It approaches impossible to be a humanist without eventually trying to reach an understanding of the politics of China. Enter just about any conversation about secularism and sooner or later someone is going to mention the human rights record of the Chinese government over the last 80 to 100 years. Here’s a book that may be a good place to move toward an understanding of China’s immense history.
Great State: China and The World was published in 2019/2020 by one of Canada’s leading scholarly experts on China. It is a collection of thirteen historical vignettes written to support its author’s thesis that China is, and has very nearly always been, a “Great State”.
Timothy Brook is a professor at the University of British Columbia (Vancouver). A native of Toronto and graduate of the University of Toronto, Brook moved from Toronto to become principal of St. John’s College at UBC in 2004, where he was named to the Republic of China Chair. Brook previously held positions at the University of Alberta, Stanford University, and the University of Oxford, where he was Shaw Professor of Chinese from 2007 to 2009.
At a little over 400-pages, the entire book is well-worth reading; however humanistfreedoms.com found particular interest in ….Chapter 8: The Missionary and His Convert, a chapter providing some interesting insights into how China’s political leadership has approached religious influences in the country. The chapter is set in the early 1600’s and reviews political events stemming from the arrival of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in China. Brook demonstrates that some leading Chinese political forces felt that “...these foreigners were not official envoys from their rulers. There were protocols for receiving tribute envoys, but these men had entered China without having received such clearance. That they were in China to speak of matters of Heaven – which could be construed as infringing on the divine authority of the emperor – only made the illegality of their status that much more offensive.” (pg. 203)
It is not uncommon for Western people to view China as having been cut-off from the world (i.e. Europe) for must of its existence. Brook attempts to dispel this view as a myth. But he also reinforces, in this chapter and others, the deep concern Chinese political leaders have had regarding foreign influence in their country’s affairs. The lesson seems to be that foreign influence that is cut-off is very different from foreign influence that is limited and controlled.
Another valuable chapter to the humanist student is Chapter 10- The Lama and the Prince, dealing with the Dalai Lama and China’s occupation of Tibet – what Brook describes as China’s act to “reimpose its active sovereignty over the territories of the old Great State.”
Despite being reasonably attentive readers, we found it difficult to locate where Brook differentiates a “Great State” from an “Empire”. Clearly in certain parts of Western culture, the words empire and imperialism carry a great deal of baggage. The words bring up notions of militarily-strong foreign control and influence of local populations.
In the book’s introduction, Brook argues that Great State is an “Inner Asian concept. It is not a term that Chinese today will recognize, let alone accept, but it has hugely shaped Chinese Political thinking since the time of Khubalai Khan. Before the 1270s China was a dynastic state in which one family monopolized power at the center because, so the theory went, Heaven had given that family an exclusive mandate to rule.. What changed with the coming of the Mongols was the deeper conviction that this mandate entailed the right to extend the authority of that one family out across the entire world, incorporating all existing politics and rulers into a system in which military power is paramount. This was the Great State, and this is what China became.“
The book is well-worth the time spent.
Citations, References And Other Reading
- Featured Photo Courtesy of https://thetyee.ca/Culture/2020/03/25/China-Pandemics-UBC-Expert/
The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on Humanist Freedoms are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.