By Shi Yinhong
To understand China profoundly and anticipate world politics in the coming decades is an increasingly necessary intellectual and practical task, though obviously far from easy. In recent years not a few people, though in different terms and discourses, have argued that a modernizing and modernized China will retain its essential and dynamic “Chineseness” in a new era of contested modernity — and that the rise of China as both a “civilization-state” and a nation-state is ending the dominance of the West over the modern world, ushering in a new era of global diversity in value validity and power distribution. No one can argue convincingly against this general prediction.
However, it goes too far to assert that China’s age-old Middle Kingdom mentality and sense of superiority will reassert themselves. Modern China has been full of dramatic changes because China’s fate and life since the mid-19th century has occurred in the context of a globalizing world. In this sense, Chineseness is not something static, but rather dynamic and evolutionary.
A relatively newly component of Chineseness is the belief of contemporary China in something like particularism for every nation, along with some elements of universalism in a highly globalizing world. That is to say: what is most important and decisive is China’s own practice and experience. What is best for Washington or others is not necessarily best for China, just as what is best for China is not necessarily best for any of the others. The peoples of the world should and are fully entitled to move on their own roads according to their respective practices, experiences, and decisions.
This already deeply embedded idea, first launched by Mao Zedong in his finest hours in the 1930s and 1940s and embraced by Deng Xiaoping as the most important “philosophical” foundation for his reform and other statecraft, is definitely not like traditional (or Confucian) ideology — which treated Chinese cultural superiority or even power domination as an unquestionable and universally applicable value. Both the Chinese Confucian Empire and a China following the West (whether in the sense of a Woodrow Wilson or a Lenin) without self-confidence has passed into history, and probably will never return.
Having said all the above on China, one could remind the American Superpower of the fundamental assessment in The Histories by Herodotus, the founding father of Western historiography and the great narrator of the Persian War some 2,500 years ago. It is the philosophy articulated by the Athenian leader and great strategist Themistocles after Salamis:
It was not we who accomplished this, but the gods and heroes, who did not want to see a single man ruling both Asia and Europe.
In the words of a modern classicist,
If we go back through the earlier books of The Histories, we understand what Themistocles is talking about: there is an economy, a natural order to the world, that makes it necessary to check the Persian ambition…. [A]s Xerxes puts it, ‘to make Persian territory end only at the sky, the domain of Zeus, [so that] the sun will not shine on any land beyond our borders.‘ In Herodotus’ understanding, that is not the way the world works; something that goes too big will in its turn become the focus of tisis, “retribution”, and become small again.”
(Cited in “Explanatory Notes” to Herodotus, The Histories, translated by Robin Waterfield, with an Introduction and Notes by Carolyn Dewald [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998], p. 693).
Shi Yinhong is Professor of International Relations at Renmin University.