but not always of it. In other words, the empire which the republic of China inherited by and large was the achievement of a non-Chinese people.

Modern borders are what they are. Accidents of history. I don’t begrudge the Han Chinese for having inheriting the Manchu Empire. To some extent it’s their luck. But it’s a little strange that Deng Xiaoping would assume that the borders of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, signed in 1689, were somehow sacrosanct. The Manchus were at this period waxing into the fullness of their powers, and blocked Russia from bringing the Amur basin into its hegemony (and also banned Han from migrating into these new territories!).

China’s most cosmopolitan native dynasty, the Tang*, did have dominion over much of what is today called Xinjiang. Their forces famously clashed with that of the Abbasids at Talas in modern day Kyrgyzstan. But this dominion lasted only a century. The earlier Han dynasty hegemonies over the eastern Silk Road cities were also short-lived.

As you can see on this map the Tang had to contend with a powerful Tibetan Empire, as well as Uighurs and Goturks to their north. On the northeast, in modern Manchuria, were the Khitan people, who would later reappear in Chinese history.

The reality is that for most of Chinese history half of what is today China was not part of China. If the Manchus had not conquered China, and the Ming had been replaced by an indigenous dynasty, it seems entirely likely that the outlines of the modern nation-state of China would be coterminous with with the outlines of the Ming dynasty polity.

To me a plausible “alternative history” then would result in Xinjiang and Mongolia being absorbed into the orbit of the Russia Empire, and perhaps both today being post-Soviet states. In fact, northern  Xinjiang would be a distinct post-Soviet state, because prior to genocidal campaigns by the Manchus in the 18th century this area was dominated by a western branch of the Mongol people, the Oirats. It seems likely that Tibet would have fallen more explicitly under the British orbit, and become independent along with India and other South and Southeast Asian nations after World War II.

This historical context is relevant to the situation of why minority groups such as Uyghurs and Tibetans chafe under Chinese rule, especially when told that they have always been part of China. It also is important because it gives a sense of cultural and historical affinities which might go unnoticed.

Broadly speaking Korea, and to a lesser extent Japan and Vietnam (in different ways), have been part of the broader “Sinic civilization.” There are differences of detail, particularly in Japan and Vietnam, in how Chinese culture was interpreted, but its influence is undeniable. This is less clear in places like Tibet and Mongolia. I believe people sometimes confuse Chinese cultural influence with China’s geopolitical heft and the fact that to Westerners these people look East Asian, so how could they not be influenced by China despite their proximity?

The Economist recently published a fascinating article in its 1843 magazine, Animal spirits, about the revival of Mongolian shamanism. But this section is simply false: “While Buddhism is an import from China, shamanism is an expression of Mongolian national identity.” Mongols are mostly Tibetan Buddhists, and they received their Buddhism from Tibetan lamas and monks. Not Chinese. It is technically important to remember that though Tibet is part of China, but it was not part of China when it was propagating Buddhism to Mongolia!

For a detailed exploration of the Mongol religious conversion to Tibetan Buddhism, and their flirtation with Islam**, see Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road. What I will say is that it does not seem to be a surprise that Mongols seem to have a history of flirting with non-Chinese religions. Many of Genghis Khan’s subjects during his rise to power were at least nominally Syriac Christians. Though Genghis Khan was an adherent of shamanism, he patronized religious professionals of many sects, and had a particularly close relationship with a Daoist monk.

Ambiguities as to the genealogy of cultural relationships also crops up in this piece in The New York Times, China and India File Rival Claims Over Tibetan Medicine. Obviously Asia’s two most powerful nations fighting over the heritage of Tibetan medicine is unseemly and gauche, though perhaps a little less worrisome than the saber rattling which is occurring on the northeast border right now.

Geographically Tibet is obviously within the borders of the modern Chinese nation-state (though Ladakh in India is arguably a fragment of Tibet which landed on the Indian side of the border). But recall that for most of its history Tibet has not been under Chinese rule. Perhaps even more importantly, Tibet has not been under much Chinese influence. On the contrary, Tibetan lamas have been cultural impresarios, exporting their religious vision to the court of Kublai Khan, then that of the Manchus, and the finally converting the Khans of the various Mongol tribes.

And in terms of its precursors, Tibetan Buddhism is the child of the last flowering of North Indian Buddhism, not Chinese Buddhism, which had evolved into an independent tradition by the time the Tibetan Empire was deciding on an institutional religion to adhere to (Chinese Buddhism was reputedly brought to the kingdom first, by a Chinese princess).*** And the Tibetan alphabet is also derived from an Indian script. Curiously, just as Indian high-level cultural influence is very salient in Southeast Asia, so it is in Buddhist Inner Asia. But while Southeast Asian Indian influences were usually maritime South Indian, those of Tibetan are from a bygone North India where Islam was marginal and Buddhism was still a presence.

Despite being a far weaker military power than the United States China is already flexing its muscle and bullying its neighbors. There are a million Chinese in Africa. Even though China may not catch up with the United States in median affluence any time soon, the trajectory of aggregate economic production is such it will likely become the the largest economy within the next half generation. The Chinese know this, and are already acting as if they are #1. They’re preparing for their “time in the sun.”

Unfortunately this will exacerbate some of the unfortunate intellectual tendencies among the Chinese due to arrogance combined with a lack of total confidence in their new position. The Chinese view of their past has strange distortions, generally having to do with the fact that they don’t want to admit that their possession of vast swaths of Inner Asia was more a matter of historical happenstance than a necessary consequence of the geographical logic of the Chinese civilization-state.

But the truth is what it is. Unfortunately I suspect implicitly the media will begin telegraphing the Chinese viewpoint without much challenge because it seems plausible enough to those that they don’t know. It will be up to us to keep the unknowing propagandists in check.


* I am aware of their Xianbei heritage, but they were highly Sinicized and by the time of great Xuanzong Emperor they were mostly Han in origin.

** Mongols outside of the homeland invariably eventually became Muslims over time.

*** I am aware that Chinese Buddhism itself has an Indian source, though mediated through the cities of the Silk Road.

Across the chasm of Incommensurability

The Washington Post has a piece typical of its genre, A Chinese student praised the ‘fresh air of free speech’ at a U.S. college. Then came the backlash. It’s the standard story; a student from China with somewhat heterodox thoughts and sympathies with some Western ideologies and mores expresses those views freely in the West, and social media backlash makes them walk it back. We all know that the walk back is insincere and coerced, but that’s the point: to maintain the norm of not criticizing the motherland abroad. The truth of the matter of how you really feel is secondary.

Tacit in these stories is that of course freedom of speech and democracy are good. And, there is a bit of confusion that even government manipulation aside, some of the backlash from mainland Chinese seems to be sincere. After all, how could “the people” not defend freedom of speech and democracy?

Reading this story now I remember what an academic and friend (well, ex-friend, we’re out of touch) explained years ago in relation to what you say and public speech: one can’t judge speech by what you intend and what you say in a descriptive sense, but you also have to consider how others take what you say and how it impacts them. In other words, intersubjectivity is paramount, and the object or phenomenon “out there” is often besides the point.

At the time I dismissed this viewpoint and moved on.

Though in general I do not talk to people from China about politics (let’s keep in real, it’s all about the food, and possible business opportunities), it was almost amusing to hear them offer their opinions about Tibet and democracy, because so often very educated and competent people would trot out obvious government talking points. In this domain there was little critical rationalism. One could have a legitimate debate about the value of economic liberalization vs. political liberalization. But it was ridiculous to engage with the thesis that China was always unitary between the Former Han and today. That is just a falsehood. Though the specific detail was often lacking in their arguments, it was clearly implied that they knew the final answer. I would laugh at this attitude, because I thought ultimately facts were the true weapon. The world as it is is where we start and where we end.

Or is it? From the article:

Another popular comment expressed disappointment in U.S. universities, suggesting without any apparent irony that Yang should not have been allowed to make the remarks.

“Are speeches made there not examined for evaluation of their potential impact before being given to the public?” the commentator wrote.

“Our motherland has done so much to make us stand up among Western countries, but what have you done? We have been working so hard to eliminate the stereotypes the West has put on us, but what are you doing? Don’t let me meet you in the United States; I am afraid I could not stop myself from going up and smacking you in the face.”

Others were critical not of Yang’s comments but of the venue in which she chose to make them.

“This kid is too naive. How can you forget the Chinese rule about how to talk once you get to the United States? Just lie or make empty talk instead of telling the truth. Only this will be beneficial for you in China. Now you cannot come back to China,” @Labixiaoxin said.

There is a lot of texture even within this passage. I do wonder if the writers and editors at The Washington Post knew the exegetical treasures they were offering up.

To me, there is irony in the irony. Among the vanguard of the intelligensia in these United States there is plenty of agreement with the thesis that some remarks should not be made, some remarks should not be thought. Especially in public. The issue is not on the principle, but specifically what remarks should not be made, and what remarks should not be public. That is, the important and substantive debates are not about a positive description of the world, but the values through which you view the world. The disagreements with the Chinese here are not about matters of fact, but matters of values. Facts are piddling things next to values.

So let’s take this at face value. Discussions about Tibetan autonomy and Chinese human rights violations cause emotional distress for many Chinese. I’ve seen this a little bit personally, when confronting Chinese graduate students with historical facts. It’s not that they were ignorant, but their views of history were massaged and framed in a particular manner, and it was shocking to be presented with alternative viewpoints when much of one’s national self-identity hinged on a particular narrative. Responses weren’t cogent and passionate, they were stuttering and reflexive.

Now imagine the psychic impact on hundreds of millions of educated Chinese. They’ve been sold a particular view of the world, and these students get exposed to new ideas and viewpoints and relay it back, and it causes emotional distress. Similarly, for hundreds of millions of Muslims expressing atheism is an ipso facto assault on their being, their self-identity. This is why I say that the existence of someone like me, an atheist from a Muslim background, is by definition an affront to many. My existence is blasphemy and hurtful.

And the Chinese view of themselves and their hurt at insults to their nationhood do not come purely from government fiction. There’s a factual reality that needs to be acknowledged. China was for thousands of years was one of the most significant political and cultural units in the world. But the period from 1850 to 1980 were dark decades. The long century of eclipse. China was humiliated, dismembered, and rendered prostrate before the world. It collapsed into factious civil war and warlordism. Tens of millions died in famines due to political instability.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s between 20 to 50 million citizens of the Peoples’ Republic of China starved due to Mao’s crazy ambitions. This is out of a population of ~650 million or so. Clearly many Chinese remember this period, and have relatives who survived through this period. A nation brought low, unable to feed its own children, is not an abstraction for the Chinese.

On many aspects of fact there are details where I shrug and laugh at the average citizen of China’s inability to look beyond the propaganda being fed to it. And I am not sure that the future of the Chinese state and society is particularly as rosy as we might hope for, as its labor force already hit a peak a few years ago. But the achievement of the Chinese state and society over the past generation in lifting hundreds of millions out of grinding poverty have been a wonder to behold. A human achievement greater than the construction of the Great Wall, not just a Chinese achievement.

But it is descriptively just a fact that nations which have been on the margins and find themselves at center stage want their “time in the sun.” The outcomes of these instances in history are often not ones which redound to the glory of our species, but it is likely that group self-glorification and hubris come out of a specific evolutionary context.

There are on the order of ~300 million citizens of the United States. There are 1.3 billion Chinese. If offense and hurt are the ultimate measures of the acceptance of speech than an objective rendering might suggest that we lose and they win. There are more of them to get hurt than us.

But perhaps the point is that there is no objectivity. There is no standard “out there.” Once the measuring stick of reality falls always, and all arguments are reduced to rhetoric, it is sophistry against sophistry. Power against power. Your teams and views are picked for you, or, through self-interest, or, your preferences derived from some aesthetic bias. Sometimes the team with the small numbers wins, though usually not.

Discourse is like a season of baseball. At the end there is a winner. But there is no final season. Just another round of argument.

Ten years ago I read Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism. I literally laughed at the time when I closed that book, because the numbers did not seem to support him in his grand confidence about atheism’s decline. And since the publication of that book the proportion of people in the United States who are irreligious has increased. Contrary to perceptions there has been no great swell of religion across the world.

But on a deep level McGrath was correct about something. Much of the book was aimed at the “New Atheism” specifically. A bold and offensive movement which prioritized the idea of facts first (in the ideal if not always the achievement), McGrath argued that this was a last gasp of an old modernist and realist view of the world, which would be swallowed by the post-modern age. He, a traditional Christian, had a response to the death of reason and empiricism uber alleles, his God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Primordial identities of religion, race, and nationality would emerge from the chaos and dark as reason receded from the world.

With the rise of social constructionism McGrath saw that the New Atheists would lose the cultural commanding heights, their best and only weapons, the glittering steel of singular facts over social feelings. On the other hand, if facts derive from social cognition, than theistic views have much more purchase, because on the whole the numbers are with God, and not his detractors.

And going back to numbers. The Washington Post is owned by Jeff Bezos. And China is a massive economic shadow over us all. Anyone who works in the private sector dreams of business in China. Currently Amazon is nothing in China. What if the Chinese oligarchs made an offer Bezos couldn’t refuse? Do you think The Washington Post wouldn’t change its tune?

When objectivity and being right is no defense, then all that remains is self-interest. Ironically, cold hard realism may foster more universal empathy by allowing us to be grounded in something beyond our social unit. In the near future if the size of social units determines who is, and isn’t, right, than those who built a great bonfire on top of positivism’s death may die first at the hands of the hungry cannibal hordes. Many of us will shed no tears. We were not the ones in need of empathy, because we were among the broad bourgeois masses.

In the end the truth only wins out despite our human natures, not because of it.

Tales of the Chinese future past

In the first half of the 1990s I was an avid reader of David Wingrove’s Chung Kuo series. This is before I knew much about Chinese history, or much about life to be honest. This vast epic future history is set in a world where a resurgent China dominates the world. Wars of genocidal extermination against the black and brown peoples, as well as the Japanese, have left the ethnographic topography rather simpler. Europeans exist as a subaltern race in the techno-Confucian order.

The Chinese hegemony erases the true history of the human past and promulgates a fictional alternative history, which the populace accepts as the truth. In this telling the semi-legendary Chinese general who was turned away by the Parthians 2,000 years ago continues westward, and ultimately China conquers Rome. All institutional organized religion is obliterated from existence and memory; no Christianity, no Buddhism. It is as if the Former Han dynasty had access to 21st century technology.

Earth is ruled by a small oligarchy of virtuous monarchs. Progress is dampened in the interests of social stability. The world is explicitly stratified into classes, though there is some mobility upward and downward within a single generation. They know their world’s history is a foundation of lies, but lies are seen as critical to social harmony and stability. The truth may set people free, but this is not a world where freedom is the primary value. Rather, stability and social harmony are prized.

Though Wingrove’s narrative is not without some sympathy for the dominant social order in terms of what it was attempting to achieve (they were not Legalists, but rather moralists), ultimately the most sympathetic protagonists channel the values of the late 20th century West. Truth, progress, and individualism.

Reading this series in the first half of the 1990s as a teenager it all seemed fantastical. Liberalism, Western liberalism, was inevitable as humanity’s terminal state. We all knew that. As the Chinese grew wealthier the expectation by many was that they would begin to inch toward Western norms and institutions, just as the collapsing Soviet Union was. The very concept of a jarring lateral shift in norms, values, and Weltanschauung, was quite literally the stuff of science fiction!

I now believe that I was very wrong about many things back then, and David Wingrove’s fertile imagination grasped far deeper, and perhaps troubling, possibilities about the arrow of history. In 2011, after a 15 year hiatus, Wingrove returned to this series with a prequal, Son of Heaven. It is perhaps an appropriate time for me at this juncture to revisit this world, and even look at it with more sympathy as an adult than I did as a child.

Of course I’ll also be re-reading my Xunzi. In translation I feel as if I’m missing but, but my hope is that re-reading will allow me to gain insight. Unfortunately I am hopeless at languages, otherwise I would attempt to learn to read Mandarin at this advanced age.

Islam in China is not one

Over the past few days I have seen articles in the media which refer to “Chinese Muslims,” and then make such a casual and slight distinction between Muslims in China and the Uyghur ethnic group that I think it’s really misleading to the general public (e.g., Anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise in China. We found that the Internet fuels — and fights — this).

To review, Muslims in China are multi-ethnic. The two largest groups, the Hui and Uyghurs, comprise nearly 90% of Chinese Muslims. There are marginally more Hui than Uyghurs.

Who are the Hui? The Chinese government defines Hui as an ethnic group, but really they are differentiated by their adherence to Islam. Hui speak a dialect of Chinese specific to their locality. They do not have a “Hui language.” Physically they resemble the Han. Because of their long period of isolation in China after the collapse of the Yuan dynasty, the Hui have gone through several indigenizing phases.In the 18th century in eastern China the Hui intellectual classes synthesized Chinese cultural frameworks with Islam in a fascinating manner. The whole project is recounted in The Dao of Muhammad.

These periods of Sinicization are often followed a reformist globalist revival triggered by missionaries or those who went on pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam with Chinese characterizes recedes for a generation or two, only to come back.

In the 19th century to a great extent the project of social accommodation with the Han by the Hui collapsed in the face of social disorder, anti-Muslim policies by the Manchus, and reformist movements inspired by broader currents in the Islamic world. Though the Hui are a very small minority, unlike the Han a military career was not low status for them, so they “punched above” their weight.

In the 20th and 21st centuries the Hui have been relatively quiescent. Why? There are numerous reasons, but it is important to emphasize that there are many strong contrasts with how the Hui are treated and perceived, and how they perceive China, in relation to  what is meted out to the Uyghurs. The Hui are no less Muslim than Uyghurs, but they are not the political and social problem in China that Uyghurs are.

Though the Chinese state defines Hui as one of the minority “nationalities,” that is really a semantic obfuscation. The Hui are most easily conceptualized as Han Muslims, even though some of their customs separate them very strongly from the Han (e.g., no consumption of pork), and traditionally Han identity has been seen as exclusive from an Islamic identity. That is, a Han who converts to Islam becomes a Hui by definition.

Though in a Chinese context one could never call the Hui “Han Muslims,” from a non-Chinese perspective it is very informative of the relationship and difference of the Hui from the Han, as opposed to the Uyghur from the Han.

Two Uyghur men

Obviously the Uyghur are not Han, they are Turkic. Uyghur nationalists have pan-Turkic associations, and many Uyghurs live in Turkey. As a Turkic people Uyghurs, unlike Hui, do not speak Chinese as their first language. The attempt to educate Uyghur children in Mandarin Chinese to enable them to assimilate and succeed economically has faced resistance because Uyghurs see in this the first steps to assimilation and eventually alienation.

Though Hui are very distinctive in China proper, and live in their own segregated areas in much of the north (in southern China this is less common, and Hui assimilation into Han identity has also been widespread), they are still part of the Chinese landscape. Muslims have lived in China proper since the Tang dynasty, 1,300 years ago. Large numbers of Muslims arrived with the Mongols 800 years ago, and many stayed on. As a minority in a non-Muslim society these people had to navigate how to be both Chinese and Muslim, when much of Chinese identity deviated from world normative Islam in deep ways.

The Uyghurs did not go through any of this because they were not part of China until the 20th century. Though Chinese garrisons and hegemony did exist in Xinjiang during portions of the Han and Tang dynasty, up until the Manchu conquest of these territories in the mid-18th century the Uyghurs had not been part of the same political unit with Han Chinese for over 1,000 years, with the exception of the short Mongol interlude. In fact, the ethnogenesis of modern Uyghurs, as a blending of Turkic migrants from the north and native Indo-Eurpean speaking groups in the Tarim basin, was concurrent with the collapse of Chinese influence in what became the eastern edge of the Turkic world.

Notice I was very specific in saying that they became part of the same political unit with Han Chinese in the middle of the 18th century. This because outside of China proper the Manchu emperors did not necessarily rule as Chinese potentates. Rather, they took on different forms for their different subject peoples, and the conquest of the heart of Eurasia was not a conquest by the state of China, but of the Manchu ruling caste. Any attempts to Sinicize Xinjiang came later, and were halting at best. While Chinese speaking Muslims in Beijing were theorizing how Muhammad actually completed the Confucian vision better than most Chinese, the Uyghurs simply swapped the rule of nearby Tibetan Buddhist Oirat Mongols for a distant Manchu ruler, who was also sympathetic to Tibetan Buddhist religion and claimed a kinship with the Mongols through descent from Genghis Khan’s younger brother.

The problem that the modern Chinese state has is that it rejects the feudal multicultural compromises of the imperial past. Though Communist regimes pay lip service to national self-determination, the reality in Communist regimes has always been that the party has enforced a normative ethnic identity as one that is aspirational for minorities. The Chinese state suppression of the religion of the Uyghurs, the promotion of Mandarin, the encouragement of migration to Xinjiang by Han, and even inducements in some cases for Uyghurs to intermarry with Han, are all part of a general pattern of activity which will result in the assimilation of the Uyghur nation.

It is apparently a fact that while Islamic belief and practice by Uyghurs is sharply frowned upon by Han authorities in Xinjiang, in most of China proper Hui religiosity is relatively tolerated. Hui are even seen as appropriate ambassadors to Muslim nations for purposes of diplomacy and business, because they show how China can accommodate Islam. Unlike the Uyghurs the Hui do not have a geographical region where they are dominant (Muslims are 35% of the population of the small province set aside for Hui). Their national home is China. Additionally, obviously they would not resist Mandarin Chinese instruction, because they are already Chinese speakers. Unlike the Uyghur, who have substantial West Eurasian ancestry, the Hui are also physically no different from Han.

In Central Asia the Hui have a different name. They are called Dungans. And traditionally they have been overrepresented among soldiers and merchants from China. Within China the Hui are exotic and somewhat out of place due to their religion. But in Central Asia the Hui are exotic and somewhat out of place due to their Chineseness. Hui were important in keeping Xinjiang in the Manchu fold after the conquest. Many Uyghurs know this history of cooperation between Han and Hui. In the 2009 Urumqi riots the Uyghurs reportedly chanted “Kill the Han, kill the Hui”.

None of this is to deny that Islam presents challenges as a minority religion within a non-Muslim nation. The Hui rebellions of the 19th century, and periodic flare ups between Hui and Han in the Chinese heartland, attest to this. But differences between Uyghurs and Hui illustrate that excessive focus on Islam misses that Uyghur violence in response to Chinese coercion likely has multiple causes. Islam over the last generation has been the most powerful binding ideology for national resistance among Uyghurs. But it would be far less relevant if the Uyghurs were not a nation in the first place, which they are.

Another way to say it is that Tibet and Xinjiang have many of the same underlying parameters as to why they are hotbeds of ethnic tension and separatism. Religion is part of the story.

Related: Islam in China Revisited.