June 04, 2007 (the date of publication in Russian)


China: regional identity, and psychology of imperial background

RPMonitor presents the second interview by Roman Bagdasarov anf Yulia Larionova with prominent Russian Sinologist, Dr. Vladimir Malyavin (the first part can be found here). Today, he chairs the Institute of Russian Research at the Tamkang University, Taiwan. The subject of this discussion is the imperial experience of the mainland China, as well as its civilizational satellites, including Japan, Vietnam, and Mongolia.


Q: China has been an empire for millenniums. In the XX century, its statehood was reshaped into a range of authoritarian types of rule. What are the peculiar features of China's design of empire?

Vladimir Malyavin: An empire rests upon a limit of communicativeness. For instance, before we arrange our meeting, we are to create the atmosphere in which it is possible. We need communicativeness. The typical formula of Chinese literature is "cordial meeting". The Sovereign is the person who has learnt the technology of ultimate communicativeness. The superiority of a Chinese sovereign is based not upon wealth or military strength but on communication. This suggests an outstanding gift, distinguishing the Sovereign from the rest of people. The Sovereign enjoys direct access to the divine spheres by means of everlasting principles of being, and everyday life is beneath him. People can't apprehend the Sovereign. But the Sovereign does apprehend people. This happens due to indimensional spaciousness of the Sovereign. In Tao Te Ching, this difference is expressed as follows: "common people have to strain their vision and audition, while he (the Sovereign) greets them as his own children”. A common person relies upon certain information which is inevitably random and incomplete. The Sovereign, according to Tao Te Ching, does not need this. What is he guided by? By communicativeness as such, by the primary perceptive intuition, which precedes knowledge and even experience.

Communicativeness, in other words, is the original dynamism of life as such. It is transcendent to any experience. It may be identified as the source of life, the vivifying life, the surpassing life. This generates the transcendent symbolism of the Empire which is expressed in redundancy of being. In the Chinese science of statehood, it is expressed with the notion of "divine shore" – which means the eternal outline of the Chinese Empire, crossing the whole Eastern Asia from Mongolia to Vietnam.

Q: Does that mean that the notion of communicativeness, which the imperial concept is based upon, lies in the sphere of pre-experience, and thus comprises the nature of human character itself?

V.M.: Yes. It is something indivisible from a human. In this essence, the empire is indestructible. All of the greatest nation-building peoples of Asia have passed through the crucible of imperial transformation. Those whom fortunes smiles upon become imperial societies. The Mongols, the Tibetans, the Hindu, the Vietnamese Ц all of then have experienced the era of passionarity, according to L.N. Gumilev's definition. In my view, it is a segment of the historical path, a limit of communicativeness, endowed to a particular people or a conglomerate of peoples.

The great design of Genghis Khan's empire clearly reveals the transcendent quality, typical for Chinese state-building. His imperial initiatives emerged from Taoist principles he acquired from Chinese teachers. Originally a Barbarian warlord, he obtained the science of ultimate communicativeness.



Q: What is the qualitative distinction between Pax Sinica and Pax Romana?

V.M.: An empire, generally, is essentially different from a usual nation state. An empire posturizes a project of world order, a design of harmony (Pax). It represents a formula of strategic partnership, a concord, as harmonization upgrades communicativeness. Therefore, every imperial policy involves an element of ritual.

From the standpoint of individualism, ritual makes no sense. Take the postures, prescribed by the court etiquette. All the Chinese grandees similarly bend before the emperor. For what reason? A European individualist would not interpret this otherwise than humiliation of a personality. Actually, court etiquette is rather a matter of aesthetics than sociology. It is stylization, a typical gesture, expression of the whole individual existence in a gesture. From the Chinese view, it does not restrict a human; moreover, it elevates him to the ancestral comprehension of life. The court nobility, forming a hierarchy, represents all the generations involved in governance. The same design has been typical for Orthodox empires Ц Byzantium and Russia.

Q: Still, China emerged an empire not from the beginning of its history. What type of identity preceded the imperial stage of statehood?

V.M.: Originally, the local type prevailed. Since the empire emerged, it would several times fall apart into the same regional entities, but those could not longer persist in a local identity: after years, they would expand and predetermine re-emergence of the empire. This is an obvious and undoubted fact of Chinese history.

The key element of the pre-imperial type of conscience is a quest for identity, a certain emulation (competition) on a local level. That is a kind of self-reflection. In China, that was especially typical in the period of contest of the Hundred Schools of Thought in the VIII century B.C. Ц practically in the same period of time as the Greek polises. That was the period of city-states, relatively obscure; philosophic schools appealed to a city, not to the nation; philosophers established independent, self-sufficient communities. These communities regularly split and multiplied, without any signs of hierarchic subordination.

The Empire, emerging from this contest, regularized the teachings of philosophers; some were annihilated, other teachings transformed according to imperial needs, primarily those of Lao Tse and Confucius. Though local schools vanished, the regional factor survived on a certain reduced level. With no potential of developing into independent statehood, not speaking of culture, regionalism exists on the level of social infrastructure. Its importance re-emerged Ц as if it never vanished Ц in all the historical occasions of imperial crisis.



Q: Thence, local conscience is based upon feeling of identity, unlike imperial conscience resting on communicativeness?

V.M.: Both are essential, and in an ideal situation complementary. These are the two constants of social practice, generally human practice. All of us are citizens of the Empire and at the same time, everyone originates from a native area. Any citizen of the Russian Empire used to perceive himself both as a native of a certain land and as a patrial of the Third Rome. With Chinese, it is the same. The Chinese civilization is a combination of the mainland and regions, or even in a more defined way: of particular towns, districts, and provinces.

Q: Can you give an example of Chinese self-identification?

V.M.: In a small town, I hire a rickshaw to go to a fruit market. The town of Emei, close to the sacred mount of Emei Shan, in the Sichuan province, is small; the rickshaw is illiterate. He inquires: "Oh, you speak Chinese. Where did you learn the language? Where are you coming from?" From Taiwan, I say. "Oh, Taiwan! That is China". I ask him whether he knows that many Taiwanese believe themselves to be a separate nation. His head slowly turns back. "No, they are wro-o-ong. See, I am a Sichuanese and at the same time Chinese. They are Taiwanese and also Chinese".

Take another talk, with a bus driver in Chengdu. The driver complains: "We Chengduans, Sichuanese, are wonderful people. We are the smartest, and our wives are the prettiest. The only problem is the newcomers from other lands. Without them, life would be quite excellent". Why don't you then separate from the others and establish a Sichuanese Republic of your own, I ask him. By the way, such a republic existed twice in China's history, and they always had a very special dialect. But the driver would not answer: he looks at the window, pretending not even to hear my subversive arguments. That's a typical Oriental reaction.

Q: How did it happen that the population of Taiwan has largely lost its imperial self-identification?

V.M.: Identity can't be lost. Like in Freudian psychoanalysis, it may be only superseded with some other form of communicativeness. In case of Taiwan, it is pure globalism. I was shocked with the words of the housewife in the first flat I hired in Taipei: "But we don't regard Chinese as a great language". This sounded quite unusual from an ethnic Chinese. This lady would eagerly shift from Chinese to English. To a large extent, this view reflects the government's policy Ц though, certainly, refracted in an individualist psyche. Essentially, Taiwan is a trivial, superficial China. That is how Taiwanese position themselves: we are simply democrats, a consumer society, we have no ambitions; thence we wouldn't like to be Chinese.

In China's historical perspective, Taiwanese democracy is a relapse of pre-imperial regionalism, but deprived of its Taoist and Confucian profundity. Taiwan is developing as a nation state, with no reference to its cultural background.

In The Taiwanese Panorama, you come across a discussion on the future of the imperial palace of Gu Gong, where Chang Kai-shek stored items of Chinese art, delivered from the mainland. Now, China regularly demands that these pieces of art be returned to Beijing. That is why this collection is exhibited only in the United States and Germany, as in other countries it may be confiscated. Today, Taiwanese radicals argue: if we are not China, why do we need this Gu Gong? The new director of the Palace Museum, a democrat, starts his work with removal of Chang Kai-shek's statue from the entrance. Meanwhile, officials and journalists discuss how to better commercialize all those bronze bowls and ancient shrines, or even to brand some exotic artifacts Ц like a perfect imitation of cabbage leaves of jade, or pieces of pork carved from stone but looking quite natural. These elements of cultural heritage are multiplied and displayed in cafes and multimedia exhibitions, extracted from the historical context and incorporated into entertainment business. That is today's cultural policy of Taiwan.

At the same time, Taiwan plays the role of an element of globalization of the Chinese everyday tradition. Elements of new synthesis usually emerge on the periphery, penetrating into the tissue of other cultures as a globalized local phenomenon Ц best exemplified in what is known as China towns.



Q: Is the Chinese mentality able Ц on the contrary Ц to transform globalization into a basis for a new, post-Communist empire-building? Historically, Taoism and Buddhism spread from China's territory to vast regions of Asia. What kind of relationship with neighbor cultures has generally been typical for China's periphery?

V.M.: For instance, take Dunghuan with the Caves of Hundred Buddhas. For one and a half millennium, Dunghuan used to serve as the Western gateway to China. I would define Dunghuan as a universal transformer of cultural tensions. Between the IV and XII centuries A.D., Dunghuan combined five religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Islam (which later overtook the area) and local cults. In the period of Tang Empire, that was an outpost of Nestorian Christianity. At the border, the imperial essence is not perceived as so tense and ideologized as in the center. Certainly, it is in a complicated relationship with the Barbarians, but exactly here it is more attractive for the external world.

Dunghuan was symbolized with the Levitating Celestial Lady, a kind of a heavenly muse. Like Hermes, it irradiated communicativeness to everything and everyone. It is noteworthy that Lao Tse wrote his great book not in the capital city but at the Western border post. Though that was a historical occasion: he had to write a book to be permitted to cross the border, I believe than in Dunghuan, where the expanse of the desert opens to a traveler, it was easier for him to perceive the redundancy of the Empire’s ancestral being.

Another type of relationship, generated by the Empire, is mutual reliance. Tibetans, as well as Vietnamese, used to resist to Chinese, both militarily and culturally, for centuries. Vietnamese and Mongols have adopted a lot from Chinese, but still, they view themselves as anti-Chinese. This is a special kind of communicativeness of civilizations, ostensibly resembling confrontation. But it is essentially different. In psychoanalysis, there is a special meaning of "to lean on". According to a Chinese saying, lips and teeth exist apart, but in case you remove the lips, the teeth will feel bad. This is the image of mutual reliance, which is neither friendship nor hostility. Both sides need one another, being mutually dependent. Another parallel for this phenomenon: the relationship of energy and blood in Chinese medicine and the wushu tradition. Blood and energy are different matters but they don't exist without one another. China and Vietnam exist like two introverts, two opposing mirror images.



Q: Characterizing China as an everlasting empire, how do you assess the major neighboring civilizations, such as Japan and Korea?

V.M.: These are nation states which could be assessed along the scale of relationship of two identities Ц local and imperial. Here, regional self-identification loses communicativeness, the profundity of experience which is needed to create internal space between the two identities. Japan is a radical regional culture in which local identity is amalgamated with imperial identity. Cultural profundity is gone. Therefore, Japanese are nationalists, with a tendency to extreme expression of imperial ambition. Still, the profundity of communicativeness is ultimately exhausted, and though Japan is a powerful; state, it is unable to expand in an imperial way. The Japanese mentality is marked with perception of internal collapse. This problem is symbolically solved with hara-kiri: self-extermination from inside. That is where Japanese habits of destruction also originate from.

Being superior in economy, Japan is unable to overcome China in diplomacy Ц not because China is militarily more powerful but because the thinking of Japanese leaders fails to grasp a genuinely imperial concept of foreign policy.

Take the example of the 2005 debate over expansion of the UN Security Council. At that time, Japan contended for permanent membership in UNSC. China firmly objected, arguing that Tokyo never repented of the massacre in Nanjing in 1937 and other atrocities during World War II. China's objections were understandable, though seventy years have already passed since the Nanjing tragedy. But quite unexpectedly, fifty-three African states, on the initiative of Nigeria, backed China's protest. Japanese diplomats were astonished, as their country had not done anything bad for Africa. However, they neither had done anything good, while China had developed a semiofficial but broad and active diplomacy, buttressed with financial and technical assistance for most of those African states.

What Chinese diplomats thus displayed was communicativeness on the lower level, which does not suggest any formulas or ideological constructs but works through a multitude of points of communication. The general principle of communicativeness atop thus corresponds with every particular location, i.e. act of particular communicativeness underneath.

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