Friday, June 29, 2012

Yuri Pines's "The Everlasting Empire"

Yuri Pines 尤锐 holds the Michael W. Lipson Chair in Chinese Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is a visiting professor at Nankai University in Tianjin, China. He is the author of Foundations of Confucian Thought and Envisioning Eternal Empire.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my The Everlasting Empire deals with one of the major dramas of Chinese history: dissenting intellectuals who dared to openly criticize the throne, forsaking thereby their careers, wellbeing, and frequently—their very life. These courageous individuals appeared under any dynasty and during any reign; and by their willingness to defy the emperor they reasserted their position of moral superiority over the monarchs. Yet these dissenting literati were also deeply committed to the idea of monarchic rule. Being highly critical of individual emperors, they remained convinced that only under the aegis of an omnipotent enlightened sovereign can the world attain peace, security and harmony; and only under such a sovereign would an intellectual be able to fulfill his aspirations. For them, relentless criticism of the emperor was the supreme manifestation of their loyalty to the monarch. Paradoxically, then, Chinese intellectuals were simultaneously the staunchest defenders of the monarchy and its bitterest critics.

This paradox is just one of many that characterized the functioning of Chinese empire, the single most durable political entity worldwide. In my book I analyze the reasons for this durability and argue that it reflected a peculiar combination of rigid ideological imperatives— such as the idea of political unity of “All-under-Heaven” and the monarchic principle of rule—with their flexible implementation and adaptability to ever changing circumstances. Paradoxes accompanied the functioning of each of the political actors: emperors, courtiers, local elites and the commoners; their interrelations were tensed and full of contradictions; but these tensions and contradictions allowed the empire to repeatedly readjust itself without abandoning its basic political and ideological premises. This in turn allowed the empire’s survival again all the odds: even under the alien rule and after the most devastating popular rebellions.

In the final part of my book I ask how the legacy of the Empire influences current China. The answer is complex: certain aspects of the imperial political culture were abandoned altogether, other remained very much intact and yet other are repeatedly renegotiated. Yet the fundamental combination of rigid ideological paradigms and their flexible implementation, of stability and adjustability, continues to influence current China and may be considered one of its major assets at the beginning of the 21st century.
Learn more about The Everlasting Empire at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue