Ancient Chinese thoughts on abdication, hereditary succession relevant today

What would happen in the Western world if a trove of documents from the Etruscans or the Carthaginians, two civilizations carefully and systematically erased from history by their Roman conquerors, were recovered and interpreted?

Prof Sarah Allan

Author Prof Sarah Allan offers edited Chinese versions of the ancient manuscripts, translates and interprets them

What if these records offered completely new testimony on past events and the cultural and philosophical debates of the time? Or better, what if new texts were discovered with direct accounts of Jesus’s ascension to heaven three days after his crucifixion? Billions of followers of Christianity and Islam would have their lives changed forever by believing or denying the documents.

In fact, history and the interpretation of history has a place in the Chinese value system equivalent to that of gods—or god—in the Mediterranean tradition and new material on Chinese antiquity could shake the future into which China is projecting itself in this critical moment.

New records have been indeed found (see http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/CHIN-02-250613.html ), and now for the first time professor Sarah Allan draws on them to offer what amounts to a completely new interpretation of the cultural debate in ancient China.

sarah book

In her recently published Buried Ideas (SUNY Press), Professor Sarah Allan introduces four short texts, which have been recovered in recent archeological findings.

With massive scholarship that draws also on the work of Qinghua University’s Research and Conservation Center for Excavated Texts headed by Li Xueqin and other Chinese specialists, she offers edited Chinese versions of the manuscripts (originally from disordered and damaged bamboo strips written in semi-obscure regional graphs), translates them into English, and interprets them.

The four texts offer a worldview very different from the usual Confucian-Legalist tradition that has dominated Chinese culture for over 2,000 years, since unification by the first Qin emperor, at the turn of the 3rd century BC.

According to the extant tradition, the rule was to be passed to a blood heir, a son, at the death of the sovereign. The new documents conversely maintain that the reign should be passed from the ruler to a sage of his choice before the king’s demise, when the ruler feels he is getting weak.

This issue is also present in the living tradition but in a very partial and isolated way, and it was fleshed out noticeably only by Mozi, a thinker whose influence disappeared after the Han imperial unification in the 2nd century BC.

Allan notices that this theme is not isolated: it goes together with the issue of caring (ai) impartially for all people, not simply for one’s family or the state hierarchy with the king at the top.

This also comes together with a stronger religious streak, where ming stands for natural order, not the worldly Mandate of Heaven to be conquered by the righteous king; music is the sound of the spirits through the many natural noises, wind, leaves in the forests, the chirping of crickets; and centrality (zhong) is a concept resounding of divinity, not just of human ethics.

This again is linked with the vision of Heaven endowed with a will, as described in the tianzhi (Will of Heaven) chapters of Mozi. This idea is not just a religious belief but has practical consequences.

The newfound records recognize that the passage of power from king to son can be messy because after the demise of the parent, different sons will fight among themselves for power, and there is no guarantee that any them will be capable of ruling.

Conversely, abdication to a sage creates a much smoother passage of power and avoids the risk of the violent revolutions and uprisings, which have punctuated Chinese history for millennia.

The four texts in Allan’s book prove that all these ideas were common in the 4th century BC, and there was an open, unresolved philosophical/political debate on succession.

Should it be from father to son, based on an ethical system grounded in human nature and human support? Or should it be from ruler to sage, based on a numinous belief of the divinity of the natural order, of which men are part?

This debate becomes seminal for China, akin to that in Greece and ancient Rome between the power of the aristocracy and the démos, the plebeians.

Even now, aristocratic and democratic parties are vying for power and attention in the West. Chinese tradition might then be seen as a majority in favor of the rule of the hereditary versus the abdicative “party.”

Of course, as the four newly excavated texts prove, positions were also different within these two camps. But what is important is that one idea, the abdication to a sage, which had strong currency at one time, was later almost totally erased from the tradition.

This, in turn, puts in doubt the subsequent cultural tradition of China and calls for its deeper re-examination now when China is becoming a global power and needs to rediscover its past to prepare for its future.

This could then be the tip of the iceberg of a very important cultural moment in China, similar to when Italy and Europe rediscovered the Greek tradition from the Greek originals, and not from their Latin or Arabic translations.

That was the beginning of the Renaissance, and a similar effect might be possible in China, if the Chinese intellectual elites are brave enough to deeply rethink their past in the light of the new findings.

These scripts prove that the Confucian-Legalistic tradition is just one of China’s legacies, and others, so far buried in the past, might also be quite important. This is especially true since China, in President Xi Jinping’s recently published document on literature and arts[1], is called to find inspiration in its past and in foreign examples.

After all, Deng Xiaoping abdicated his power to Jiang Zemin, and most recently Xi gained his position thanks to the abdication of his predecessor, Hu Jintao.

Although it is unlikely this was inspired by the newly found ancient records, unavailable to these leaders, it seems that the recent political choices were taken as those leaders felt some element in the cultural DNA around them.

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