How Ancient Chinese Exceptionalism Shapes China's Worldview Today
The Buddhists, the Song, the Mongols, the missionaries: all failed to uproot ancient Chinese exceptionalism.
Last summer, the New York Times columnist Li Yuan interviewed Ge Zhaoguang, a professor of history at Fudan University and the author of A History of Chinese Thought and What is China. She posed the question: How did the ancient Chinese view the world?
“It seems that Chinese people deeply resonate with the statement, ‘Chinese civilization has a long, unbroken history of five thousand years,’” said Yuan. “We hope that Professor Ge can analyze for us, from the perspective of a historian, how the ancient Chinese positioned themselves in relation to the world, how this worldview affects the Chinese perspective today, and whether this conception of the world ever had a chance to change.”
Excerpts of Professor Ge’s response have been translated below. You can find the full interview and transcript on the 不明白 podcast website.
The topic I want to discuss with you today is how the ancient Chinese understood the world. Have there been opportunities to change this concept and method of understanding the world? What impact does this concept and method have on us Chinese today?
Let's briefly say that in ancient times, especially in the pre-Qin period, some characteristics had already formed about China. First, in the imagination of the ancient Chinese, the world was comprised of nine states and its surrounding areas. The so-called Nine States refers to Jizhou, Yanzhou, Qingzhou, Xuzhou, Yangzhou, Jingzhou, Yuzhou, Liangzhou, and Yongzhou, which roughly comprise the core of China today, or at least the areas mainly inhabited by Han Chinese.
Second, what is the surrounding area? The surrounding areas were regarded as belonging to the barbarians, including the Dongyi in the East, the Xirong in the West, Nanman in the south, and Beidi in the north. According to the thinking of the ancient Chinese, the nature of these people will not change. Civilized people are civilized people, and barbarians are barbarian.
Then the third point is that these barbarians in the surrounding areas should obey civilized people, that is to say, they should pay tribute and submit to the civilized China. This kind of concept gradually formed a fixed pattern following the pre-Qin to Qin-Han unification.
Similar to what we might say is in a person’s “genes,” this has always remained in the hearts of the traditional Han Chinese.
During both ancient times and today, this kind of tianxia—“everything under the heavens”—worldview has become our standard configuration. But was there ever a chance of change?
Actually, yes. Across more than 2,000 years, the movement of the empire’s borders actually provided four points of opportunity to transform this tianxia view of the world, which could have made China walk out of China and recognize the world beyond. Unfortunately, due to various reasons, in the end, China's concept of understanding the world has not been changed. So our topic today is to talk about the Chinese people, and the twists and turns of their understanding of the world.
Born in India
Let’s talk about the first opportunity. The first opportunity occurred in the period roughly equivalent to the first century to the seventh century AD, as China was opening to a broader vision of the world the introduction of the Buddhist worldview. In China’s middle antiquities period (from roughly the third to ninth centuries), there were two most important sources of knowledge about the world. One was the expansion of the Han Chinese, for example with the westward explorations of Zhang Qian and Ban Chao, as well as the addition of non-Han nationalities in the west and north, such as the Xiongnu, Xianbei, Turks, and Huijuan.
The second was the introduction of Buddhism into China, which had a great impact on China's world knowledge. Because Buddhism came from outside China, foreign Buddhists brought rich and abundant knowledge to China. Buddhists within China went to India to seek the truth of Buddhism, broadening China's vision of the world. Because Buddhism came into China, China had to face its surroundings.
In the eyes of the Buddhists, Indian civilization and Buddhist civilization were superior to Chinese civilization: China was not the center of the world; India was the center of the world.
China was not the highest civilization; India was the highest civilization. The greatest figure was not born in China, but born in India—that is, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha.
This brought a great cultural shock to Han China, which was forced to open its eyes to see the world—all the way until the Song Dynasty. It was a pity that Buddhism did not conquer China, because politics in China is always placed above religion, and so Buddhism was gradually marginalized, and China lost such an opportunity to change its world view.
A 3-foot camp bed
So what was the second chance? The second opportunity was in the Song Dynasty. Everyone knows that the Han and Tang Dynasties were tianxia or all-of-the-world empires, but the Song Dynasty was different. The world landscape of the Song Dynasty had changed. Compared with the Tang Dynasty, the territory of the Song Dynasty was reduced by more than half. The huge self-centered world empires of the Han and Tang dynasties had become a historical memory, and China at that time was greatly shrunk.
I remember that Mr. Qian Zhongshu once had a very good analogy. He said that in the Song Dynasty, China had changed from an 8-foot bed to a 3-foot camp bed.
At this time, people in the Song Dynasty began to admit that China was not very big, and in fact the outside world was very big. There were many foreign countries and alien races who roamed the earth under the stars. It was recognized that there was both a China and a world beyond China. People gradually admitted that China was not the largest, and gradually changed their attitudes towards the " barbarians" of the non-Han people. Moreover, the center of exchange in the Song Dynasty shifted from northwest to southeast, and from land to sea, with more and more accumulating knowledge about the foreign territories.
At this time, China’s views about the world seemed to have another chance to change, but history is very strange. These new concepts in the Song Dynasty did not take root in history, but gradually disappeared.
The reasons for this are very complicated, and we don’t have time to talk about it in detail here, but please note that the Ming Dynasty, which inherited the territory and ethnic groups of the Song Dynasty, again narrowed their perception of the world to just its own country, that is, China, once more as the center of the world.
The forgotten maps
The third opportunity to change the traditional Chinese worldview appeared in the Mongol and Yuan era when a world empire was established across Europe and Asia. At that time, the Mongols, Arabs, Persians and Central Asians brought a lot of knowledge about the world, which brought a new perspective on the world to the Chinese. From the 13th century to the 14th century, we call that the Mongol-Yuan era. Because the Mongols across Eurasia were the rulers of that era, it brought opportunities to change the perception of the world.
I will give an example. A very important document in world literature was a rendering of the globe at the time brought by Zamaruddin of the Yuan Dynasty. This globe actually told the Chinese that the earth is round, and that 3 portions are land and 7 portions are water. Moreover, there are lines of latitude and longitude on the globe, which are called "small square wells," as well as rivers, lakes, and seas, which is to say, it represented a new worldview, a recognition that the earth is round, and that this new knowledge had already arrived.
What is particularly interesting is if you look at a map preserved in Japan called "Hunyi Jiangli Map of the Capitals of Past Dynasties," you will know that this map was used in the Mongolian and Yuan Dynasties, and follows the Chinese map. And what is so surprising about this map? On this map there is Africa, a very accurate Arabian Peninsula, and even Europe, which also shows Rome, Paris, and Baghdad. Unfortunately, this new knowledge of the world disappeared soon after the end of the Mongol era. In the minds of traditional Chinese people, they still adhere to the concept of centering on Han China and treating the surrounding regions as barbaric.
When the foreigners came
So what is the fourth opportunity to change China's worldview? It was the late Ming missionaries who brought new world maps and world knowledge. Everyone knows that in the middle and late Ming Dynasty, that is, at the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century, some European missionaries came to China. The most famous missionary was Matteo Ricci (1552-1610). In Guangdong, he once painted a grand map of the mountains and seas, based on a European world map and very close to the world’s map.
The world as depicted by this map had a great impact on the Chinese people. Why? First, it showed that the world is very big, that China is only 1/10 of Asia, and Asia is only 1/5 of the world. Second, the world was not a “round-sky-flat-earth” place as traditional Chinese people thought, nor was it the case that they were in the center. Rather the world is a circle, and there is no center to a spherical world.
Third, he told the Chinese that there are many countries in the world, all of them standing side by side, and there are many civilizations.
China was not the only civilization: other civilizations were very developed, and the surrounding areas were not full of barbarians.
We know that there were three most important types of people to come from Europe to the East. The first type were the missionaries we just mentioned. They brought new knowledge and new beliefs. The second type were merchants. Their trade in commodities turned the internal circulation of East Asia into the external circulation of the world, connecting the globe together. The third type were the imperialists, who brought with them foreign political systems and international relations with the force of the gun. Among these, the new knowledge brought by the missionaries presented China with the opportunity to change its worldview. It is a pity that this was not enough for China to walk out from under its own traditions.
The Chinese are still accustomed to changing within the tradition, rather than stepping away and changing outside the tradition. This is because the Chinese tradition is too strong, the system is too encompassing, and traditional China’s ideas have too long a history.
When change finally happened—through today
Therefore, the true change in China’s worldview did not take place until the late Qing Dynasty, when the Chinese had no choice but to change because of the strong ships and guns firing against it. As previous scholars have noted, this was when China finally underwent its biggest change in modern times, from tianxia "everything under the heavens” to a multi-nation world, and an international order in which all countries need to rely on and connect with each other.
So why are we discussing these matters today? What have we seen from the tortuous history of China's worldview, with all of its setbacks?
I think, first, we should know that the traditional Chinese view of the world is quite stubborn, and this worldview is like a gene, a cultural gene, that has always influenced how we view the world.
No matter how many new ideas and knowledge entered that could have changed this worldview, we must see that an increase in knowledge does not necessarily lead to a change in ideology. This change of ideology must have some immovable external factors. Some friends may think of Fairbank’s "Shock Response Theory." Perhaps this is an old theory, but an old theory is not necessarily without merit. This is the first point I want to make.
The second point is that the changing of the traditional Chinese worldview has a lot to do with China’s international environment in modern times, explaining why it always appears so passive. Changing this worldview still requires the impact of the outside world.
Because ancient China’s ideological tradition matured so early, and was so systematic, any change must be wholesale change.
It is not like in Japan, for example, which adopted outside elements piecemeal—the “borrowing ideology,” as Lu Xun said. In other words, Chinese people need a holistic understanding of the system in order to overturn their concepts, thoughts, and knowledge altogether.
The third point, then, is a reflection of my own: if we want Chinese people to walk out from under China and re-understand the world, we must as always start with education. On the matter of how China understands the world, this question still involves how it should position itself, whether it is tianxia or part of a multi-nation order, whether it is a celestial dynasty or a country. When it comes to leaving these traditions behind, without the proper instruction materials, textbooks, and education system, it will be difficult for us to change future generations’ perception of the world, and it will be difficult to cultivate the consciousness of world citizens that everyone should have.
That is all I have to say. Thank you.
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"If we want Chinese people to walk out from under China and re-understand the world,
we must as always start with education."
> So many Chinese students lived and studied at universities in Australia, Canada, the U.K. and many other democratic countries where they had the opportunity to witnessed how people in those societies manage their social order.
But what impact did those experiences have on those students once they returned to the workplace in China?
Contrary to the hopes of many, the seeds of democratic though did not take root in those many tens of thousands of students.