The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy

The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy

The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy

The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy


Established in 221 BCE, the Chinese empire lasted for 2,132 years before being replaced by the Republic of China in 1912. During its two millennia, the empire endured internal wars, foreign incursions, alien occupations, and devastating rebellions--yet fundamental institutional, sociopolitical, and cultural features of the empire remained intact. The Everlasting Empire traces the roots of the Chinese empire's exceptional longevity and unparalleled political durability, and shows how lessons from the imperial past are relevant for China today.

Yuri Pines demonstrates that the empire survived and adjusted to a variety of domestic and external challenges through a peculiar combination of rigid ideological premises and their flexible implementation. The empire's major political actors and neighbors shared its fundamental ideological principles, such as unity under a single monarch--hence, even the empire's strongest domestic and foreign foes adopted the system of imperial rule. Yet details of this rule were constantly negotiated and adjusted. Pines shows how deep tensions between political actors including the emperor, the literati, local elites, and rebellious commoners actually enabled the empire's basic institutional framework to remain critically vital and adaptable to ever-changing sociopolitical circumstances. As contemporary China moves toward a new period of prosperity and power in the twenty-first century, Pines argues that the legacy of the empire may become an increasingly important force in shaping the nation's future trajectory.


Stability is in unity.


WESTERN OBSERVERS seem always to have been fascinated with the durability of the Chinese political system. While attitudes toward the Chinese political model changed dramatically over the centuries, reflecting shifts and turns in Europe’s political and intellectual history—from the Jesuits’ admiration of China’s stability to Hegel’s derision of its stagnation, from Voltaire’s praise of it as an exemplary enlightened monarchy to Karl Wittfogel’s detestation of its “Oriental despotism”—interest in the Chinese empire’s exceptional longevity persisted. In turn it led Western scholars to investigate numerous aspects of Chinese political thought, values, and modes of sociopolitical behavior—what today may be called “political culture.” While in the course of the twentieth century interest in the Chinese imperial model and in China’s political culture diminished among nonspecialists, it remained intense among scholars of China who searched in the imperial past for explanations of China’s turbulent present. Particularly during Mao Zedong’s years in power (1949–1976) and in their immediate aftermath, scholars repeatedly debated the cultural roots of the vicissitudes of Chinese history, investigating imperial patterns of autocracy, dissent, submission, and rebellion and their impact on China’s present.

In recent decades this interest in Chinese political culture among Western students of China has gradually subsided. Many factors have contributed to this: emerging scholarly uneasiness with sweeping generalizations that all too often served hidden or overt political agendas; “decentering” shifts in the historiography that redirected scholarly gaze from the center to the periphery and from the rulers to the ruled; and, arguably, the seemingly dull and predictable state of contemporary Chinese politics, which makes the field of political studies of current—and, mutatis mutandis, premodern—China much less attractive than it was during Mao’s twists and turns. Yet curiously, just when Chinese politics became less “exciting” and Western scholars lost their interest in Chinese political culture, this topic gained unprecedented prominence in China’s indigenous scholarship. Prompted by the need to reassess the traditional sources of manifold malpractices of Mao’s (and not only Mao’s) era, and encouraged by . . .

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