Excerpt from The Chinese by Jasper Becker, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Chinese

by Jasper Becker

The Chinese by Jasper Becker X
The Chinese by Jasper Becker
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2000, 304 pages

    Feb 2002, 493 pages


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In contemporary China, just as in the Han dynasty, out of every hundred people, ten might live in an urban area, usually a county town. The number of large cities, as then, is limited by the problem of obtaining and transporting regular supplies of surplus food. In 1999, out of a population of 1,300 million, some 300 million were classified as having urban residency permits but only about 60 million lived in big cities.

As in the Han dynasty too, only a small part of the population has access to higher education and goes on to form the core of the bureaucracy. In the Han dynasty, the imperial academy in the capital at Xi'an trained about 30,000 students a year, although of course many more people were literate. About half a million men held degrees in imperial times out of a population of between 50 and 100 million. These days perhaps 2 per cent of the population has a university degree although literacy rates are supposed to be very high.

The ratio of bureaucrats to the population has not changed much either. Although around 36 million people are employed directly in the government administration and some 58 million are CCP members, only a few of these are not clerks, teachers or pen-pushers of some kind. The real size of the ruling élite, from county magistrates upwards, is thought to be no more than 4 million. Officials are now termed ganbu, or in English, cadres, from the Communist term taken from the French cadre or official. As in imperial times, bureaucrats are ranked in over twenty grades.

The First Emperor's imperial system, with its civil service and ideological examinations, was only formally dissolved in 1911 when the Manchu empire collapsed. Before then the power, wealth and durability of the imperial state over so many centuries inspired neighbouring peoples in Japan, Korea, Vietnam and other parts of south-east Asia to copy it. These countries functioned as tightly run bureaucratic states for many centuries before they came into close contact with the Western world, and it is perhaps this characteristic, this willingness of the population to submit itself to the orders of an authoritarian bureaucracy, that has enabled them to adapt and modernize in recent years and to emerge as industrial powers while the rest of the developing world has lagged behind. Most countries in Africa, the Middle East and South America lack such a legacy.

The legitimacy of the Chinese state has survived invasions, civil wars, natural catastrophes and many periods in which China was not united or when its rulers were weak or favoured some creed such as Buddhism, Daoism or, more recently, Marxism-Leninism. Indeed, some argue that the Communist state, despite its claims to be modern and scientific, was embraced precisely because it corresponded to ancient notions of how a successful state should be run. Even the catastrophic mistakes of Chairman Mao have not been enough to destroy its foundations and result in either the break-up of the state or the adoption of another form of government.

If the Chinese are far more tolerant of the exigencies of the state and its servants than Westerners, they are also far more comfortable with the idea of living within an empire. Although the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing, is now generally held in low esteem, the expansionist policies of its Manchu rulers are still much applauded. The current territorial demands of the Chinese government are based on what the Qing armies, who conquered China in 1644, achieved, when China reached its greatest territorial limits and when the Chinese state was at its apogee.

This history of expansion can be traced back to the Han dynasty's attempt to expand the territory of the First Emperor's state southwards. The southern coastal states of what are still called Zhejiang and Fujian were occupied by the Emperor Wudi (141-87 BC) who moved their populations inland. Then in 111 BC, he defeated and absorbed the independent kingdom of Nanyue, what is now the provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi and part of northern Vietnam. His successors continued to shift the state's centre of gravity southwards until by about AD 600, the Yangtze rather than the Yellow River is thought to have constituted the economic and political heartland of the state. When nomads such as the Jurchens or Mongols invaded and established states in the north, part of the population, and particularly the élite, fled southwards, accentuating this trend.

Copyright © 2001 by Jasper Becker.

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