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 they had achieved promotion through the various levels of the examinations set by the emperor they felt they owed their careers to him, and indeed his appointments did give them their opportunities and successes in the world. How, then, were the Manchu conquerors to take the place of the Chinese emperors of the Ming?

As has long been recognized, they could do it only with Chinese help to make the Ch’ing seem like an improved Ming. Mr. Wakeman builds upon the extensive researches of recent decades by Chinese, Japanese, and Western scholars. His comprehensive account pictures in detail the actual extent of Chinese participation in the Manchu conquest. In fact his subtitle, The Manchu Reconstruction of Imperial Order in Seventeenth-Century China, seems to hark back to the old Manchu success story and so is made out of date by his book, which shows how the reconstruction was in fact a Manchu-Chinese achievement from start to finish.

Four main regions are the components of this Manchu-Chinese drama. First, South China, centered on the productive Lower Yangtze provinces but stretching on south to Canton and the southwest. Second, the Northwest. Third, the eastern part of North China, which we may call the northeast with a small “n.” And fourth, beyond the Great Wall, Manchuria, as it used to be called, now known as China’s Northeast. A plot summary might have four acts:

(1) The Ming dynasty after ruling at Peking for two centuries and a half is facing insuperable problems of senility. Its scholar bureaucracy is dominated by southerners, who hold the military in disesteem.

(2) Rebellion comes out of the Northwest, whence a rebel (Li Zecheng) in April 1644 seizes Peking and ends the Ming dynasty.

(3) Thereupon the Manchu state outside the Wall joins with the northeastern Chinese military to oust the rebel Li from Peking and set up the Ch’ing dynasty there instead.


(4) The combined Manchu-northeastern-Chinese forces conquer the Northwest and pacify the south, though the task is not completed until 1681. In short, the Manchu conquest finally succeeds because it is a part of the northern military Chinese struggle to control the civilian southerners and reincorporate them in the central government.

The Great Enterprise, in two volumes and 1300 pages, is not an easy book to read. Some 3,000 footnotes take up about a third of the average page and there are hundreds of Chinese and Manchu names to contend with. Yet for anyone seriously interested in China, Wakeman’s book will from now on be one of the most important books to start with. The collapse and revival of imperial government are recounted step by step through accounts of personal experience that make them comprehensible. Indeed, the footnotes are so numerous and lengthy because they summarize biographies, which record so much of Chinese history. Mr. Wakeman draws upon both the voluminous sources left by Ming and Ch’ing chroniclers and the multitude of studies since then by historians and social scientists. To have synthesized these many facets of record and analysis into a clear and lively narrative is a major achievement.1

The dramatic story The Great Enterprise tells (the great enterprise is of course from the Manchu point of view the takeover of China) opens with the abysmal collapse of government after two-and-a-half centuries of Ming rule. Deep-lying evils of corruption and immorality manifest themselves in spectacular ways. For example, some 20,000 eunuchs dominate the palace and terrorize officials with their secret police and torture chambers. Used by the Ming emperors originally to offset the power of the bureaucrats, the eunuchs have turned their weakness into strength. “In 1621, when the Tianqi Emperor announced plans to employ 3,000 more eunuchs in the palace service, 20,000 castrati applied for the positions.” Here we encounter one of the still unsolved problems of Chinese historiography. The term i-wan means “ten thousand,” but like Greek “myriad” it also means a countless multitude. No one has yet figured out a coefficient by which to reduce Chinese wan to probable numbers. But if we say only that “a vast multitude of castrati applied for the positions” we still make the point that a great many men had with foresight prepared themselves for the job opportunity, such as it was.

Meanwhile under the Ming the Confucian teachings of rectitude had flourished particularly among the landlord-scholar-gentry of the productive Lower Yangtze provinces, whose sons excelled in the examinations so well that southerners made up a large part of the Ming bureaucracy. Scholars of well-based gentry families organized study societies. When in the 1620s they righteously denounced the evils of the Peking eunuchs, a eunuch terror martyred many of them with great brutality. Under the next Ming emperor they got their revenge but in a climate of such bitter factionalism that the emperor, who was to be the last Ming ruler, distrusted all his officials and executed a good many just to be on the safe side. Because of this internal dissension, essential aspects of Ming administration were allowed to grind to a halt.

The Manchus brought Chinese into their new state in two stages. First, as they began to expand their rule over the Chinese-populated area of South Manchuria, they set up a civilian wing of government staffed by Chinese collaborators. These men drafted the pronouncements of the Ch’ing dynastic rulers in the proper style of imperial Confucianism. Later they would be able to take over and renovate the Ming civilian administration of China. Second, the Manchus made allies of the Ming Chinese military inside the Wall, who were already contemptuous and distrustful toward the predominantly southern and unmilitary Ming bureaucracy. The Manchu tribal warriors, trained for hunting and shooting game or enemies with equal enthusiasm, were organized under eight different-colored banners. When they conquered Mongol tribes to the west, the Mongols were also enlisted under Mongol banners; and eventually the Manchus set up eight Chinese banners. All these bannermen were directly loyal to the Manchu ruler as his military retainers. Once in power at Peking in 1644 the new Ch’ing rulers stressed the recruitment of Chinese bannermen. Eventually they could rely upon “a new supra-elite” of Chinese bannermen to consolidate and maintain their power. “By 1659, three-quarters of all the governors of China were Han [i.e. ethnic Chinese] bannermen.”

The active alliance of the Manchu-Chinese state in South Manchuria with the late-Ming military in the northeastern provinces of Shandong and what is now Hebei was precipitated by the rebel Li Zecheng’s seizure of Peking in April 1644. Li set up what he called the Shun dynasty, but after holding Peking for only forty-two days he was defeated and fled back to the Northwest, where he died in September of 1645. It happens that among his many researches, Mr. Wakeman has made a special study of the six weeks of Li’s abortive Shun dynasty at Peking because it posed in neat compass the central question of transfer of loyalty—can a man of principle choose not to follow his ruler in death but to honorably serve the new man in power? This dilemma is a central motif in Mr. Wakeman’s work, as it has been in the minds of generations of Chinese scholars educated to serve the state. Perhaps for this reason, The Great Enterprise is admirably full in its treatment of the one-day emperor Li (he had himself enthroned just before he left town) while it hardly mentions Li’s counterpart and rival, the rebel Zhang Xianzhong (aka Chang Hsien-chung).


Zhang and Li have usually been mentioned together as two of a kind, leaders of peasant rebellions: Zhang took over Szechwan (Sichuan) province, where he set up a regime with scholar-official guidance and was even more bloodthirsty than Li. In Szechwan he was a sort of exterminator. Yet Mr. Wakeman takes note of him mainly in footnotes. He was not killed until January 1647 (see the footnote on page 690). Let me not ignorantly beat this dead horse, but it does seem to raise a question of balance. Surely one would be going too far, 340 years later, to suspect Mr. Wakeman of factionalism, pro-Li and anti-Zhang, though stranger things have happened.

The problem of loyalty versus practicality (pragmatic survival, opportunism) arose most spectacularly in the Ming loyalist regime, which was briefly maintained at Nanking until June 1645. Here was brought together in a Noah’s ark every type of political creature—philosophers, warlord believers in the broadsword that decapitates, conscientious magistrates, sanctimonious sycophants, wily diplomats. From Mr. Wakeman’s biographical data one could almost set up typologies of loyalty and disloyalty, factoring in the many other motives involved.

Here again, we can appreciate the plight of the erstwhile Ming ruling class after 1644 only if we remember their cultural upbringing. In the imperial philosophy, social order and prosperity, the conjoint aims of government, could be achieved only through dutiful obedience toward superiors—be they parents, husbands, elders, or rulers—plus reciprocity between equals. Hence arose the various relationships and connections, or guanxi, that surrounded and usually still surround each Chinese. One’s loyalty to the emperor was only the top of a hierarchy of loyalties toward one’s teachers and on down to kinsmen, classmates, and others whose friendship had been reciprocated.

To all these associations and relationships one owed one’s place in the world as well as in history, which was indeed a living part of the Chinese world more than it is with us. Any Chinese who took his Confucianism seriously bore a moral commitment to the ruling authority deeper than ours to the law—witness our vestigial swearing-in ceremony, “so help us God.” The three kneelings interspersed with nine nose-down prostrations, with which an official sent off his reports to the emperor, expressed a relationship far more potent than anything undertaken in the Christian sacrament of marriage, even in its heyday. How could the Confucian believer so personally nurtured by one dynasty shift his loyalty to the next? There could not be two suns in the sky any more than John Paul II could announce tomorrow that he has found a new God to speak for.

Yet the practical needs of state and family might set up countervailing loyalties that argued for Chinese officials to accept the reality of a new dynasty. Fortunately for the Ch’ing, many did so. They could justify the shift only by accepting the age-old impersonal, almost transcendental, claim spelled out by the Manchus’ Chinese collaborators, that Heaven’s Mandate had passed to the newcomers.

For the rulers in Peking after 1644, former Ming officials were potential Ch’ing bureaucrats whose skills and connections could make or break the new regime. Imperial government was a fine art. Not many knew how to do its work. Moreover the Lower Yangtze provinces (called Jiangnan, “south of the River”) was the area most productive both of rice shipments via the Grand Canal to feed Peking and of top examination candidates to staff the bureaucracy and collect the empire’s taxes. In taking over Jiangnan, Ming officials and all, the Manchus offered official employment as a carrot and terrorism as the stick.

An example of terror was achieved for all time in the infamous Ten Days Massacre in late May 1645 at the strategic city of Yangzhou on the Grand Canal north of the Yangtze. Once having surrendered, the inhabitants were mercilessly slaughtered. A widely read eyewitness report says that after the looting, extortion, and burning, “whenever a soldier appeared, all the southerners…squatted down and dropped their heads. None dared flee, but each stretched out his neck expecting the stroke of the sword.” Soon, says this account,

on the ground lay small babies who were either trodden under the hooves of horses or the feet of men. The ground was…covered with mutilated members of bodies…. Every gutter and pond was filled with corpses…. The blood turned the water to a deep greenish-red color.

“Contemporaries,” says Wakeman, “estimated that eight hundred thousand people had died in the slaughter,” but he goes on to cite a modern Chinese estimate that only between 20,000 and 30,000 people could have been in the city.

Terror worked. The Nanking loyalist regime nearby surrendered at once with little resistance. Within a month more than three hundred former Ming officials were being appointed to govern Jiangnan for the Ch’ing.

In the twentieth century the Japanese military expansionists after World War I were too easily seduced by the precedent of the Manchu conquest of three centuries before. After 1932 their puppet state of Manchukuo complete with the last Ch’ing emperor (sometimes called Henry Pu-yi) proved to be anachronistic window dressing, quite inadequate to appeal to China’s modern nationalism.2 Yet we should remember that in 1644 the Manchus’ Chinese collaborators had supplied essential cultural-political ingredients that made the Manchu conquest possible. The twentieth-century transitions in Chinese politics from the Manchu emperor to the Chinese Republic in 1912 and from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist kuomintang to Mao Tse-tung’s Communists in 1949 were facilitated by the fact that loyalty to dynasty and emperor were being succeeded by loyalty to party and leader. The political achievement in Taiwan during the last generation has been facilitated by loyalty to party and leader in a fashion parallel to the achievement of the Chinese Communist party and its leadership on the mainland. Loyalty and all the networks of personal connections that go with it are still potent in Deng Xiaoping’s China of today. The difference from us is of course only in degree, not in kind.

The theme of northern Chinese conquering southern Chinese is borne out by what Mr. Wakeman tells us of the counsels of the Manchu leaders. The founding father Nurhaci had enjoined his sons to govern collegially in the tribal style, not through a monarchy. His successor Hung Taiji (ruled 1626–1643) at first aspired only to break free of the Ming, not to conquer China. Their Chinese collaborators helped the Manchus to create a strong monarchy and dynasty. At the same time the tribal tradition that the new leader rose to power by eliminating his rival brothers (what the late Joseph Fletcher called “bloody tanistry”) continued to make the Ch’ing emperors formidable holders of power. After Hung Taiji died in 1643 his brother Dorgon, ruling until 1650 as regent for the boy emperor, was preoccupied with the military cleanup while his Chinese administrators worked to reduce the late Ming militarization of society and revive civil government. Once the boy emperor began to rule (1650–1661), he catered to Chinese collaborators and let them build up personal satrapies in the southernmost provinces, where they eventually rebelled between 1673 and 1681, and were defeated.

Mr. Wakeman’s two volumes make the Manchus’ great enterprise seem less miraculous, less Manchu, and more understandable. They also record the widespread restiveness of starving peasant masses and the undercurrent of class struggle that was suppressed when the Manchus co-opted the former Ming ruling class, renovated the Confucian despotism, and got the agrarian economy to function again.

The Kangxi (K’ang-hsi) emperor (1662–1722) completed the balancing of Manchus and Chinese, northerners and southerners, military and civilian. Loyalty to the emperor continued to be central to the myth of the state and its teachings. This greatest of political virtues was strikingly epitomized, for example, in the courageous martyrdom within the family of the Ming official Ma Zhongde. When his son Ma Yujin, also a Ming official, was captured by the Manchus in 1621 his wife back home in Liaoyang assumed he had died rather than surrender, and so she led forty-two “household relatives and retainers into suicide.” Her more practical-minded husband had however in fact surrendered to serve the Manchus. After his grandson Ma Xiongzhen, a high Ch’ing official, refused to surrender to the southern rebels in 1677 and was killed with his two sons, his wife then in prison in Guilin reenacted the Ma family loyalism of 1621. In 1677 she led thirty-eight members of Ma Xiongzhen’s household in suicide. “The suicides went on through the night and into the next morning.” With such loyalty from his Chinese officials (and especially from his Chinese officials’ wives) the Kangxi emperor and his successors could govern the empire.

The Great Enterprise shows us that Ch’ing rule was far from the absolute despotism celebrated so imaginatively in Jean Lévi’s prize-winning novel, The Chinese Emperor. Mr. Lévi has gone back two thousand years and presents the shadowy First Emperor of the Ch’in dynasty, who unified the warring states in 221 BC as a ruler who had total power. He has quarried the Chinese texts surviving from this dawn of China’s political history in order to capture the spirit of the times and given us some feeling for the people that appear in the record.

First is the self-made merchant prince (Lü Pu-wei), who amasses his wealth through trade and believes that anything, including empires, can be bought. Second is the wily administrator (Li Ssu), who applies the legalist ideas of the Chinese philosophers descending from Shang Yang, Hsün-tzu, and Han Fei-tzu. In accordance with their teachings, the empire is organized in administrative units under bureaucratic control from the center. The people are brought under surveillance by the system of mutual responsibility within units of tens and hundreds and the political practice of informing that goes with it. The third figure is the First Emperor himself, and we are told much about his ruthless drive for unity and therefore peace over the empire, and the troubles that beset him. Mr. Lévi has both quoted and invented ancient texts. With great eloquence he gives us a taste of the rhetoric and sophistry of the philosophers who advised the rulers and of the chronicles that recounted their serpentine maneuvers.

The Chinese Emperor is a brief and stupendous fantasy about absolute power being used for itself alone with no redeeming purpose. The pages are packed with sensuous images and violent action. Colors and incidents hit the reader like a five-story string of firecrackers.

Mr. Lévi’s method can be illustrated by his use of one of the Chinese commentaries on the famous would-be assassin of the First Emperor, the knight Ching K’o, whose biography is in a chapter of the Historical Records, the first of the great twenty-four official histories, composed about 100 BC. Ching K’o’s attempted assassination was dated 227 BC. About nine hundred years later a commentator of the first half of the eighth century AD quotes a work of uncertain date that according to Professor Derk Bodde “first appears in the bibliographical chapter of the history of the Sui (AD 589–618)…a comparatively late work, which really has only a very tenuous connection with the Ching K’o biography.”3 This undated work tells how the crown prince of Yen entertained Ching K’o, apparently in order to build up his self-confidence and sense of obligation to the point where he could make his attempt on the emperor’s life:

[Ching] K’o went with the Crown Prince to the pool of the Eastern Palace. [Ching] K’o picked up a tile and threw it at a tortoise. [Thereupon] the Crown Prince gave him a ball of gold [to throw at the tortoise].

From this bare story, Jean Lévi gives us this expanded version:

Day by day, Ching K’o exercised a greater influence over the fainthearted prince and, like a cruel and tyrannical wife, developed increasingly extravagant demands…. One day the two of them were in a pavillion by the lake that surrounded the palace, watching the huge gray turtles at play in the greenish mirror of the water. The knight expressed the desire to beat the creatures with gold ingots and put them into a panic, so that he could contemplate the mixture of white foam and red blood while the rich gold glinted beneath the rippling bronze surface…. He wanted to see those great animals, still as primeval rocks, roused from their slumber and plunged into destruction and nothingness.

The prince had chests of ingots brought up from his coffers, and the knight, exultant, as if intoxicated, began hurling the bars of gold with all his might. The turtles’ shells could be heard cracking; streaks of crimson sullied the limpid water. Thin, scaly heads writhed on wrinkled necks. In their vain efforts to escape, those perfect symbols of the universe swam here and there and tried to submerge. But their carapaces, at last, floated upside down: the dome of the sky and the square of the earth unnaturally reversed in death.

Mr. Lévi’s inspiration for another passage comes from the same rather laconic commentator who refers to “a beautiful woman who is skilled at playing the lute. [Ching] K’o said, ‘She has skillful hands.’ [The crown prince] had them cut off and placed them in a jade platter. [Ching] K’o said: ‘The Crown Prince has entertained me most lavishly.”‘

From this Mr. Lévi creates the following: the prince exhibits a “female lutist given him by the prince of Chao. She was pretty with a fair complexion, sloping shoulders and a figure as graceful as a willow tree…. When she played the lute her fingers light as milkweed seemed to have a life of their own.”

One day, after gazing at her for a long time, Ching K’o, the knight errant said “What beautiful hands!”

“If you want her she is yours,” the infatuated prince hastened to assure him.

“No” came the reply. “All I want is her hands.”

Next morning, a young page brought him a pepper-plant box inlaid with jade and fastened with a copper clasp. Ching K’o opened it. On a pale-green silk lining lay two slender white hands with pearly nails and wrists encircled by a thin ring of blood, which brought out their dazzling brightness. Ching K’o smiled and closed the box.

One can only agree that Mr. Lévi has seized the opportunity to create a more vivid account in the same spirit. It is instructive to note a comparable passage in Wakeman (p. 564, note 160), who cites a story that a Manchu general wanted to marry the beautiful Madame Li, widow of a Ming loyalist, and sent a messenger with engagement gifts. Madame Li took from these gifts a gold box and went “into an inner room. Moments later her maid came out, weeping, to say that Madame Li wanted the Manchu’s messenger to ‘specially thank the nobleman for me.’ The messenger opened the gold box and saw inside Madame Li’s nose and ears which she had sliced off herself.” This gruesome gesture was not a whim but an act of moral principle.

Mr. Lévi gives us masterful summaries of the ideas of the legalist administrators of the conquering Ch’in state, but pays little attention to the Confucians who took over under the succeeding and long-lived Han dynasty. His concern is with vivid color and sensory experience, not politics. Here is the first emperor all alone (quite improbably) climbing the sacred mountain, T’ai Shan:

How beautiful and terrible the mountain was! The veins in the rocks showed gleaming black facets, and streams dropped from the cliffs like threads of silver…. Clear rivulets whispered along like smooth-skinned snakes between the black shale cliffs; their granules of quartz flashed blue and purple….

There was a sudden gust of wind, and it grew quite dark…. No birds sang now, and in the silence the rain could be heard drumming on the leaves. The sound swelled into a roar as the rain became a deluge. The clouds dashed against one another in terrible tumult, as if they were furious dragons fighting…. The air was cleft by a streak of mauve lightning; the swiftly rising wind shook the branches; the trees set up a mournful groan.

The Emperor ran as fast as his legs would carry him.

Mr. Lévi says that “the world of Ch’in fascinated me as a mirror of the present day. The legal system…exemplifies the way all bureaucratic states operate.” But this suggested correspondence between China’s first dynasty and modern totalitarianism is not pursued. As the author says, “This is not a history book, or even a historical novel. I sought to create an atmosphere.” In this he has succeeded.

What he contributes to our quixotic endeavor to understand China’s political cohesion is less certain. Mao Tse-tung’s resuscitation of the First Emperor as a hero deserving praise in Communist schools is certainly significant. The man’s despotic legalist image and the arbitrary use of power he symbolizes are still potent no doubt to keep the Chinese masses in awe of authority and passive toward politics. Meanwhile the steadfast loyalty to persons and principles that Wakeman describes is still the chief test of character in China’s kaleidoscopic world, still a kind of cement among the ruling elite and in the villages.

This Issue

January 21, 1988