Chaos and political legitimacy in Chinese history

A challenging time in history

Before finding itself at the literal epicentre of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had been a major focus of international attention, particularly in the last few years. Subsequently the Chinese party-state has been accused of concealing the early phases of the novel coronavirus epidemic centring on Wuhan in December 2019, including human-to-human transmission of SARS-CoV-2, before its international outbreak.

Notwithstanding the plethora of theories circulating, there appears sufficient political-scientific reasons to explain this sequence of epoch-making events in terms of the CCP’s own brand of politics. The present Chinese leadership may be struggling to comfortably wear the mantle of post-revolutionary governance, with the CCP’s legitimacy rooted in its epic historical achievements – from the border-regions and Soviets, through the disastrous but ultimately successful Long March, to resistance against Japanese invasions and defeat of Jiang Jieshi’s predatory nationalist regime.

The era of glory in riches ushered in by Long March veteran Deng Xiaoping has been so successful it has prodded and pushed up against the international order at a tectonic level. This has created a partially self-limiting negative feedback loop, an outside check on China’s rise. Pandemics and an unruly Hong Kong were two of the key major crises that could potentially have shaken Xi Jinping’s and the CCP’s rule. And Hong Kong may never be the same again.

While it’s a truism that everything changes, no doubt the world will never be the same again. There have been calls for compensation from China for the international economic impacts of CoViD-19. If this type of international accounting is to be considered legitimate, however, the question of liability for colonial violations of Chinese sovereignty must surely come into the picture too.

In a recent op-ed piece, Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director, Peter Jennings, commented that the CCP is ‘not too big to fail’. If correct, the CCP itself appears fully aware of this. For its leaders seem above all else to be apprehensive of the end of their party’s almost complete control over Chinese politics and society.

Chaos vs the Mandate of Heaven

Luàn 乱 (chaos, disorder) is at the heart of this manifestation of political prudence. Historian Diana Lary puts is simply: ‘In Chinese, chaos is luan the phenomenon most feared by Chinese leaders over most of Chinese history and the justification for continued authoritarianism’.[1]

This view of Chinese politics is deeply historical, with millennia of recorded history attesting to the political and social chaos, the violence and depredation, that has ensued when the central Chinese state lost normative and/or coercive power over the continually varying constituencies of the imperial legacy. This important political concept was seen by early Confucianists as akin to the supernatural, with the Analects telling us that the Master ‘did not talk about the prodigious, feats of strength, disorder [luàn], or spiritual beings’.[2]

It is closely linked to the Mandate of Heaven (tia̅nmìng 天命), the central concept of political legitimacy, which appears to have been introduced or otherwise initiated by the conquering/liberating Zhou dynasty in the Yellow River valley at the end of the second millennium BCE. Over time the new regime became decentralised through excessive enfeoffment of collateral branches of the royal family and other allies, until it lost its hegemonic status, the realm eventually disintegrating into the Warring States in the 5th century BCE.

This major period of interstate conflict was immensely important in Chinese history, and extant historical records and archaeological evidence give us considerable insight into a major example of international relations in the ‘ancient’ era. It was in this era that China as we know it came to be, culminating in its (re)unification in 221 BCE under the notoriously brutal and ruthless King Zheng of Qin, more familiar to most as the First Emperor.

Along the way, Confucius codified the core of what remained of the Zhou systems of knowledge, including politics, ethics and aesthetics; One Hundred Schools of Thought (zhūzǐ bǎijiā 諸子百家) vied to demonstrate theirs was the true Way (daò 道); and the emergence of legalism provided governance and statecraft that enabled Qin’s successful reunification.

The Zhou regime had attributed its rule to the will of Heaven (ti­a̅n 天), an extremely powerful sky being which had bestowed its Mandate upon them for removing the last tyrannical King of the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), and replacing bad governance with good. However, the Mandate was not destined for the Qin, but rather the Han dynasty (202 BCE – 9 CE; 25–220 CE). After all the conquering, massive administrative standardisation, including writing, measures and transport, and burning all the books they could find, the Qin dynasty lasted a mere 15 years.

Cycles of imperial destiny

Han rulers perceived errors in Qin’s inordinately harsh proto-totalitarian regime that had led to its downfall. Through a skilful blending of legalism with the Confucian tradition and political aspects of the mystical philosophical Daoism of the Laozi and Zhuangzi, they forged a powerful tradition of imperial rule and legitimacy that lasted 2,000 years.

Long lived as the Han was, they were but one of several major and many smaller imperial Chinese dynasties that followed Qin (re)unification. Among these are five major dynasties comprising the Tang, Song, Yuan (Mongol), Ming, and Qing (Manchu), though from a nativist perspective the four key Chinese dynasties (Han, Tang, Song, Ming) stand out.

While each defunct dynasty is seen to lose its legitimising Mandate, the level and length of time the luàn created by power vacuums and power struggles between each dynastic era varies considerably. After the deep intellectual and technological changes amid the widespread and protracted violence of the Warring States and Qin periods, the next lengthy pan-Chinese luàn starts with the Three Kingdoms (220–280 CE).

The virtuous and valiant efforts of Liu Bei and his staunch and loyal generals and advisers to save the imperial throne are immortalised in the now canonical 14th century novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Included among these dramatis personae is the the historical Guan Yu (d. 220), apotheosised as the god of war. This epic story warns of the consequences of China’s chief villain, Cao Cao, bringing luàn upon the realm: ‘The Emperor’s star shines not bright, a traitorous minister disorders the country [luànguó 乱国], the people [live in] mud and ash, and the capital sits all empty’.

Lasting until reunification under the Sui dynasty (581–618 CE), the following period of Northern and Southern dynasties saw for the first time the Sinification and legitimisation of foreign invading regimes, as well as the prodigious rise of Buddhism as a major religion in China. Introduced to China early in the first millennium, Buddhism gained ground and eventually grew roots in Chinese soil during this period of luàn, before being transmitted to Korea, Japan and Vietnam along with Confucian literary and administrative know-how. In response to this success, Neo-Daoism with its Jade Emperor arises as a rejuvenated indigenous Chinese alternative to the new cosmology, metaphysics and ethics imported from India.

Not dissimilar from the Han experience, the Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) took over from the short-lived Sui, adopting Buddhist ideology and institutions into the matrix of imperial Chinese governance. The Tang forged a mighty empire that stretched to the sands of inner Asia, facing battle with Islamic armies at Talas in 751 – two great powers at the ends of their reach. An Lushan’s rebellion four years later, however, marked the start of Tang decline, culminating in another spell of widespread war and tortuous dynastic change.

Cultural renaissance and nomadic invasions

Out of this chaotic period, known as the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms, emerged the Song dynasty (960–1279 CE). While the weakest of the major dynasties in hard-power terms, the Song provided the basis for something of a ‘renaissance’ in learning, culture and technology that transformed China and ultimately the world.

The rise of a Buddhist power-base in the Tang dynasty had also created a reaction leading to the development of Neo-Confucianism. Unlike the more emulative earlier approach of Neo-Daoism, some aspects Buddhism were partly co-opted into a more worldly ethic, providing sufficient cosmology and metaphysics to compete for minds as well as hearts. A version of this nativist Confucian revival remained imperial orthodoxy and underpinned bureaucratic traditions of Mandarins until the revolutions of the early twentieth century.

Like the Three Kingdoms period, the Song dynasty also saw pastoral civilisations invade the northern plains of China, but on a seriously larger scale. The first major historical marker in this period is the loss of north China to the Jurchen, a horse-riding people of modern-day Manchuria who established the Jin dynasty (1115–1234 CE).

The consequent move of the seat of imperial power to Hangzhou in 1127 proved to be immensely transformative for southern China – and eventually the entire empire after the second key event, reunification by the invading Mongols in 1279. This fruitful period of Chinese civilisation produced many important innovations, including some that would eventually provide the key to the European expansionism in the early modern period, including gunpowder and movable type printing.

Under Kublai Khan’s leadership, the Yuan dynasty consolidated the Chinese empire. The influence of southern China’s maritime cultures led to the development of the steel rudder and the maritime compass, inventions that subsequently launched Europe’s Atlantic states into the first age of globalisation. Indeed, China and the west have been sending cultural and technological shockwaves across the vast spaces of continental Asia and the Indo-Pacific for centuries.

Luàn meets modernity

The Ming dynasty (1368–1644 CE) was able to regain the Mandate of Heaven for an ethnic Chinese dynasty, ruling for three hundred years, expanding, and consolidating imperial power in Tibet, Mongolia and Xinjiang. However, despite some innovation, learning, culture and technological improvement slowly stultified, and the imperial state was increasingly conservative by the time the Manchu Qing dynasty took the reins of the state in the seventeenth century. In contrast, the massive upheaval experienced in Europe at that time ultimately led to modernity and all its global implications.

The late Chinese empire struggled unsuccessfully to meet the challenges of imperialism that had been unleashed and exported by the modern west. Facing increasing internal unrest and external encroachments, the Qing capitulated in 1911, leaving the stage open for the declaration of a Chinese Republic in the following year. In this power vacuum, a usurper, Yuan Shikai (1859–1916), quickly enough arose and died before the regime descended into a modern version of the familiar luàn: a weak central government and rampant regional warlordism.

China’s ‘century of humiliation’, from the First Opium War (1839–42) until the CCP’s victory in 1949, is historically real enough, even if the phrase has uncomfortable connotations. Let us not forget Great Britain pursued a policy of getting millions of Chinese people addicted to opium so that it could balance its foreign accounts. And when Qing officials burnt stockpiles of opium, it sent an expeditionary force leading to the carving off of Hong Kong, which despite its 1997 return is still something of a thorn in the permeable flank of China’s southern littoral.

This was a period of luàn, like many before, resulting from a combination of poor governance and external pressures, but nonetheless signifying the withdrawal of Heaven’s Mandate from the incumbent Qing dynasty. Further, it proved fertile ground for a new wave of ideological renewal, driven by importation of a broad range of modern western scientific and political thought. This spawned numerous homegrown nationalist movements, including along liberal, anarchist and socialist lines.

Despite the success of Mao Zedong’s Marxist-Leninist-based regime in largely reuniting China, this period of social hardship and political turmoil continued in 1950s with the Great Leap Forward and on to the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s. In 2016, the CCP’s international media outlet Global Times in an article titled ‘Society firmly rejects Cultural Revolution’ declared: ‘Nobody fears turmoil, and desires stability more than us.’

The inescapable logic of legitimacy

From the historical perspective that has informed the mindset of dynastic ruler after dynastic ruler, a weak centre unable to govern the peripheries and incapable of withstanding external military or economic shocks is a recipe for loss of a mandate to rule. In this context, it makes little sense to ask which comes first: luàn or withdrawal of the Mandate.

Instead, we should look to the fundamental role of the interdependent and incessant cycles of yin and yang in the Neo-Confucian system of thought that underpinned late imperial Chinese intellectual culture. Whether it manifests in earthquakes, famines or open rebellion, luàn is at the same time cause, result and signifier of loss of political legitimacy.

Clearly enough, for the contemporary CCP loss of direct control over any significant portion of post-imperial China implies the effective destruction of what it has built over the last nearly 100 years since its 1921 founding. As I understand the logic of Chinese political history, that would entail the loss of a mandate to rule, followed by the inevitable and catastrophic luàn that would ensue.

This ultimately means that the internal situation in China remains the primary focus of the CCP’s balancing act playing out between its international and domestic personas. In the international space, restoring and retaining territorial integrity has been one of the keys to consolidating domestic legitimacy, especially in the post-GFC world. For this reason if no other, Beijing is highly unlikely to take the military option off the table in respect to Taiwan any time soon.

It is also why the Chinese party-state will almost certainly continue to pressurise Hong Kong in an attempt to squeeze out pro-democracy activity and sentiment. Hong Kong represents a double threat. First as unfinished business of an ex-colony that symbolises the beginning of the so-called century of humiliation and is yet to be properly incorporated into the Chinese state. And, second, as a potential (if not already actual) site of rebellion that might conceivably lead to the unravelling of central control and descent into the nightmarish chaos of luàn.

Here we can further discern seeds of the current acute global crisis brought on by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. In its deep-seated need to preserve its own rule, which has become identified with the weal of the Chinese people, the CCP’s number one priority to ensure domestic legitimacy will effectively trump all other considerations, including the impact of its actions on the global stage.

The CCP appears to be willing to wager its ability to restore and rehabilitate the party-state’s international persona if required, as has been achieved more than once before – including its emergence from international outcast to a seat on the UN Security Council in 1971. But this can only happen if the CCP’s legitimising credentials are secured on the home front.

Irrespective of varying viewpoints on the CCP’s rationale for its tight grip on political power, it is important to consider the deep processual interplay between luàn and a̅n (stability, peace) in Chinese history. Indeed, this manifestation of the yin-yang principle governing chaos and legitimacy in China’s political history has arguably driven major historical change over thousands of years of continuous social tradition.

As horrific and traumatising as were periods of luàn – longer and shorter, ancient and modern – experienced by the people of China, perhaps it is not too soon to question the sagacity of ignoring its integral role as a powerful motive force in the still unfolding Chinese story. Perhaps it may even possible to discern the roots of rejuvenation in the cultural hothouses of collapsing dynastic stars.


Image: 陈文

[1] Diana Lary, The Chinese People at War (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 11, note 8.

[2] ‘Confucius: Selections from the Analects,’ in Scriptures of the World’s Religions, ed. James Fieser and John Powers (New York: McGraw Hill Education, 2018), 208.

Published by Kurt Vall

Based in Melbourne, Australia, Kurt studied linguistics, philosophy and Asian history at the Australian National University and is currently a graduate student in international relations at the University of Melbourne. He has over a decade's experience in public policy and administration in Australian federal and state government.

One thought on “Chaos and political legitimacy in Chinese history

  1. An insightful and thought provoking article Kurt that shows the growth of the Chinese spirit through the ups and downs of its civilisation. We are living in an age when information is freely available to everyone, but an appreciation of history and how it shapes the modern world seems overlooked by our current leaders and those that elect them. More nuanced articles like this could change that.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: