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Envisioning Eternal Empire

Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era

Yuri Pines

Publication Year: 2008

This ambitious book looks into the reasons for the exceptional durability of the Chinese empire, which lasted for more than two millennia (221 BCE–1911 CE). Yuri Pines identifies the roots of the empire’s longevity in the activities of thinkers of the Warring States period (453–221 BCE), who, in their search for solutions to an ongoing political crisis, developed ideals, values, and perceptions that would become essential for the future imperial polity. In marked distinction to similar empires worldwide, the Chinese empire was envisioned and to a certain extent "preplanned" long before it came into being. As a result, it was not only a military and administrative construct, but also an intellectual one. Pines makes the argument that it was precisely its ideological appeal that allowed the survival and regeneration of the empire after repeated periods of turmoil.

Envisioning Eternal Empire presents a panoptic survey of philosophical and social conflicts in Warring States political culture. By examining the extant corpus of preimperial literature, including transmitted texts and manuscripts uncovered at archaeological sites, Pines locates the common ideas of competing thinkers that underlie their ideological controversies. This bold approach allows him to transcend the once fashionable perspective of competing "schools of thought" and show that beneath the immense pluralism of Warring States thought one may identify common ideological choices that eventually shaped traditional Chinese political culture. The result is a refreshingly novel look at the foundational period in Chinese intellectual history.

Pines’ analysis of the political thought of the period focuses on the thinkers’ perceptions of three main components of the preimperial and imperial polity: the ruler, the elite, and the commoners. Regarding each of them, he identifies both the common ground and unresolved intrinsic tensions of Warring States discourse. Thus, while thinkers staunchly supported the idea of the omnipotent universal monarch, they were also aware of the mediocrity and ineptitude of acting sovereigns. They were committed to a career in government yet feared to compromise their integrity in service of corrupt rulers. They declared their dedication to "the people" yet firmly opposed the lower strata’s input in political processes. Pines asserts that the persistence of these unresolved tensions eventually became one of the most important assets of China’s political culture. The ensuing imperial political system was not excessively rigid, but sufficiently flexible to adapt itself to a variety of domestic and foreign pressures. This remarkable adaptability within the constant ideological framework contributed decisively to the empire’s longevity.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. vii

In the mid-1990s, I worked on my PhD dissertation at the Nankai University, Tianjin, under the guidance of Professor Liu Zehua 劉澤華. Already then I began contemplating how to introduce insights regarding traditional Chinese political culture of Professor Liu and his disciples, Ge Quan...

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pp. 1-9

The year 221 BCE1 marks a momentous beginning in the political history of humankind. After a series of wars, the king of the northwestern state of Qin 秦 brought the Chinese world2—which for him equaled to the civilized world, “All under Heaven”—under his control. Triumphant, the king...

PART I . The Ruler

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Chapter 1. Ritual Figureheads

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pp. 13-24

The lines cited in the epigraph come from the opening paragraphs of Sima Guang’s (司馬光, 1019–1086 CE) masterpiece, The Comprehensive Mirror to Aid the Government (Zizhi tongjian 資治通鋻), arguably the most influential political- historical text of the second imperial millennium.1 In a few sentences, Sima Guang succinctly summarizes what he considers the quintessence

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Chapter 2. Ways of Monarchism

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pp. 25-53

While the end of the Chunqiu period marks the low ebb of the rulers’ fortunes, the next two centuries witnessed unprecedented resurrection of the sovereign’s power in all major states. A series of profound administrative reforms brought about a new entity, which Mark Lewis has aptly named “the ruler-centered state.”1 These reforms included, among others, limitations on hereditary office-holding and its replacement with...

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Chapter 3. The Search for the Ideal Ruler

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pp. 54-81

In Chapter 2 I noted several times the potential contradiction between the flattering image of an ideal ruler in Zhanguo texts and the negative assessments of current rulers by many thinkers. It is time now to investigate more thoroughly the impact of this implicit contradiction on Zhanguo views of rulership. We can outline two main ways in which thinkers...

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Chapter 4. An Omnipotent Rubber Stamp

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pp. 82-111

In the previous chapter, we outlined the rise and fall of hopes for finding a viable pattern of placing an able monarch on the throne. The ultimate fiasco of these attempts to secure an ideal sovereign did not mean, however, that the contradiction between the high expectations of the True Monarch and the low esteem of current lords was thereafter ignored. On the contrary, late...

PART II. Shi: The Intellectual

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Chapter 5. The Rise of the Shi

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pp. 115-135

This epigraph, taken from the “Inscription of the Yueyang Tower” (“Yueyang Lou ji” 岳陽樓記) by Fan Zhongyan (范仲淹, 989–1052 CE), contains arguably the most famous lines by this leading intellectual of the Northern Song dynasty (北宋, 960–1126).1 Fan, one of the pivotal figures of the Northern Song intellectual revival, succinctly summarized certain...

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Chapter 6. To Serve or Not to Serve

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pp. 136-162

We have seen that the increasing self-confidence of Zhanguo shi was intrinsically linked to their rise to the top of the government apparatus. But how much were the shi dependent on this apparatus? As a departure point for our discussion we may take two Mengzi’s statements. On the one hand, he claimed: “[F]or a shi to lose his position is like for the regional lord to lose his state,”...

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Chapter 7. Shi and the Rulers

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pp. 163-184

In Chapters 5 and 6 I focused on two major developments that shaped the shi image and behavior during the Zhanguo period. First was their growing pride and feeling of indispensability as possessors of the Way and the rulers’ guides; second was their ever-stronger attachment to official careers bolstered by their economic dependence on the government and their...

PART III. The People

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Chapter 8. Ruling for the People

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pp. 187-197

When President George W. Bush chose to cite the lines of the epigraph from “The Song of Five Sons” (“Wu zi zhi ge” 五子之歌)—a forged chapter of the so-called “old text” (gu wen 古文) Book of Documents—on the eve of his visit to the People’s Republic of China in November 2005, he made a clever choice.1 The idea that “the people are the root” (or the foundation) of the country (min ben 民本), that the ruler...

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Chapter 9. “Full Bellies, Empty Hearts”

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pp. 198-218

This statement serves as a useful departure point for a discussion of how people-oriented thought was actualized in the Warring States period. In Chapter 8 I demonstrated the ubiquity of the catchphrase “ruling for the people” from the Western Zhou through Chunqiu political discourse; below I shall analyze its impact on Zhanguo thought. What were the actual...

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The Legacy of the Warring States

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pp. 219-222

The twentieth century witnessed an unprecedented upsurge of interest in the intellectual legacy of the Warring States. Academics, politicians, and occasionally even students and workers were repeatedly engulfed in controversies about the nature of ancient political thought and about its relevance (or irrelevance) to the projects of modernization, socialism, democracy, patriotism, human...


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pp. 223-270


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pp. 271-295


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pp. 297-311

E-ISBN-13: 9780824862398
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824832759

Publication Year: 2008

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Political culture -- China -- History.
  • Political science -- China -- Philosophy -- History.
  • China -- Politics and government -- To 221 B.C.
  • China -- History -- Warring States, 403-221 B.C.
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