Imperial history and classical aesthetics

I’ve mostly been resisting reading Chinese imperial history, for two reasons.

The smaller reason first: a lot of it is made up. Conquering dynasties tended to burn the records and rewrite the history of the previous dynasty. So it’s hard to tell how much we’re reading is anti-Yuan and pro-Ming rhetoric, or pro-Shu and anti-Wei rhetoric. Cao Cao was a great poet and general; even when we all know that he was the target of absurd libels, everyone still loves to hate him.

The more important reason: China did not trigger its own industrial revolution. The first imperial dynasty was established 2,000 years ago, and the civilization has something like 5,000 years of recorded history. Did life change much for the average person throughout most of that time?

Not really. Dynasties came and went, but the lives of most people changed little throughout millennia. The overwhelming majority of people earned a meager living by farming their small plot of land throughout the entirety of their short lives, just as their ancestors had done and as their descendants would continue to do. Some people would move to settle new lands; some people would be conscripted to fight enemies; some people would die in bouts of famine, disaster, or warfare. These are typical misfortunes that have afflicted people everywhere in the world.

The richer parts of China developed an impressive commercial culture and a sophisticated economy in arts and crafts. But given the lack of sustained industrialization, these offered only marginal improvements in overall living standards. I read somewhere that the populations of Nanjing, Suzhou, Beijing, and a few other cities had not grown from the Song to the Qing, a 1,000 year interval. Isn’t it astonishing that such a thing is even plausible? It makes clear the fact that the imperial era never really broke out of Malthusian dynamics: cities couldn’t keep growing because they weren’t raising productivity. Urban areas couldn’t generate sufficient surpluses to allow more people to leave farms, so all population growth comes from the opening of new farmland.

The lack of intense industrialization really until the 20th century is the best case I can make for ignoring imperial history. I much prefer reading about Germany, which offers such thrilling growth stories in sectors like chemicals and steel. History is always more interesting if it’s accompanied by the rise of companies, like BASF, Siemens, and Krupp.

After some investigation, my view has shifted somewhat. Mostly I hold on to the idea that learning about the dynasties is not terribly worthwhile, for exactly the reason I outline above. But I’ve been able to define a few narrower questions I find interesting and important to pursue. They’re driven by my thought that the study of imperial history is the study of innovations in social governance and political economy.


There are many obviously interesting questions. For example: How did the country manage to get so big early on? How did state capacity evolve over all this time? How did it mostly hang together throughout millennia? There is plenty of scholarly treatment of these questions, mine are of more narrow personal interest.

As usual for my site, I don’t pretend that what I write here can be anything other than my own idiosyncratic views. I’m happy to proclaim on these and many other questions that I’m fundamentally ignorant, that I lack a grasp of the bigger picture, and that there are severe, critical gaps in my knowledge. With that disclaimer, here are some questions I find interesting.

How did the north keep the seat of power when the center of population moved south?

Until the previous millennium, China had mostly been a plains-based civilization of the north; to see how far north, look at the ancient capitals of Chang’an (Xi’an) and Luoyang, as well as the present-day capital of Beijing. It wasn’t until the Sui and Tang dynasties that the state seriously began to open up the south, by undertaking major drainage projects to transform the Jiangnan and Lingnan from swamp into farmland. Once it did so, people filled these areas up quickly, because these regions have more reliable rainfall than the north. Soon, their cities had become the cultural and fiscal centers of the empire. Hangzhou and Suzhou developed vibrant commercial systems and became richer than the north, which suffered chronic grain shortages.

And yet, aside from a few brief exceptions, China has always been governed from the north. Why this persistent divergence between the political and fiscal centers of the empire, even after a few dynastic cycles? Couldn’t southerners also raise horses? It seems like Germany is not the only country to have been ruled by its Prussia instead of by its Rhineland.

What should we infer from the sophistication of many regional cuisines?

If we accept the work of Kenneth Pomeranz, the Yangzi delta was about as rich as England and Holland by as late as 1800. Whereas the Yangzi delta and Pearl delta generated two of China’s greatest cuisines, can we say that the English and the Dutch did the same for Europe? We can let the other Europeans decide this one.

In my own opinion, there are about five great cuisines of Europe; and that figure approaches a dozen in China. (I hope the relative numbers here sound reasonable; if you disagree, let’s organize a culinary tour to settle this question.) Is there anything to infer from the idea that China has produced so many distinct and excellent regional cuisines?

Consider only noodles, of the kind we find for US$2 or $3 a bowl in small shops all over the country. They’re distinct in terms of taste, mouthfeel, and broth/sauce intensity. The noodles of Chongqing are tangy, in a soup so spicy it alters one’s auditory capacity; they’re different from the noodles of Guangzhou, chewy in spite of their extraordinary thinness, served in the lightest broth of them all; which are different from the noodles of Lanzhou, hand pulled, served with slices of beef and radish in savory soup; which are different from the noodles of Wuhan, which are coated with a slightly sweet sesame sauce; which are different from the noodles of Kunming, which are made of rice; and they’re perhaps most perfect in Xi’an, where they’re thick and can come in wide strips, slathered in different meat sauces.

How well do we feel that we understand imperial governance?

The Manchus bureaucratized themselves in the shape of the Ming before they successfully overran the empire. Chinggis Khan did the same with Mongolian tribes before he took on the Song. Each felt there was something to learn from imperial governance.

I’d like to read some comprehensive evaluations of the tactics of governance. I can find plenty of novel developments, like traveling circuits of censors, strategic grants of the salt monopoly, reliance on rites as a source of legitimacy, this list can go on and on. But I don’t really have a grasp of which governance methods were important and why. Which conditions prompted their emergence? How do we evaluate how effective they were? We hear a lot about the imperial examinations and rule by eunuchs; do we feel we understand these systems pretty well at each point in time?

How effective was the Great Wall?

We know that the wall was breached. And it was not fully contiguous, so invaders could simply ride around the fragments. But is it possible that it worked fairly well for most of its history? Even if it wasn’t effective 100% of the time, perhaps it was salient enough of a deterrent to push all but the most determined invaders out of the core of the country, and into Central Asia.

What did the various regions specialize in at different times?

The north, the east, the southeast, the central region, and the southwest all feel like places with distinct cultures. I know that there’s some literature on these macroregions. I’m interested in learning more about their relative status over time. What did each region specialize in to generate wealth? What was their relationship with the central government in different periods? How does economic geography shape their respective cultures? Was there any reason that Hunan cuisine must be spicy while Jiangnan cuisine should not be?

How did Korea remain independent?

It’s easy to look at a map of the Iberian peninsula and wonder how Portugal remained separate from Spain. If you’ve ever wondered that, it’s even more striking that Korea managed to remain separate from China. That’s especially the case since China’s capital has almost always been in the north; the state has managed to conquer peoples far to the west, southwest, and southeast without absorbing Korea. One Sui emperor invaded Korea four times, in what became a personal obsession that led to the downfall of his dynasty, so it’s pretty impressive that the peninsula has managed to hold out.

What can we infer from excellence in arts and crafts?

What should we infer from good craftsmanship, in porcelain, silks, and other fine goods? Anything other than “They were good at making porcelain, silks, etc.?”

How did the Ming hold on to power for so long?

Severe climate volatility disrupted European politics, prompted improbable invasions, and triggered accusations of witchcraft all over the continent. And yet the Ming managed to endure extensive weather volatility, which brought multiple famines and floods, before it was finally overrun by the Manchus. How did it manage to persist for so long?

Come to think of it, this isn’t the right question, because we should be asking it of every dynasty. How did the Tang, Song, Southern Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing each endure as long as they did? Each of them faced vast challenges. Consider the Qing. It managed to hold on to power for half a century after an apocalyptic band of religious fanatics occupied the fiscal center of the country, coinciding simultaneously with a foreign invasion led by gunboats.

Even the mighty Tang had trouble facing down huge threats, from Turkic peoples, Tibetans, Khitans, the Nanzhao Kingdom, to say nothing of a catastrophic internal rebellion. Song persisted under even more severe conditions. Each of these dynasties lasted a surprisingly long time given the scale of the challenges they had to face.


Some of these questions should be easy to Google and answer. Right now I’m resisting doing the easy thing, because I want to come across them more naturally through books and papers. I think it’s useful to record the questions one has as an amateur, and not be too bothered about getting them right away.

I think that the educated person should know the broad strokes of Chinese history. And that it’s fine to stop after acquiring some of the basic knowledge, because it’s not terribly profitable unless one wishes to become a specialist. The value I personally get from reading imperial history is that the knowledge enriches my visits to different cities. If I were not regularly traveling to China, I’d be focusing most of my energies on reading pre-1930s German history.

My overall thought is that there’s not high value in reading Chinese history unless one is eager to learn about governance and political economy. If so, the history there is very rich indeed. Have you ever wondered what would happen if the state imposed military service in perpetuity, so that every generation of descendants has to serve? Well, let’s look at how well that worked out in the Ming. Imperial history is a rich mine for information on how a state imposes order, how it spreads ideology, and how it renews itself after a crisis. But if these don’t sound like interesting questions, then go read about other places instead.

I’m most interested in the works of three contemporary scholars on these questions: Mark Koyama, Debin Ma, and Kenneth Pomeranz. I haven’t yet read much of Fukuyama’s work, it’s on my list to study.


Now is a good time to discuss one of my favorite recent essays: The Chinese Attitude Towards the Past, by Simon Leys, which can be read in its entirety here. (Actually my entire essay was originally triggered by this piece, and what I am trying to do here is merely to provide a comment to it.)

It’s difficult to find evidence of historical monuments in Chinese cities today. Most large Chinese cities look similar in the same ugly way, with big apartment blocks, wide avenues, concrete everywhere. How is it that the splendid cities of the past have all been reduced to such dreadful streets and buildings? Contrast that mess with the well-preserved cities of Europe, which have kept the churches, monuments, and sometimes even whole streets in as marvelous conditions as when they were first built.

Disregard of the material past is a tragedy for the modern traveler. What did the Tang capitals of Chang’an and Luoyang look like? We have to use our imaginations and be guided by the texts, for these cities offer very little guidance when we examine them today. But Leys argues that this failure to maintain historical monuments is in fact a sign of vitality: “The past which continues to animate Chinese life in so many striking, unexpected, or subtle ways, seems to inhabit the people rather than the bricks and stones. The Chinese past is both spiritually active and physically invisible.”

My heart trembles with nervousness whenever an essayist invokes geist. But perhaps Leys is on to something here, and instead of trying to grasp Chinese history by seeing, we ought instead do so by listening.

How good are monuments as guides to the past, really? Perhaps very little at all, and the continuation of intangible traditions is more valuable instead. Most Chinese know the same sets of stories and parables everyone is told growing up; the actions we see in paintings and read in books follow a logic that still makes sense; I’m personally struck that I’m familiar with the characters in centuries-old scrolls, unchanged throughout millennia.

Instead of building magnificent pyramids and cathedrals out of stone, Chinese have accepted that time wears down all structures. Eternity can inhabit not the building but the spirit. Thus, in addition to mostly neglecting to maintain structures, Chinese have been extraordinarily active in burning, vandalizing, and utterly destroying the material heritage of their past.

I like Leys’ thought that the physical existence of any object is beside the point once we’ve elevated it into an idea expressed through a poem or a painting. He cites a Ming essay pondering the necessity of gardens: Many famous gardens of the past exist no more but in literary form; given how perishable gardens are, why not skip the fragile stage of actual existence, and go straight to the permanence of literary existence? Millennia later, words are all that we can hope to pass on.

It’s tempting to associate Europe’s intense efforts to preserve old buildings with its current economic malaise. That feels facile, and the connection is from me, not Leys. Having spent some time living both in Europe and Asia, I have to say that the nice cities of Europe feel much too nice. Perhaps on the margin, Europe can use a bit of Chinese disregard of its material heritage, so that it has to think about how it will build the future. There’s no end of old stuff to preserve if one wants to, and eventually we wouldn’t be able to have room for anything else at all, so why not focus our efforts on phasing out the old to bring on the new?

One final note on this topic: I’ve already conceded the point that most parts of large Chinese cities look alike. But there’s one aspect of intangible culture that is different in each region: food. The ingredients and the methods of cooking are different and combine in mostly wonderful ways; see my notes above on noodles.


I find the most brilliant of Leys’ essays to be the one on calligraphy: “Poetry and Painting: Aspects of Chinese Classical Aesthetics.” Unfortunately I cannot find a copy online, you’ll have to purchase his set of collected essays: The Hall of Uselessness. It’s an excellent guide to taste in Chinese aesthetics.

I find paintings to be the easiest entry point into Chinese high culture. Previously I’ve found paintings boring, now I seek them out. There’s a great deal of feeling in the restrained use of the brush; some of the most compelling scenes are ones with large patches of blank space, with brushstrokes not even especially fine. I’ve come to see that it is precisely the restraint that shows evidence of great feeling… how delicate each brushstroke feels when we compare them to European paintings, which tend to have such heavy oils ladened on the canvas. I find Chinese paintings to go along well with the type of melancholy framed by Laszlo Foldenyi.

No longer do I find it a mystery that the chief art critic of the Times once wrote: “There is no art in the world more passionate than Chinese painting. Beneath its fine-boned brush strokes, ethereal ink washes and subtle mineral tints flow feelings and ideas as turbulent as those in any Courbet nude or Baroque Crucifixion.”

If painting is not your thing, I suggest looking at porcelain. The best works from the Ming and the Qing are very fine, and one needs only to gaze closely to appreciate their details and sheen. I find the blue and white Ming ceramics to be pretty boring. Instead, I like to look for bolder colors, as well as the pure white porcelain from Dehua, which look almost like they’re made of white jade. My two favorite ceramics exhibits are at the Asian Civilizations Museum and the Shanghai Museum, I believe both are permanent exhibitions.

The deepest art is calligraphy, and that remains mostly beyond me. I can sense only the faintest glimmers of intense feeling behind the strokes, and I haven’t practiced it enough to sense that more strongly.


Zhu Da, 1626-1705, drew nice fish and birds.

The best set of books on imperial history is the one edited by Timothy Brooks, via HUP. My favorite is the one on the Yuan and Ming, written by Brooks himself. Not only is it good history, it’s marvelously written, and organized in a very clever way.

I want to conclude by switching gears. Instead of telling me what I should know about imperial history, I wish to solicit suggestions for something different: Japanese industrial policy in the latter half of the 20th century. Japan was a trailblazer. It had some astonishing successes, but also a lot of failures. Let’s say I’m familiar with Chalmers Johnson’s book on MITI. What are the books and papers I should be reading instead?

(Thanks to RM, WFY, PYZ, SC, and CS for some discussions on the history.)

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8 thoughts on “Imperial history and classical aesthetics

  1. Is industrial policy really the key point of interest, or are things like corporate adoption of Deming’s Statistical Quality Control and Lean manufacturing more important? At least it is a thread that has found its way back to the US.

    Things I’ve enjoyed:
    Deming “Out of the Crisis” (1986)
    One of the Shigeo Shingo or Taiichi Ohno books, such as
    Shingo, Dillon “Study of the Toyota Production System: From an Industrial Engineering Viewpoint” (1981)
    Ohno, Bodek “Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production” (1988)
    Womack, Jones, Roos “The Machine that Changed the World” (1990)

  2. Re: Great Wall – with troops expensively garrisoned where it ended it worked as designed, but governments would cut back, were then invaded (as detailed in The Empire of the Steppes by René Grousset)

    Re: Northern Rule – the wonderful exception is the Southern Song period with its foreign trade (as detailed in Daily Life in China on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250-1276 by Jacques Gernet)

  3. Responding only to your question “How effective was the Great Wall?”

    The seminal book on the topic (The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth, Waldron) argued that “The Great Wall” was a Western invention that was only imported into mainstream Chinese consciousness in the 20th century in order to serve as an icon of a national and organic Chinese state.

    So how effective was the Great Wall against invading nomads? 0%, because there was no such thing as a “Great Wall” until people superimposed that idea on Chinese history ex post. However, there is a rich tradition of Chinese fortification building, of which long walls are a part.

    For Ming officials, the policy of withdrawing from trade and patronage relations and building fortifications (of which walls were only a part) was one possible stance towards the “barbarians” among many–and was often the least effective. Why did the Ming sometimes prioritize this less effective option? Because difficult domestic political considerations often overrode the best choice of foreign policy.

  4. “I think that the educated person should know the broad strokes of Chinese history. ”

    What book would you recommend that’d help one get there?

  5. Speaking as an (Western raised) Chinese, I agree with you on the roughly 12 great cuisines in China but I think you are significantly undercounting Europe. By my count, I’d allocate roughly 2 to France (the butter eating Brittany-Normandy-Belgian north and the olive oil, wine & seafood Rhone-Marseille-Toulouse south), 2 to Spain/Portugal (Catalan-Valencian north and the Andalusian-Portuguese south), 3 to Italy (south, central & north), 1 to the British Isles, 1 Swiss/Bavarian, 1 Northern Germany/Scandinavia, 1 to Eastern Europe, 1 to Austro-Hungary and 1 to Greece.

    By my count, that’s also about a dozen if you’re willing to accept the gross inaccuracies and generalizations for any categorization of this nature (don’t @ me).

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