Dr. William Johnson’s Policymakers Seminar Series Lecture, May 6, 2005
Dr. Johnson, former Director of the East Asian Studies Program at George Washington University, presented the thesis that China can be best understood as a civilization, currently coping with the legacy of several distinct traditions, and with the tensions between and within each of these traditions. He argued that these traditions and tensions will interact with the international environment to shape the future of China. Dr. Johnson asserted that China is “a work in process” and that’s it’s fate is not fixed. China’s future is malleable and depends in part on what the decisions the US makes in its increasing interaction with China. Dr. Johnson broke the legacy of Chinese political and social philosophy into two traditions:
Tradition 1 Often characterized as ‘the Chinese tradition’, this lasted from the 10th century to the turn of the 20th century. However, Dr. Johnson warned that ignoring the second, equally influential tradition, will lead to distorted analysis and overly simplistic conclusions.
Tradition 2 The tradition includes the dominant element of revolutionary nationalism as well as elements of statism and even democratization. It emerged following the first Sino-Japanese War of the mid-1890s and continues to this day.
The political and social institutions during tradition 1 were made up of the Chinese gentry. These were a certified group of ruling elite who were put in place via an extensive examination system. Consequently, the tradition was not ‘feudal’ and legitimacy was derived from merit rather than from personal connections. While there was considerable social mobility, wealthy families had the advantage of the option to hire the best Confucist scholars to prepare their sons for the rigorous examination. This examination system tied the bureaucrats directly to both a dominant philosophical legacy and to the state apparatus itself, and this led to a lack of autonomy from the emperor and a strict moral tradition. As a result, although China was by nature a bureaucratic meritocracy, the bureaucracy was completely centralized and absolute power rested with the emperor.
The strict bureaucracy of first tradition China was based on the Confucian principle of “filial piety.” This was essential a system of bureaucracy for organizing day to day life, the central tenet of which was the absolute obedience of the son to the father. This principle of absolute obedience of the “son” (the gentry) to the “father” (the emperor) led to a complete and absolute opposition to dissent. There was an extraordinarily strong alignment between the intelligentsia and the state. Dynasties were overthrown only with they participation of the gentry who then rebuilt a new dynasty using the traditional model. It was not until 1911 that a rebellion was able to break from this mold.
The period from 1830-1949, often referred to as “the century of shame and humiliation”, ushered in a new tradition of nationalism. During this period China was repeatedly defeated by foreign powers and forced to sign a number of damaging “unequal treaties.” Additionally, China was rocked by a series of embarrassing internal conflicts and rebellions against the crumbling imperial government. Modern-day Chinese remember this period well, and have since vowed prevent any future injury to their nation’s pride. As a result of this historical lesson, China has focused its energy on the pursuit of wealth and power.
Dr. Johnson concluded with the argument that several key events and traditions converged in the mid to late-20th century to shape the China we see today. Despite a fledgling democratic movement (which began in the early 20th century by a group of young Chinese scholars who had studied the French and American Revolutions while abroad at Japanese Universities), democracy has never taken hold in China. Dr. Johnson argues that this is not a result of a communist legacy (for all vestiges of Communist theory had eroded by the 1980s), but rather, the result of the coming together of the first Chinese tradition, a fear of a hostile international system, and a violent revolution. All of these tensions persist but there effect on the shaping of China’s future is not yet known.