The Chinese Behemoth

The Great Enterprise: The Manchu Reconstruction of Imperial Order in Seventeenth-Century China

by Frederic Wakeman Jr.
University of California Press, 1337 pp., $75.00

The Chinese Emperor

by Jean Lévi, translated by Barbara Bray
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich/A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, 341 pp., $18.95

The fact that history, like childhood, helps to account for what happens later doesn’t do us much good in the case of China, since Chinese history remains largely unavailable. The apparent success of the “Big Thirteenth” Congress of the Chinese Communist party in October 1987 doesn’t explain the mystery of how a billion Chinese live together under the dictatorship of a party whose forty-six million members equal the population of one of our European allies. How can so big a polity cohere? The scale is beyond our experience if not imagination. We may grow accustomed to imagining gene-splicing at one end of the material scene and whole clusters of galaxies at the other, but the Chinese behemoth visible every day just across the Pacific remains an equal mystery of a psychopolitical kind.

We are told that ultimate power in China now rests with a retired vice-premier who has, however, taken the precaution of remaining head of the Military Affairs Commission. Younger men, successors to the Long March generation, will now perform the feats of combining a command economy with the use of market forces and combining the central dictatorship of the Chinese Communist party with a growth of local democracy. Merely to contemplate such feats of Chinese juggling, whether or not they succeed, should arouse our interest in China’s earlier political experience. The books by Frederic Wakeman, Jr., and Jean Lévi, though disparate, touch on two of the many elements in the puzzle.

Before the modern revolutions of the twentieth century, the best-documented political metamorphosis in China was the Manchu conquest in the mid-seventeenth century. The seizure of Peking in 1644 by the Manchu state newly arisen north of the Great Wall has usually been reported as still another successful invasion of China by seminomadic non-Chinese people only recently unified for military expansion. The conquering Manchus who maintained their Ch’ing dynasty from 1644 to 1912 propagated their success story so well that Japan’s expansionists of the 1930s eagerly hoped to take over China in a similar way. The consolidation of Manchu control after 1644 saw as much confused fighting and politicking as the contemporary Thirty Years’ War in Europe, but China was already a unified state while Europe was not. While the Europeans fought wars of religion and protonationalism during a transition from feudalism to nation-states, the Chinese were simply concerned with the transition from the Chinese Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to the Manchu Ch’ing dynasty.

For the Chinese ruling class of gentry, scholars, and officials the issue was how to transfer loyalty from one dynastic line to the other. Though faith in God was not noticeable in China, imperial Confucianism taught that civilization could be continued only through filial obedience to parents (and of women to men) within the family, and through loyalty to the emperor within the state. The imperial cult made this loyalty almost a secular religion, often more important than life itself. Scholar-officials came into the imperial cult through their mastery of the Confucian classics. After…

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