Reconstruction of Chinese History for a Peaceful Rise

China is rising and its leaders vow this rise will be peaceful. A shared history can be a motivating force, binding citizens together. “Some leaders, though, selectively use historical memories to serve political and strategic objectives,” explains Suisheng Zhao, professor and director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. In this YaleGlobal essay, he describes Chinese leaders’ use of history to promote contemporary policies: reliance on reconstruction of an “all-under-heaven” Chinese empire known as Tianxia, with more benevolent policies than the expansionist West's colonization. “Some Chinese scholars have gone so far as to argue that the root of all troubles in Chinese diplomacy today is China’s lost opportunities for expansion by being pedantic and caring too much about morality and principles,” Zhao notes. He notes that during China’s long history the country’s leaders were neither especially violent nor benevolent. Warfare led to both divisions and expansion. A full history, rather than idealized versions with selective details, should be the guide for crafting policy. – YaleGlobal

Reconstruction of Chinese History for a Peaceful Rise

China’s reliance on selective historical details & Tianxia may not reassure its neighbors
Suisheng Zhao
Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Making history: The Road of Rejuvenation, an exhibition at the National Museum of China, describes the nation’s quest for peace and prosperity after the Opium War of 1840; China’s President Xi Jinping lifts a glass to celebrate multiple deals with more than 60 nations during the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing

DENVER: One of the oft-repeated exhortation in China is “use the past to serve the present.” There is now an avalanche of Chinese history to justify China’s current assertive, some might say expansionist policy. But selective use of history may serve political purpose, not scholarship.

Historical memories are a powerful force that not only bind the Chinese people together and form their national identity but also motivate Chinese leaders to find what they regard as China’s rightful place in the world. Some leaders, though, selectively use historical memories to serve political and strategic objectives.

For more than half a century after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese leaders focused on commemorating the century of humiliation to help build regime legitimacy based on the nationalist credential of driving imperialist powers out of China. Their attitude toward imperial China was ambivalent because the empire, like others in the world, expanded vast territories along its frontiers and left complicated legacies. China’s reemergence in the 21st century led to a new attitude on empires. Chinese leaders are more willing to celebrate the imperial glories to boost national pride and redefine China’s position in the world. What they celebrate is an imperial China reconstructed as the benevolent center of East Asia so as to advance the agenda of China’s rise as a return to the harmonious state and to reassure neighbors who worry about the nation’s rising threat. The leaders insist that a powerful China can be peaceful.

Divergent themes emerge from research into China’s history. 

The Reconstruction: Following President Hu Jintao’s concept of the harmonious world derived from traditional Chinese philosophy, President Xi Jinping has become obsessed with using history to present China’s domestic and external policies. He famously said that “the genes’ order” and “inherited national spirit” determine that “the Chinese nation is a peace-loving nation.” He goes on to suggest that the pursuit of peace and harmony is deeply rooted in the spirt and blood of the Chinese people, although millennia of violent history tell another story.


In the meantime, Chinese scholars have reconstructed a benevolent Chinese empire Tianxia, all-under-heaven, based on the royal ethics, or wangdao. This has emerged as a popular way to convey the “Chinese normative principle of international relations in contrast with the principles of sovereignty and the structure of international anarchy which form the core of the contemporary international system,” suggests Allen Carlson in the Journal of Contemporary China. Zhao Tingyang describes Tianxia as a universal system inherited from the Zhou dynasty about 3,000 years ago. The system, maintained by cultural attraction and ruling by virtue, is embodied in the Chinese ideal of perpetual peace.  

The scholars maintain that royal ethics is a key factor behind creating and maintaining the perpetual peace. Yan Xuetong’s study determined that ancient Chinese thinkers advised rulers to rely on ethics and morality to win the world, and take a defensive posture using benevolent government to rule the world. Yan distinguishes three types of ethics in ancient China: Royal ethics focused on peaceful means to win the hearts and minds of people at home and abroad. Tyranny, based on military force, inevitably created enemies. Hegemonic ethics lay in between – frequently indifferent to moral concerns, it often involved violence against non-allies, but did not cheat people at home or allies abroad. Royal ethics was preferred over hegemony or tyranny.

In comparison with Western countries that used coercive power to build colonies, the Chinese world order was more civil, attracting admiration from tributary states without use of force. Emphasizing benevolent governance, etiquette, peace and denying the imperialistic nature, imperial China and its relations with surrounding regions were far more advanced than the colonialism of western countries. Some Chinese scholars have gone so far as to argue that the root of all troubles in Chinese diplomacy today is China’s lost opportunities for expansion by being pedantic and caring too much about morality and principles. “The surrounding countries should be grateful for China’s benevolent governance, and that the imperial order should be re-established, yet they don’t like moderation and self-restraint as part of the imperial tradition,” maintains Haiyang Yu.

Historical Facts: Recent scholarship in the West, suggests that imperial China, like its counterparts, was not uniquely benevolent or uniquely violent. Odd Arne Westad’s study reveals, “The dramatic Qing penetration of Central Asia is a story of intense conflict and, eventually, of genocide.” After defeating Zungharia in battle, the Qianlong emperor ordered his army to kill Zunghar elite. “Then he incorporated most of eastern Zungharia and the minor Khanates to its south into China, creating one region that Qianlong, triumphantly, referred to as China’s new frontier (Xinjiang).”

Warfare was constant in imperial China, with regions often in disunion or under foreign invasion. Prior to the Qin Dynasty, China was divided into many small warring kingdoms fighting wars to balance power. After the establishment of the first Chinese dynasty by the Qin emperor, the geographical scope and military power of the Chinese empire expanded immensely. China's ruler during the Yuan dynasty, Kublai Khan, expanded the empire by military expedition, stretching across Central Asia, Burma and Vietnam. The last Chinese dynasty, Qing, expanded to unprecedented size, nearly doubling land holdings from the previous Ming dynasty mostly through military force.

From this perspective, Peter Perdue argues that the techniques used by the Ming and Qing dynasties to legitimize their rule over subjects and claim superiority over rivals were not radically different from those of other empires. Citing comparative history studies that point to substantial similarities of the Ming and Qing to the Russian, Mughal and Ottoman imperial formations, or even to early modern France, Perdue suggested that the concept of “colonialism” could be usefully employed to describe certain aspects of Qing practice.


Imperial China had to use military force to defend and expand the empire because its territorial domain, defined loosely by cultural principles, was not always accepted by its neighbors. Following the policy of fusion and expansion, whenever imperial China was powerful, it tried to expand frontiers by claiming suzerainty over smaller neighbors. The expansion, however, often met with resistance. The Chinese empire was not shy about military conquest.

In addition, the Chinese empire deployed various instruments of persuasion and coercion, including the art of statecrafts or using one neighbor against another, awarding the obedient and chastising the defiant. Such practices worked when the empire was unified and strong. When the empire was weak and divided, the neighbors in turn conquered it. Sun Tzu's Art of War was thus written during a time when, as Kevin Rudd said, war was a permanent condition: “The bulk of Sun Tzu's work is how to prevail in a conflict against another state or states by either non-military or military means. Taken in insolation, it can be interpreted as meaning that conflict and war represented the natural and inevitable condition of humankind.”

There is nothing wrong looking to China’s past to help understand China’s future. But Chinese intellectuals and political leaders are engaging in selective remembering, often reconstructed history, to advance the government’s political agenda and justify its concept of justice and view of China’s rightful place in the world.

Historical discourse has, therefore, become extremely politicized in China. Chinese elites, therefore, often draw contradictory policy agendas from the study of history. On the one hand, Chinese leaders present an idealized version of imperial China to support the claims of China’s peaceful rise and, on the other, take the lesson that imperial China’s collapse was because its strength was not enough to defend its existence, Chinese elites have called for China to follow the law of survival, with the weakest eliminated, to become the strongest again.

Reconstruction of China’s imperial past to advance the contemporary agenda of its peaceful rise has, ironically, set a 19th century agenda for 21st century China – intended to restore the regional hierarchy and maximize security by expanding influence and control over its neighborhoods.

Suisheng Zhao is professor and director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and the editor of the Journal of Contemporary China.



Copyright © 2017 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center


...the reality of empire was that of a hard core of wei, or force, surrounded by a soft pulp of de, virtue....Although court records praise the Confucian wisdoms of emperors, they in fact behaved like Legalits, who suggested that the well-ordered society depended on clear rules and punishment for violators rather than benevolence (June Teufel Dreyer, China's Tianxia: Do All Under Heaven Need One Arbiter?, YaleGlobal Online, Oct. 30, 2014).

The Legalist conqueror needed the efficient administrator, and a place of responsibility and honor was, accordingly, created for him in the government. As a result, men of education became supporters rather than opponents of the state (Edwin O. Reischauer, East Asia: Tradition and Transformation, co-authored by J. K. Fairbank and A. M. Craig).

Just since the end of world war two, China's imperialism triggered wars against Tibet, Burma, Xinjiang, India, Vietnam, and currently, military or economically threats all non-aligned countries (for instance Palau and its pro-independent Taiwan policy).