The Chinese History of the World with Author Michael Schuman
In a June 16, 2020 discussion on his latest book, Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World, author Michael Schuman guides us through China’s development over the course of its 3,000-year history. By drawing on a variety of historical and philosophical perspectives, Schuman identifies unique patterns in the Chinese narrative that distinguish it from Western civilization and continue to shape China’s policies today.
According to Schuman, if you look back at Chinese history, China could have easily become Europe. In the Warring States Period (475-221 BC), China was divided into various independent kingdoms that lacked a lingua franca but had preserved their common cultural roots, meaning they might have evolved into a collection of sovereign nations the way Europe eventually did. However, Confucianist values dictated that unification was the ultimate means of bringing order out of chaos and sustaining a peaceful society. This political philosophy is what mobilized the Chinese people to repeatedly establish dynasties, which centralized and strengthened the role of the state, leading to the bureaucracy it has become today.
Although China is no longer under dynastic rule, Schuman finds striking parallels between the Xi administration and imperial restorations of the past. President Xi Jinping has stated that modern China is a “successor state” to the old dynasties, which is consistent with his tendency to link China to its ancient status as a great power. Indeed, China is currently under what Schuman calls a “one-person government” that is continuously expanding in power, just as it had done immediately following the Warring States Period. Perhaps what undermines Chinese grassroots reform isn’t the work of any individual monarch, but the entrenchment of broader political institutions in the collective conscious.
These cycles of leadership have generated a pendulum effect on certain policies and cultural attitudes, which Schuman cautions us are not always progressive in nature. While Xi’s approach to foreign policy is akin to the Ming dynasty’s isolationist stance (1368-1644 AD), there were periods in China’s history—such as the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD)—when foreign influence was widely accepted. Domestic policies are no exception: with respect to ethnic minority groups, the current administration is failing to adopt the kind of “inclusivity” that the Qing dynasty had as a way to deal with different cultural elements. Schuman contends that China should take a more “Qing-like attitude” towards these populations to learn how to better interact with different people in their society.
Asia Society Northern California would like to thank Michael Schuman for speaking virtually from Hong Kong, and NPR Beijing Correspondent Emily Feng for moderating.