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China: Harmony & War

by Elizabeth C. Economy
February 11, 2011

Chinese students walk past a statue of Confucius in Wuhan, in central China's Hubei province, on June 7, 2007.

Chinese students walk past a statue of Confucius in Wuhan, in central China's Hubei province, on June 7, 2007. (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters)

So I didn’t come up with this clever title myself. Rather Harmony & War is the title of a terrific new book by Yuan-Kang Wang, an assistant professor at Western Michigan University. The book is one of a rare breed of books on China that is both substantively rich and eminently readable. As an added bonus for the author, it is very timely.

The essence of the book is an exploration of the role of Confucian precepts of pacifism in Chinese history. A bit esoteric? In theory maybe. However, Wang’s book may well prove to be the reality check needed by both Chinese leaders and the rest of the world.

China is the in the midst of creating an historical narrative to buttress its claims of its peaceful rise. The heart of this narrative is China’s deep Confucian roots, which, in theory, have underpinned China’s tradition as a non-aggressive power, disinterested in war of territorial acquisition. Through a fascinating and detailed accounting of Chinese history during the Song and Ming dynasties, Wang demonstrates the fallacy of such a linear narrative. Certainly there were debates about whether Chinese leaders should go to war. However, as Wang amply evidences throughout his book, “Defense or accommodation was usually the result of insufficient military capabilities. Contrary to the proponents of Confucian pacifism, Imperial China was not reluctant to use force, and it did not see force as a last resort.”

As China’s leaders continue to draw on their Confucian past to try to allay the fears of the rest of the world, there will no doubt be a spate of books to counter or amplify Wang’s argument. (In fact, Tsinghua University professor Yan Xuetong is due out with just such a book later this spring.) Wang’s work should reinforce to Beijing—as well to the rest of the world—that Chinese exceptionalism as a pacifist power will have to result from the country’s actions today, not some fanciful recounting of history.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by CharlieSeattle

    …Chinese exceptionalism as a pacifist power.

    1. What do you call the brutal invasion of Tibet?

    2. What do you call the Tiananmen Square Massacre? “…it showed the whole world the true face of authoritarian despotic rulers of Communist Party of China; that they can go to any end to maintain their monopoly over the governance of China. The total number of soldiers used in the massacre was four times the size of soldiers that US used in the Iraq war.”

    3. What do you call the sabre rattling and threats toward Taiwan?

    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100422023619AA0ys1C

    How soon you forget, these “3 T’s” in China stand for three different geographical entities that China is illegally occupying or coveting. The “three T’s” refer to the three most important things that are most sensitive to the Chinese, and that they are most likely to censor from the internet.”

    Tibet invasion, Tiananmen Square Massacre and Taiwan threats.

    Lol, Not Trade, T shirts and Tea.

  • Posted by Nick

    I am so surprised by the naivety of some Chinese scholars and some liberal scholars in the West. To assume that China was somehow a peaceful country because of Confucianims is just false. Look at the Chinese border wars, intrigues and machinations for thousands of years Northern nomadic Mongols and turlic peoples. The Chinese certainly never ever were a peaceful nation. On the contrary, it was an aggressive country to expand Chinese territories and settle ethnic Chinese. They succeeded in the South East Asia. But in the north Mongols and Turks controlled their expansion til the mid 20th century. But now, Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Tibet are Chinese colonies, the Chinese have free hands to colonize these lands!

  • Posted by William J. Leitold

    Taiwan Straits, Korean War, Siberian Border War, Indian Border War, Vietnam Border War, Tibet Invasion, Myanmar Border War, Cultural Revolution; some of these had repeats.
    In the West there are those who welcome the decline of arrogant European-American world outlook and power. If you missed them just attend a “peace rally” and talk with the participants about China’s peaceful Confusion heritage; I’m quite sure you’ll find concurrence, even amongst many who have never heard of this idea. They are the ready market for such a book and its claims.

  • Posted by Photographer

    Thank you for this one!

  • Posted by SomeoneInAsia

    Granting that China wasn’t exactly a pacifist nation in the past, a question I’d like to ask here is whether this was because of or in spite of Confucianism. I’m entirely confident the answer is the latter.

    People in positions of power in China’s past have sadly often distorted the teachings of Confucianism to suit their own special ends. It was hardly Confucius’ fault. Let us distinguish carefully between the essence of Confucianism and the political ambitions of China’s past rulers, please.

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