China's past, China's present

China's rich history is a seductive resource for China's modern politicians. But its complexity can also make it a selective one, says Kerry Brown. 

Kerry Brown
27 April 2014

Chinese leaders often declare that they are proud of their country's history. President Xi Jinping, in several speeches during his visit to the European Union in March-April 2014, spoke at length about the importance of the past and of his country’s 5,000 years of continuous civilisation. It sounds impressive but - once the patterns and meanings of this past are interrogated in a little more detail - raises lots of problems. How to interpret the different phases of China's past, to handle its sheer complexity, and to establish the relevance today of anything that happened before?

After all, a balance needs to be struck by respecting the lessons of the Chinese past and learning from them, but also needing to avoid being overwhelmed by this history’s weight and influence. Moreover, past and future differ in the end in a fundamental way: one has happened and can be assumed to be knowable; the other has yet to be. So how can a tight link between them, of the kind Chinese leaders tend to make, even be attempted?

The briefest perusal of records of the Chinese past raises questions about the appeal to history for practical guidance in the present. Timothy Brook's excellent study of China from 1279-1644 - The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties (2010) - is illuminating on this point. It does show the myriad striking parallels between history and the present, but also how radically different lessons can be drawn from the past for understanding modern China and where it might be heading.

In Brook’s account, Yuan and Ming China show a networked, highly tribal Chinese society with dense links between different business, political, cultural and social groups; a complex reality summarised by Brook as the "kinship matrix". In the China of seven centuries ago, he writes, "your identity and status depended far less on the state than on who you were related to."
This and other phrases - such as "your father was your first important asset" - can be applied just as well to China’s current president, Xi Jinping. Then, like today, networks in China were flexible, dynamic, and far from closed: "Out around [the network] extended an unstable and usually growing set of relationships..." Neither were the networks abstract or spiritual notions, rather they were linked to real resources and wealth: "The most successful lineages owned agricultural land, provided graveyards, built ancestral shrines and ran businesses." In effect, they were highly practical, driven not by sentimental or familiar attachments but by access to physical assets and goods. Again, the contemporary resonances are very much apparent.

The parallels continue. The existence of the state in the Yuan and Ming worlds Brook elegantly portrays was almost a fugitive one - so powerful were all these bonding networks where the "real" loyalties and allegiances lay. Chinese rulers who in 2014 are attempting to set up a functioning tax system that gets modern citizens to contribute more from their earnings to the central and local state may draw comfort from the fact that in the 1500s "the tax system was slow to follow reality", and that Ming officials' statistics often proved to be inaccurate. One official concluded in 1566 that if he believed the records of the county he was in charge of, he would have to accept that only 20% of the population were women. "The 'real economy' - a money economy of commercial investment and financial concentration - had escaped entirely from the model of the agrarian economy installed back in 1368, and untaxed fortunes were being made." Is this so different from the shadow-banking and informal off-balance-sheet market economy of China's last few years?

A usable past

There are even sharper parallels about which Chinese leaders might need to think harder. In Ming China, there was indeed an imbalance in the male-female population, with (like today) the former outnumbering the latter. "The fact is that large numbers of women who should have been there in the normal population were missing", Timothy Brook writes, in a haunting passage. He then records that a solution to this demographic problem, practised in Guangdong, was marriage between men and men. There was even a character for this arrangement, where the sign for "strength" (which usually appears in the male symbol) was replaced by that for "female".  Brook explains that "the custom was associated with seafaring, on the understanding that men who were isolated from women for long periods of time resorted to each other for sexual satisfaction."

In a China which, on one estimate, may have up to 60 million more men than women in the next two decades, a social acceptance of this arrangement might well be another area where the Chinese government could seek inspiration for solutions in the past. At present, in this area at least, there are few signs of the authorities being prepared to follow one of the many fascinating strands of the rich and complex past of the country they now govern - though the precedent is there if they wish.

And that is one of the great attractions about invoking the Chinese, or any other, past: its almost infinite flexibility - though perhaps especially the Chinese, so long that almost everything has happened before. No wonder China’s politicians find it irresisitble.

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