Reconstruction of the Chinese Empire for China’s Peaceful Rise (II)
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By Suisheng Zhao

Reconstruction of the Chinese Empire for China’s Peaceful Rise (II)

Mar. 01, 2017  |     |  0 comments

This is the second of a two-part article. Part 1 can be found here.

Imperial China was Not Unique

Recent scholarship in the West, however, has discovered that imperial China, just like its counterparts at the time, was neither uniquely benevolent nor uniquely violent. William A. Callahan criticizes the reconstruction as an “idealized version of a hierarchical Sinocentric world order with the Chinese empire at the core and loyal tributary states and barbarians at the periphery.”

To explore whether the Chinese empire was maintained mostly by cultural superiority or coercive power, Odd Arne Westad’s study of Qing history revealed that “the dramatic Qing penetration of Central Asia is a story of intense conflict and, eventually, of genocide.” His evidence was Qianlong Emperor’s expedition in the 1750s into the Zungharia, a mighty Khanate led by Mongols, covering the territory between western Central Asia and the Mongolian heartland, down to the Tibetan border. After having defeated Zungharia in battle, Qianlong Emperor ordered his army to kill all the members the Zunghar elite whom they could lay their hands on. “Then he incorporated most of eastern Zungharia and the minor Khanates to its south into China, creating one region that Qianlong, triumphantly, referred to as China’s new frontier (Xinjiang).”

Indeed, warfare was a constant in imperial China because it was often in disunion or under foreign invasion. Prior to the Qin Dynasty, China was divided into many small warring kingdoms fighting wars to balance power. After the establishment of the first Chinese dynasty by the Qin emperor, the geographical scope and military power of the Chinese empire began to expand immensely. China’s ruler during the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan, expanded the empire by military expedition, stretching across Central Asia, Burma, and Vietnam. In 1263, Kublai Khan made Korea his vassal and aspired to the conquest of Japan. His fleets twice reached the shores of Japan in 1274 and 1281 but were shipwrecked by typhoons, which were to become legendary in Japan as the kamikaze, or “divine wind.”1 The last Chinese dynasty, Qing, expanded to unprecedented size, nearly doubling in land area from the previous Ming Dynasty mostly through military force.

It is from this perspective that Peter Perdue claims that the China of today is a product of the vast conquests of the Manchu rulers, who defeated the Zunghar Mongols, and brought all of modern Xinjiang and Mongolia under their control, while gaining dominant influence in Tibet.2 Perdue argues that the techniques used by the Ming and Qing Dynasties to legitimize their rule over their subjects and to claim superiority over rivals were not radically different from those of other empires. Citing the comparative history studies that pointed to substantial similarities of the Ming and Qing to the Russian, Mughal, and Ottoman imperial formations, or even to early modern France, Perdue suggested that the concept of “colonialism” could be usefully employed to describe certain aspects of Qing practice.3

The emerging literature on Chinese strategic culture has documented that the Chinese empire was maintained as much by military force as by virtue, even though Confucian teachings of harmonious rule through civilized power stated the contrary. Viewing war as a central feature of interstate relations, imperial China used military force as strategically and constantly as other empires. Alastair Iain Johnston’s study of Ming Dynasty classics reveals two sets of Chinese strategic culture. One is a symbolic or idealized set and the other is an operational set.

In addition to military conquest, the Chinese empire deployed various instruments of persuasion and coercion, including the art of statecraft.

The symbolic set is based on Confucianism — that conflict is avoidable through the promotion of good government and the co-opting of external threats. When force is used, it should be applied defensively, minimally, only under unavoidable conditions, and then only in the name of the righteous restoration of a moral-political order. The symbolic set, for the most part, is disconnected from the operational decision rules governing strategy and appears mostly in a discourse designed, in part, to justify behavior in culturally acceptable terms. The operational set assumes that conflict is a constant feature of human affairs, due largely to the threatening nature of the enemy. In this zero-sum context, the application of violence is highly effective for dealing with the enemy. This operational set, in essence, argues that the best way for dealing with security threats is to eliminate them through the use of force.4 Chinese decision makers have internalized this ideationally based strategic culture that has persisted across vastly different interstate systems, regime types, levels of technology, and types of threat.5

Imperial China had to use military force to defend and expand the empire because its territorial domain, defined loosely by its cultural principles, was not always accepted by its neighbors. Following the policy of fusion and expansion, whenever imperial China was powerful, it always tried to expand its frontiers and territories by claiming suzerainty over its smaller neighbors. The expansion, however, was often met with resistance. Although Vietnam, Korea, and Burma became the vassals of the Middle Kingdom, they refused to be fused into the Chinese empire. Mongols, Tibetans, and other Central Asian peoples accepted Buddhism and Islam rather than Confucianism. But, unlike the Mediterranean or European world where states with relatively equal capabilities were constantly competing for power, imperial China was an empire without durable rivals in East Asia for many centuries. Although the Chinese empire was not shy about military conquest, the Chinese empire was able to sustain both the illusion and sometimes the reality of imperial power status as a result of rarely facing serious and viable rivals.

In addition to military conquest, the Chinese empire deployed various instruments of persuasion and coercion, including the art of statecraft or using one neighbor against another, awarding those who were obedient and chastising those who were defiant. Such practices worked successfully when the empire was unified and strong. When the empire was weak and divided, the neighbors in turn conquered it. Sun Tzu’s Art of War was thus written at a time of complex political and military struggle, survival, and in some cases, triumph, in a period when war was a permanent condition. “The bulk of Sun Tzu’s work is how to prevail in a conflict against another state or states by either non-military or military means. Taken in insolation, it can be interpreted as meaning that conflict and war represented the natural and inevitable condition of humankind.” Kevin Rudd, the former Prime Minister of Australia, pointed out that while President Xi Jinping drew repeatedly on the phrase from the Methods of the Sima that “a warlike state, however big it may be, will eventually perish” to emphasize China’s peaceful intentions, he would also be aware of the following phrase in the same book that “those who forget warfare will certainly be endangered.”6 The two phrases together reflected that Imperial China was both war-averse and war-ready at the same time because warfare was constant.


There is nothing wrong with looking to China’s past to help understand China’s future. As an ancient civilization, history is inscribed in China’s mental terrain. But Chinese intellectuals and political leaders not only selectively remembered but also often reconstructed history to advance the current political agenda of the Chinese government and justify their concept of justice and their view of China’s rightful place in the world. Historical discourse has, therefore, become extremely politicized in China.

While the memory of historical humiliation was propelled forward by Chinese elites to help save China in the twentieth century, Chinese historical discourse in the 21st century has refocused on imperial China and its continuous glory, interrupted only by Western imperialist powers, to advance the claims of China’s peaceful rise. This type of connection between imperial China and China’s peaceful rise is obviously to serve the political objectives of the Chinese government rather than reflect historical facts. It is from this perspective that June Teufel Dreyer writes that “Supporters of the revival of tian xia as a model for today’s world are essentially misrepresenting the past to reconfigure the future, distorting it to advance a political agenda that is at best disingenuous and at worst dangerous.”7

Chinese elites have, therefore, often drawn contradictory policy agendas from the study of history. On one hand, Chinese leaders have presented an idealized version of imperial China to support the claims of China’s peaceful rise. On the other, taking the lesson that the collapse of imperial China was because its strength was not strong enough to defend its existence, Chinese elites have called for China to follow the law of the survival of the strongest and the elimination of the weakest to become the strongest again. The reconstruction of China’s imperial past to advance the contemporary agenda of its peaceful rise has, ironically, set a 19th century agenda for China in the 21st century to restore its regional hierarchy and to maximize China’s security by expanding its influence and control over its neighborhood.


1. Buss, C. A. (1964). Asia in the Modern World: A History of China, Japan, South and Southeast Asia. London: Coller-Macmillan Limited, 34-35.

2. Perdue, P. (2010). China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

3. Perdue, P. (2015). The tenacious tributary system. Journal of Contemporary China, 24(96), 1002-1014.

4. Johnston, A. I. (1995). Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

5. Johnston, A. I. (1996). The Culture of National Security, Cultural Realism and Strategy in Maoist China. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

6. Rudd, K. (2015, February 4). How ancient Chinese thought applies today. The World Post. Retrieved from

7. Dreyer, J. T. (2015). The ‘tianxia trope’: Will China change the international system? Journal of Contemporary China, 24(96), 1015-1031.

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