Lecture 38: China
My plan for this lecture is, first, to see the ways in which Chinese economic and political
developments are rooted in its history; second, to discuss the way in which it developed
economically; third, to discuss possible weaknesses in its development; third, time permitting, to
discuss China’s geopolitical role.
I was saying last time that the modern era began in China, and in fact in all of Asia, in
1842, with the Opium War, which ended in the defeat of China and the cession of Hong Kong
from China to England. China was the largest, the oldest, the most powerful, most advanced and
most sophisticated society in Asia and in its own estimation, in the entire world. This estimate
was not very far off base. At a time when the population of England was 25 million, the
population of China was 300 million; China spanned an area larger than that of the United States
today, and looked back on nearly a thousand years of united government across that huge area.
China referred to itself as the middle kingdom, middle not in the sense of average but in the sense
of the center, with everything else on the periphery.
The written Chinese language was important to the Imperial government because it was
writing that held the Empire together. Even though there was a variety of spoken languages in
that vast area, particularly in the Southeast, the same written language was used among those
spoken languages. It’s as if you were communicating with a French speaker using mathematical
equations. If you sent a note saying “4 + 2 = 6”), the recipient would say “quatre et deux sont
six”, but she would understand exactly what you meant to convey: the written symbols and the
ideas those symbols conveyed would be identical, even though the vocalization of those symbols
would be different and mutually incomprehensible. The relationship between written Chinese
and the languages spoken in the Chinese empire was very similar.
The huge Empire was run by a huge bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy was selected by
written examination in the works of Confucius, who had lived in the fifth century BC. The
Confucian ideal was one of order and hierarchy, with the township under the county, the county
under the province and the province under the Emperor, with officials in charge of each level
appointed by the center based on the examinations. It would be like appointing the mayor of
Oakland by examining candidates in Plato and Caesar’s Commentaries, in the original Greek and
Latin. These works are very fine of course, but they don’t really tell you how to hire more police