Why did the Chinese empire last for so long?

But once I started to think about it, it’s hard to put it off my mind. Of course, this is an open-ended question.  Recently I’ve been reading The Gain and Loss of Chinese Political Affairs In All The Past Dynasties (中国历代政治得失) by Mu Chien (钱穆). The book has sparkled some thoughts for me that I think worth noting down for future reference on this topic.

The United States started off with democracy. But this does not mean that democracy is the best path to lead them to economic prosperity and wellbeing of people. Rather, the U.S. was constructed based on the democracy ideal.

China, on the other hand, has always been criticized for the autocracy of government and lack of property rights protection. Still the case for now. But we should note that China didn’t start off from some kind of ideal. Its history traced down the Yangtse River and Huang River. The variety (and perhaps high frequency of changes in the ancient times) of China’s territory has determined that an ideal was simply not enough to sustain it.

Culture and education has been greatly manipulated by the emperors to promote their interests. For example, the Confucius philosophy of kindness and cast within family and among society members has been proliferated by various emperors in the Chinese history that the mindset of obedience has been ingrained in Chinese people’s heart.

The Chinese autocracy in the ancient times did give some autonomy to the people. In different dynasties the emperor take different measures to protect people’s core interests and make them satisfied so that they won’t rebel. Low taxes were often used. In early Tang, a rather liberal view towards commercial activities was adopted and foreign trade also surged. At times the mechanism failed, or the emperor weren’t working hard enough to maintain this delicate equilibrium, then rebellion took place and a new leader took over the place.

But it’s peculiar to think about why the autocracy can be in place for several thousand of years, and still affecting contemporary Chinese society. By far I think the following facts might be relevant:

1. In China, the allocation of land and arrangement of taxes greatly affected the composition of Chinese society and the behavior of different classes, e.g. the equal land scheme in Tang and its break-down.

2. There was voting for bureaucracy but no full democracy was given. Examinations were mixed with voting as the mechanism to select officials.

3. The (local) power at the boundary of the empire was as important as its central power. Enough centrifugal power would eventually lead to the failure of the existing dynasty.


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