The ruling class of Qing China was confident of its well-trodden road to greatness till the end of the 19th century. The powerful British and French empires saw China as an empire (帝国 diguo) but more like a failed empire. They saw its emperors as no different from those oriental potentates whose empires conjured up images of size, longevity and complexity as well as poverty, stagnation, corruption and decay. The Qing emperor’s tianxia (天下) with its proud civilisation was dying. What kept it standing was that it was too large for any one power to digest and the modern empires agreed it was in their collective interests to prop up its diminished authority.
In contrast, Japanese leaders who were equally proud of their imperial past saw the danger signals. They chose the European way and systematically paved a highway to military and economic success. When Japan defeated the Chinese and the Qing court allowed the nativist Boxers to attack the Western powers, the end was inevitable.
Belatedly, the mandarins followed the samurai and set out to change their worldview. It was too late to save the Qing or the idea of monarchy. New leaders followed who established the republic. That in turn led to another divide: which part of the West would be better for China — capitalist nationalism or revolutionary internationalism.
Most of the elders hesitated out of distaste or fear but the critical young were more open. They had a keen sense of urgency and were prepared for a time of trials and errors. China must be reunified. It had to modernise: if necessary, to embrace “Westernisation” (全盘西化). To save China, it did not much matter which part of the West they learnt from. Their first step was to get onto the road from empire to nation.
The republic was ineffective. The country was not only weak and poor but in the hands of warlords who fought one another with foreign backers. As a result, several imperialisms pushed into China from every direction and, for three decades, the country was virtually borderless.
Japan was the boldest and pressured the republican centre in Nanjing until war became unavoidable. At the height of its power, Japan controlled large swathes of territory in the eastern half of the country. China was saved because the Japanese overreached and lost the Pacific War. This was another chance for its people to rebuild its foundations.
I lived through what followed and this picture of China was one that took shape in my mind after I began to study Chinese history. For the earlier period of bitter divisions as well as the Sino-Japanese war, I had only an indistinct image of the country that was to be my future home.
My first 17 years to 1947 were spent abroad and I saw China mostly from afar and mainly through the eyes of my parents. My father taught me classical Chinese at home and many of the texts he selected for me to learn touched on memorable events in China’s past, but he did not teach them as history.
...my father was apolitical and told me only enough to alert me about what we were returning to.
In that way, while I was growing up in the Malay state of Perak, China became central to my life. My father told me that everything meaningful began with wen (文), the literacy that was the foundation of our culture, but held back from any reference to the daotong (道统) that dictated his own education.
He was content to show me how, with this wen, records were kept, family relationships were defined, and a tianxia ideal was conceived. That tradition of shi (史) then enabled generations of leaders to establish a ruling system that brought order and well-being to their people. My parents did tell me that China was in danger and I was aware that the country was desperately defending itself.
I learnt about the fate of formerly well-off families, the dominance of the economy by foreign businesses, and the poverty of the peasantry and the urban working classes. But my father was apolitical and told me only enough to alert me about what we were returning to.
He was more concerned that I understood what traditional China was like. The mix of classical texts and literary gems included stories about emperors, mandarins and military commanders. I still treasure memories of Xiang Yu (项羽) rebelling against the cruel Qin emperor and Li Ling (李陵) writing to Su Wu (苏武) about how it felt to be cut off from China to live among the Xiongnu in Central Asia.
I memorised as much as I could of the poetry and prose of the ancients. It did not matter that it was not the language we used to speak with one another. These were the texts that conveyed the deep feelings of longing and pride that made China endearing.
My father had grown up in a time of transition. While he believed that it was China’s literature that made its culture superior, another part of him wanted China to be modern.
Unusual in the eyes of the huaqiao (华侨) community he was working for, he loved the English literature that he had studied at university. His training in modern education methods also led him to believe that learning a foreign language could be a window to modernity. Thus when he decided to teach me Chinese himself, he sent me to an English primary school.
I realised later that he probably had reservations about the baihua (白话) texts used in local schools and also about the politicised teachers from China who were active in the Kuomintang or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Whatever the reason, my studying in an English school would later lead me away from a traditional perspective on the world.
As a Chinese overseas waiting to return to the motherland, I could not see a clear road ahead and did not understand why everything was in such a state of flux.
Nevertheless, I did know how my grandfather’s generation had resisted modernity. They pushed back against Western ideas and institutions by reaffirming China’s mingjiao (名教) heritage. When that failed, Confucian scholars like Kang Youwei set out to reinterpret the classics to give it a modern thrust, even attempting to make Confucius the founder of a secular religion.
In desperation, the literati abandoned the mandarin examinations, the knowledge framework that had sustained them for centuries. Instead, they introduced an education system modelled on that of Japan and the United States. While this might not have been total surrender, the will to resist after that was feeble. The schools turned to using a modified classical Chinese popularised by writers like Liang Qichao. But even he called for Chinese history to be rewritten in the light of new knowledge.
That was a long way from the authentic tradition that Qing mandarins had called for in defence of the emperor-tianxia. But the changes were not enough. Among the radical alternatives explored, the most successful was the republic offered by Sun Yat-sen. Thus the only defence remaining was through revolution.
I understood little about revolution, but saw schools and shops with Sun Yat-sen’s photographs accompanied by the warning that the revolution was not yet successful (革命尚未成功). They left the impression that geming (革命) was work in progress and, as a defence against civil war and imperialist invasions, it was not doing well. As a Chinese overseas waiting to return to the motherland, I could not see a clear road ahead and did not understand why everything was in such a state of flux.
The huaqiao greeted with relief the news of China being on the winning side in the Second World War. I returned to China and was admitted to National Central University in Nanjing. The government there claimed victory for Sun Yat-sen’s revolution but the people I met knew that another kind of revolution was challenging that view. I also could see that, compared with the Cold War in Europe, the civil war in China was brutal. While the world economy was slowly recovering, that of China was on the verge of collapse.
I was surprised to find on campus how the traditional and the modern were mixed in an ad-hoc way. My first year was spent on classical Chinese and a course on the history of China (中国通史). The professor of Chinese was a product of what I understood was guoxue (国学), the kind of learning out of favour with scholars trained in modern literature at Western universities.
As for our history professor, he too had not studied abroad. He was openly political: on the one hand, criticising communist rewritings of Chinese history through Marxist lenses and, on the other, mocking those who used foreign skills to reject the founding myths of China and accusing them of trying to force fit Chinese history into a Eurocentric narrative.
We also took a course in ethics in which the professor taught us to view Confucianism through Kantian ideas. He was an overseas Chinese from Peru who had studied in Europe and thought it beneficial for us to approach our heritage through foreign concepts.
And there was a compulsory course on Sun Yat-sen Thought, on “The Three Principles of the People” (三民主义), taught by someone the students thought was sent by the Nationalist Party. This was my introduction to political ideology, nationalist and socialist in almost equal parts, an eye-opener for a huaqiao boy whose English school had avoided any discussion of politics.
University students were a privileged group but I did not feel that they were sure what kind of China they would one day serve. For me, what was taught was interesting but confusing. Like all my friends on campus, I often felt we were marking time waiting for the other shoe to drop.
But I did learn that I could leave China but China did not leave me and that even the great British empire had to retreat as a mere nation-state.
Stepping into history
I did not expect to leave China. After 17 years of waiting, I was sad when my father was forced for health reasons to return to tropical Malaya. As an only child, I could not but join my parents when they pleaded for me to leave Nanjing on the eve of the Nationalist collapse.
Back in Malaya, I had the most troubled year of my life. To continue my studies, I would have to get into the new university in Singapore that was set up to train its graduates to serve a decolonised Malaya. That seemed like the real meaning of my leaving China, requiring me to think as a huaqiao settling down as a citizen of a foreign country. For months, that was like living in a decompression chamber. But I did learn that I could leave China but China did not leave me and that even the great British empire had to retreat as a mere nation-state.
At the new university, I was introduced to nation building. It was an exciting time as I prepared to become part of the new country. But it also made me conscious of my huaqiao origins and the need to learn about being Chinese outside China.
When I trained to be a historian, the story of Kang Youwei and Sun Yat-sen visiting their Nanyang followers attracted me. The sources about their visit were limited and I went to Hong Kong to look for more. Sun had won the support of younger huaqiao who agreed that the Manchu rulers had failed and that the time had come to do away with the monarchy. I also learnt that Kang’s Nanyang backers did want the Manchu Guangxu (光绪) restored as emperor and that the high literati in China remained opposed to the idea of a republic for decades. That strong urge to ensure continuity surprised me.
In Hong Kong, I also met the historian Qian Mu. I admired his writings and found his new book Zhongguo lidai zhengzhi deshi (中国历代政治得失) fascinating. I took for granted that China’s past was based on the study of dynasties because records were kept and official histories written within that framework. This was consolidated after the Qin unification established a centralised bureaucracy to support the emperor of tianxia. That structure was thereafter severely tested by numerous rebellions and several foreign conquests, but it proved adaptable and survived with modifications to control large territories with many diverse peoples.
Reading Qian Mu reminded me how the modern Chinese republics modelled on France, United States and Soviet Union had accepted the new narrative that displaced the mingjiao tradition. His books alerted me to the many variables in dynastic politics and warned me not to accept uncritically any portrayal of Chinese political history as unchanging for 2,000 years.
Being huaqiao in Malaya when the authorities were fighting a communist revolt led by Chinese made us feel that we were highly suspect. All writings about modern China were banned and no one in the history department was interested in studying China.
Off campus, interest in our region had been stimulated by scholars from China like Yao Nan (姚楠), Chang Li-ch’ien (张礼千) and Hsu Yun-ts’iao (许云樵). They had worked with French and Dutch sinologists who discovered that Chinese sources were invaluable for the early history of Southeast Asia. I began to read what they published and, inspired by the work of Hsu Yun-ts’iao, decided to study the first thousand years of China’s trade in the South China Sea.
My vantage point was to see China from the south and, from that perspective, understand how the imperial state was pushed and pulled in several directions for three millennia. At the university, my history professor was open-minded and thought that, with my knowledge of classical Chinese, I could write my Master’s thesis on my own.
At the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, I chose to do research on the Five Dynasties of the 10th century. My early interest in 20th century efforts to reunite China led me to think that the divided 10th century would help me understand modern Chinese history. This assumption came from my reading of books by scholars like Chen Yinke (陈寅恪) and Fu Sinian (傅斯年).
Through them, I realised that sinologists in Europe had extended the scope of Chinese history by using methodologies drawn from their own histories and I should pay attention to their writings. My research, for example, benefited from the work of Wolfram Eberhard who was a historian and an ethnologist of the Turkic peoples; Edwin Pulleyblank the Greek and Latin classicist who showed how Central Asian tribal armies had shaken the foundations of the Tang dynasty; and Denis Twitchett who used modern methods to explain Tang history.
I was surprised when London University awarded me a degree in medieval history even though I had never studied that subject and China did not have a medieval period. If I had not been in the history department but in that of Chinese, my degree would have been in Oriental studies. That made me realise that academic borders were artificial and should not be used to hamper the quest for knowledge.
What mattered was that the five dynasties I studied were most unlike the famous ones like Qin-Han, Tang, Ming and Qing when a unified China was very strong. My research depended on Chinese records in a distinctive shi-history tradition.
Ironically, while my training was in Western historiography, I was not taught the history of any European country. My British teachers had concentrated on what the West did in Asia after 1500 and on how to use local archives when doing research on modern history.
I did pick up scattered bits of British and European history but largely through my interest in literature. A great deal came from the history plays of Shakespeare and even more from Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells and George Orwell. And I learnt as much from Victor Hugo and Emile Zola, from Goethe, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and from playwrights like Moliere, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw.
In addition, through courses in economics and economic history, I discovered other social and political studies of 19th and 20th century Europe and America.
I cannot identify any institution that prepared me to study in that way, or any scholar who trained me to do that. Many teachers and writers inspired me to question whatever I was learning...
Therefore, much of history for me was a by-product of literature and the social sciences. It was not until I got to London that I realised how poorly prepared I was for graduate studies in history as an academic discipline. I tried to make up for this by reading some of the classics, like those of Edward Gibbons and Thomas Macaulay. I was overwhelmed and discouraged.
On the other hand, other writings were more useful to an apprentice historian, for example, those of Alexis de Tocqueville and Jacob Burckhardt, Marc Bloch and A.J.P. Taylor. I recall being especially inspired by Lewis Namier and the new work on the Crusades by Steven Runciman. And working on the power struggles of 10th century China, I found myself reading books on political struggles in the European past and was most impressed by the work of E.H. Carr and Harold Laski.
Thus my work on China fell outside its traditional narrative. It focused on the political history that drew largely on the modern historiography developed in Western Europe. I also learnt from the sinologists of the orientalist tradition.
I cannot identify any institution that prepared me to study in that way, or any scholar who trained me to do that. Many teachers and writers inspired me to question whatever I was learning and, like my contemporaries, I benefited from reading the work of social scientists, in particular the anthropologists and political scientists who were interested in the past.
I am sure the different methods of research influenced what I wrote about the political divisions of 10th century China, although I am unable to pin down specific influences. I mentioned how much I learnt from modern Chinese historians like Chen Yinke. I should also add the work of Quan Hansheng (全汉昇), Gu Jiegang (顾颉刚), and Japanese scholars like Naito Konan and Miyazaki Ichisada who were all open to Western historiography.
I did not question the Confucian-Legalist concept of dynastic legitimacy behind the wars of reunification. In my approach to the Five Dynasties, the Tang emperors were still “Sons of Heaven” during the last quarter of the 9th century, although half their lands were under the control of local army leaders who only nominally acknowledged their sovereign rule.
When the remnants of a rebel band seized the throne and founded the Liang dynasty, several provincial commanders made themselves kings (国王 guowang). Then three sets of Turkic leaders claimed the throne and gave themselves dynastic names. One did so even after surrendering 16 border prefectures to the powerful Khitan and paid tribute to the Liao Emperor.
The Song dynasty that reunified the Tang territories never succeeded in getting the 16 prefectures back. Instead, it battled to survive in the north, moved its capital south of the Yangzi and finally succumbed to the Mongol Kubilai Khan who ended the Chinese tianxia altogether. Chinese historians knew that the Five Dynasties had much to answer for, but did not hesitate to line all five of them with those who came before and after.
I wondered when the spiral towards total division began. The question led me back to the 880s. Further readings led me to believe that the power structure that made the Song reunification possible was established by the year 950. By focusing on a specific set of questions, I felt I could ignore the official end of the Tang in 907 and the Five Dynasties in 960. However, I was not qualified to challenge the continuity framework regarded as the best way to understand China, and did not try to do so.
When I began teaching, the history department followed the periodisation that best explained the modern West and that was not useful for Chinese history. Fortunately, I could devise my own courses. I also worked on Southeast Asia as a region and the role of overseas Chinese in its history. The region was in the grips of the Cold War, so I also paid more attention to the modern and contemporary.
In particular, the events leading to the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) exposed my inadequate understanding of Chinese history and made me even more frustrated at not having access to books and documents about what was happening.
I tried to follow the work of Chinese scholars who had scattered to different cities and countries, notably in Hong Kong, Taiwan and North America. I noted that social scientists were using the methods of Soviet Studies to study Maoist China. This was found to be unsatisfactory, and sinologists were brought in to help.
For a while, something called “area studies” was developed to train new China experts. In a different way, PRC scholars were forced to use “Marxist science” to fit China into a Soviet knowledge edifice. At the same time, Mao Zedong was determined to eliminate the Confucian heritage altogether. It was a time when the idea that China’s shi-history might have value had little support.
I asked why Mao Zedong was asking the Chinese people to destroy their cultural heritage and why young Chinese seem ready to follow him. It was unacceptable that someone teaching Chinese history for years did not know how to explain that phenomenon.
Wen-shi in perspective
This was a sobering moment to examine the way I had been studying China and the Chinese. The trigger was the Cultural Revolution. When I attended international meetings with themes like “China in Crisis”, I asked why Mao Zedong was asking the Chinese people to destroy their cultural heritage and why young Chinese seem ready to follow him. It was unacceptable that someone teaching Chinese history for years did not know how to explain that phenomenon. So I moved to the Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra where there were fine collections of books and documents on modern China.
The university offered me the freedom to study the PRC along with Chinese history. I could also continue my interest in Southeast Asia and its ethnic Chinese. It was a good decision that allowed me to look afresh at China. Working with the narrative I had taken as the norm, I saw Mao’s China struggling to find its future after throwing out its own past and rejecting the liberal West as well as the Soviet alternative. I could not see where it was going but had to conclude that it had become a quagmire of its own making.
I arrived in Australia in 1968. Four years later, diplomatic relations were established and my colleagues and I made our first visit to the PRC. By that time, I had read my fill about post-1949 China, including the Cultural Revolution that was still going on.
I was surprised that Mao’s followers were using the Confucian past to denigrate Zhou Enlai and all those deemed not revolutionary enough. The few historians we met explained that the PRC had rejected China’s ancient heritage and Western imperialist knowledge, but Mao Zedong now accused Soviet leaders of betraying the tenets of Marxist-Leninism and claimed that he alone knew where communism should be going. That was the last phase of Mao’s peasant-proletariat worldview.
After Mao's death, Deng Xiaoping restored power to his old comrades in the CCP. I noted that he permitted the return of guoxue scholars who were older and wiser. He also enabled the Chinese people to see that their heritage was not some sacred given but could still be an instrument that could be adapted to meet the needs of the country.
The promise of openness did not last long. Two events changed the plot. The Tiananmen tragedy of 1989 revealed that China did not welcome what the liberal West was offering and what many of the young seemed prepared to embrace. The CCP reaffirmed its agenda to reunify the party and regain credibility. The other event was the collapse of the Soviet Union.
When the Cold War ended, the United States became the world’s sole superpower and reviewed the role of China in that new order. The triumphant West now emphasised universal values as the proper measure of human progress. China therefore should be subjected to globally valid judgments. Strategic analysts began to predict that China could become a formidable rival in the not too distant future.
To the emperor-tianxia, it was enough that the wen-texts supported central power and shaped the system’s collective memory. They were most useful as the shi (史) records of every dynasty. This shi-history went beyond mere utility. In its totality, it provided continuity for all of China’s past.
All that time, scholars working abroad, including foreign nationals of Chinese origin, were exposing the way the CCP had abandoned key Chinese values and abused the classics for political purposes. Their work challenged the regime’s legitimacy. Two examples show that PRC leaders were sensitive to these attacks. One concerned ideology and the other history.
China’s idea of ideology could be compared to what was transmitted through the Chinese classical canon, the jing (经). There was no agreement on what would replace these classics from the list that ranged from Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles to Marx’s Capital to Mao Quotations. But, as in the Chinese past, it did not much matter whether any text should have absolute priority. To the emperor-tianxia, it was enough that the wen-texts supported central power and shaped the system’s collective memory. They were most useful as the shi (史) records of every dynasty. This shi-history went beyond mere utility. In its totality, it provided continuity for all of China’s past.
Both jing and shi served China in ways that did not fit the modern narrative. They depicted the emperor-tianxia as different from the empires that could be broken up to become nation-states. From outside, I saw how millions of Chinese overseas had acquired their new nationalities. That had shown me how different groups of Chinese sought to connect with their ancestral pasts even while the revolutionary young in the PRC were eschewing their imagined links as ignorant and backward.
When confronted with the empire-to-nation narrative, most Chinese overseas were not convinced. China’s sovereignty had passed from the Qing to the republic. Imperial rivalries left the republic’s legitimacy unchallenged even though it controlled less than half of the country. There were actions on the ground to detach Manchuria, Mongolia and parts of Xinjiang from China and also calls for self-determination for Tibet.
But, at the end of the Second World War, the republic’s claim to the Qing heritage was sustained. When the US and the Soviet Union supported the decolonisation of the national empires, both ROC’s and PRC’s sovereign borders were accepted by the United Nations. The Chinese abroad took that as well founded on the strength of China’s wen and shi heritage.
This may be a filial act of a child of the Cultural Revolution, but he [Xi Jinping] can see that choosing the well-trodden path of wen and shi would gain the regime wide approval.
In that context, Mao’s Cultural Revolution was a source of anguish and incomprehension and Deng Xiaoping’s promise of reforms was well received. His reference to socialist spiritual civilisation, cultural construction and undefined “Chinese characteristics” was puzzling to many but some could point to the return of Confucian revivals with renewed hope. More openly, both Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao turned to classical wen-texts that seemed to be more than mere symbolism.
There was also strong support for a standard Qingshi (清史) to connect the end of the Ming with the beginning of the republic. This was seen as completing the job that the Nationalists had failed to finish. While Xi Jinping is yet to see that work published, he has affirmed the historical place of the three Maoist decades. That way, he linked Deng Xiaoping’s reforms through the years 1949-78 directly to the ROC and the Qing emperor-tianxia. This may be a filial act of a child of the Cultural Revolution, but he can see that choosing the well-trodden path of wen and shi would gain the regime wide approval.
The process of re-connecting to Confucius as sage may be largely symbolic because it is not a vehicle to drive the future. What it does is to provide the PRC with a better defence of its legitimacy. If China’s past was rooted in the ancient emperor-tianxia, it was never an empire of the current narrative. It had its own line of descent down to the 20th century before it gave way to a sovereign republic in a new world order.
China’s quest for modernity, however, has taken the country to a more powerful centralised bureaucratic state. In so doing, it replaced the emperor with the party as the core of a new authority structure. With the party at the apex, the PRC can avoid the democracy of ethnic majorities found in most nations. Instead, it can be a party-nation consisting of multiple ethnicities bound together by the CCP. With a new set of wen-texts and with shi-continuity, the PRC can hope to pave a more secure road to a progressive future.
Related: Wang Gungwu: China, ASEAN and the new Maritime Silk Road | Wang Gungwu: The high road to pluralist sinology | Wang Gungwu: When “home” and “country” are not the same | Overseas culprits triggered Tiananmen incident; China will advance under Xi Jinping Thought: CPC's third historical resolution | Wang Gungwu: Sinology belongs to the world