China as an Empire of the Mind

Courtesy Tim Furnish, who is teaching for Reinhardt this semester, an interesting article by T. Greer on The Scholar’s Stage:

One of the more interesting unsolved puzzles of world history is why the region of the world now known as “China” has spent most of the last millennium united under one political regime, while all other centers of civilization, be they in Europe, the Near East, or the great Indic river basins, passed their days divided. Some push the unity of “Inner China” (modern China sans Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan) back even further than this, and speak of a single Chinese empire stretching back to the beginnings of antiquity. This is not warranted. While inner China was united under one political regime several times in the first millennium, it was just as often divided between many warring nations and claimants. Were world historians writing their tomes in the 4th century AD, they would conclude that China was a land just as prone to division as Europe. In the millennium that preceded the Sui Dynasty’s conquest of Inner China, the Chinese world had spent more centuries divided than united.

Things did not stay this way. In 581 AD he Sui Dynasty brought all of inner China brought under one regime’s control for the second time. Over the centuries this feat that would be repeated by the Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, andQing in turn. Western history has no parallels to this. There was only ever one Roman Empire. Once it fell, no caliphate has ever matched the glories of the Umayyads.

Explanations for China’s peculiar path are many. Some of these theories are more popular than others. The most popular is that Chinese unity was a product of Chinese geography. I debunked that notion in one of the more popular posts on this website. Read that post here, if you are interested; I will not retread that argument in this post. Here I want to tackle another common explanation for Chinese unity: China persisted through the centuries, this theory goes, because the idea of China as a unified empire persisted through all that time as well.

Read the whole thing to discover why Greer disagrees with this theory.