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One of the most notable features of imperial China is the exceptional durability of the imperial political system. Having been formed in the aftermath of Qin 秦 unification (221 BCE), this system lasted intact for 2132 years, until the abdication of the child emperor Puyi 溥儀 on February 12, 1912. For sure, the empire was not indestructible —to the contrary, it underwent manifold crises, including longer or shorter periods of political disintegration. Yet, remarkably, the unified empire was repeatedly resurrected at the very least in “China proper” (roughly comparable to the territory under the control of the founding Qin dynasty). Such repeated resurrections of a huge territorial entity spanning more than twenty centuries are not attested to elsewhere in world history.
In this talk Yuri Pines argues that the key to understanding the reasons for the imperial resurrections lies within the realm of ideology and the dominant political culture. The idea that peace and stability in “All-under-Heaven” is attainable only in a unitary state ruled by a single omnipotent monarch was formed in the centuries preceding the Qin unification, at the apex of political fragmentation of the Warring States period (Zhanguo 戰國, 453-221 BCE). Having become the common desideratum of the competing “Hundred Schools of Thought,” the ideal of “Great Unity” remained fundamental to Chinese political culture for millennia to come. By denying legitimacy to any but unifying regimes, this ideal facilitated common quest for reunification during the periods of fragmentation. The notion that “Stability is in Unity” became China’s foremost self-fulfilling prophecy.
Yuri Pines 尤銳 is Michael W. Lipson Professor of Asian Studies, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research focuses on early Chinese political thought, traditional Chinese political culture, early Chinese historiography, history of pre-imperial (pre-221 BCE) China, and comparative studies of imperial formations worldwide. His monographs include Zhou History Unearthed: The Bamboo Manuscript Xinian and Early Chinese Historiography (2020); The Book of Lord Shang: Apologetics of State Power in Early China (2017); The Everlasting Empire: The Political Culture of Ancient China and Its Imperial Legacy (2012); Envisioning Eternal Empire: Chinese Political Thought of the Warring States Era (2009); Foundations of Confucian Thought: Intellectual Life in the Chunqiu Period (2002). He coauthored three-volume All-under-Heaven: Imperial China (in Hebrew), and co-edited four books.