Chinese History

post by lsusr · 2021-02-15T06:43:45.708Z · LW · GW · 15 comments


  China: A History by John Keay
  Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age by Stephen Platt
  The Man on Mao's Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China's Foreign Ministry  by Ji Chaozhu

Try to answer these questions without looking!


Q1. What war killed the most people?

Answer: World War Two [100 million]

Q2. What war killed the 2nd most people?

The Taiping Rebellion [45 million]

Q3. What war killed the 3rd most people?

The Three Kingdoms War [38 million]

Q4. What war killed the 4th most people?

Answer: The Mongol conquests [35 million]

Q5. 5th?

World War One [28 million] (including the Spanish flu but not including the Russian Revolution)

Q6. 6th?

The collapse of the Qing Dynasty [25 million]

Q7. 7th?

The An Lushan Rebellion [24.5 million]

Q8.9. 8th and 9th?

The Conquests of Timur [14 million]

tie with

The Dungan Revolt [14 million]

Q10. 10th?

The (most recent) Chinese Civil War [10 million]

Of the 10 most deadly conflicts in human history, 6 of them were Chinese civil wars. China isn't merely an important thread within human history. Chinese history is human history.

Western histories of China often focus on the Opium Wars, the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the rise of Communism and then the transition to capitalism. Chinese history is thousands of years long. Beginning Chinese history at the Opium Wars is like starting a history of the United States with the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

Western histories of China focus on recent Chinese history because the most significant direct interactions between China with the West happened in recent centuries. Western histories of China are often drawn from English-language sources, which produces an incestuous echo chamber. If you want to understand human history, the way to do it is by reading histories of China written from a Chinese perspective.

China: A History by John Keay

This is my favorite book on Chinese history. At 578 pages, it barely scratches the surface of Chinese history. But it's a quick read and it can give you a rough idea outline if you're brand new to the subject.

Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age by Stephen Platt

Imperial Twilight perfectly captures the smells and sounds of stepping off a ship into 19th century Fujian. Imperial Twilight feels like Treasure Island except it's all true. Imperial Twilight is relatively Eurocentric compared to the other two books. But the story is so cool I don't care.

The Man on Mao's Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China's Foreign Ministry by Ji Chaozhu

The Man on Mao's Right is the story of a high communist official navigating the turbulent years following the Communist Revolution. It's basically Wei_Dai's tale from Communist China [LW · GW] told from the perspective of a winner.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Wei_Dai · 2021-02-15T10:39:49.457Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can you try to motivate the study of Chinese history a bit more? (For example, I told my grandparents' stories in part because they seem to offer useful lessons for today's world.) To me, the fact that 6 out of the 10 most deadly wars were Chinese civil wars alone does not seem to constitute strong evidence that systematically studying Chinese history is a highly valuable use of one's time. It could just mean that China had a large population and/or had a long history and/or its form of government was prone to civil wars. The main question I have is whether its history offers any useful lessons or models that someone isn't likely to have already learned from studying other human history.

Replies from: lsusr
comment by lsusr · 2021-02-15T12:04:04.999Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That 6 out of 10 of the most deadly conflicts were Chinese civil wars is strong evidence China had a long history and a gigantic population relative to the rest of the world. (I think it's evidence that China was prone to fewer, larger wars.) To me, history is the study of people. If most people are in a one place then that is where most of the history is too.

I think the crux of our intuitive gap lies in the identification of useful lessons and models. If Chinese history is a useful source of models then I should be able to think of several off of the top of my head. Here is a core dump. I doubt you'll agree with all of these ideas, but I hope it will at least get you a better understanding of how I extract value from this body of knowledge. This isn't a list of everything I gain from Chinese history—just the stuff I get from Chinese history which I don't get from European history, Islamic history, American history, Russian history, prehistory, etc.

  • The three historical figures I can think of who built giant institutions lasting thousands of years are Paul the Apostle, Mohammad and Qin Shihuang. Two of them formed religious organizations each based around a single book. The Effective Altruist community has an interest in creating institutions that last a long time. They should understand how the Qin Shihuang pulled it off.
  • China has unique geography where large interconnected population centers are surrounded by territory historically impassible to civilized armies. You can't find this anywhere else in Eurasia. This dynamic does exist in the New World, but they lacked guns, germs and steel.
  • As a consequence of China's unique geography, you get an interesting dynamic where the empire was challenged not by rival empires but instead by nomadic peoples and internal threats. It is true you find similar challenges by pastoralists in the rest of Eurasia, on the Arabian peninsula and even in colonial America. But in China the distinction between civilized and pastoral was most extremized. You get maximally isolated variables. I think this is one of the most interesting conflicts in history. I draw on ideas from it regularly when I think about grand strategy in the tech sector. Hackers are analogous to the Xiongnu. Tech monopolies are analogous to the empire.
  • China does capitalism well without conflating capitalism with democracy. It's useful to separate the two in your mind. If you're interested in remaking a society then you should have a reference point for how China transitioned from the Great Leap Forward today's effective economy.
  • Nor does China entangle religion with politics to the same extent you find in the Christian and Islamic worlds. This makes it easier to think about conflicts. I feel it produces a better understanding of political theory and strategy [? · GW].
  • Not coincidentally, the concept of wuwei [LW · GW] is largely absent from the Western intellectual canon. There is Libertarianism, federalism and nonintervention, but I don't think they're as well-developed as a philosophy.
  • The same goes for Daoist philosophical ideas. I feel they have a better-developed concept of "the map is not the territory". (This might be present in Indian history too. I don't know enough about India to say one way or the other.)
  • In The Man on Mao's Right, Ji Chaozhu talks about farmers stealing pee from each other. The story helps me understand agriculture and poverty better than I did before I read it.
  • China has the best poetry in the world. This counts as history because most of it was written centuries ago.
  • Western people usually think of the rise of China as an anomaly. China was the global center of economic power for most of history. The "rise of China" is a reassertion to the mean.
  • Lastly, China is on its way to eclipse the United States as the world's greatest superpower. If you want an accurate model of where history is going then you need a model of China. Robust models of a region usually depend on knowing the region's history.
Replies from: Owain_Evans, aa-m-sa, iterativecode
comment by Owain_Evans · 2021-02-16T09:24:57.557Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

China was somewhat unified and had a big chunk of the world's population and was more likely to record population levels -- though I'd guess there are huge error bars around the Three Kingdoms War and An Lushan Rebellion. If you control for political unity and population, were Chinese death rates in armed conflict higher than other regions?

The three historical figures I can think of who built giant institutions lasting thousands of years

Why draw the cutoff at thousands of years? And I'd guess recent institution building is much more relevant to EAs than ancient.

China does capitalism well without conflating capitalism with democracy

There were already the examples of Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. (One could also consider European and South American states that were right-wing dictatorships). 

Nor does China entangle religion with politics to the same extent you find in the Christian and Islamic worlds.

Christian worlds? Secularism has been important in France since the French Revolution. What about India or Japan? What about Hellenistic culture or Rome?

Robust models of a region usually depend on knowing the region's history.

The question is how much "memory" or "persistence" the time series has. Mostly history is screened off by the present and recent past. You wouldn't predict North vs South Korea by looking at Korean history for any time period up to 1930s. 

comment by Aaro Salosensaari (aa-m-sa) · 2021-05-12T23:09:36.009Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I realize this is a 3mo old comment.

>Nor does China entangle religion with politics to the same extent you find in the Christian and Islamic worlds. This makes it easier to think about conflicts. I feel it produces a better understanding of political theory and strategy [? · GW].

Does not entangle? I thought China is the only country of note around that enforces their version of Catholic church with Chinese characteristics (the translation used by Wikipedia is "Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church", apparently excommunicated by the pope in Rome). One can discuss how it compares to Church of England's historical past or more recently, the protestant skepticism about JFK's Catholicism, but it is kind of remarkable on its own right.

(edit. Thinking about the little bit I do know about Chinese history ... Taiping Rebellion?)

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-05-13T08:36:01.469Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Chinese fight Catholicism this way precisely because Catholism is politic in a way that their homegrown religions weren't. 

The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Church is not going to have any influence on the way the CCP governs China. You can't say the say thing for either Christianity or Islam for most of their history. 

The Church of England still has bishops that vote in the house of lords. 

Replies from: aa-m-sa, alexgieg
comment by Aaro Salosensaari (aa-m-sa) · 2021-05-16T21:53:37.350Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

>The Church of England still has bishops that vote in the house of lords. 

That is argument for particular church-state relationship. The original claim spoke of entanglement (in the present tense!). For reference, the archbishop of Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Finland has always been appointed by whomever is the head of state since Gustav I Vasa embraced the Protestantism and the church was until recently an official state apparatus and to some extent still is. The Holy See has had negligible effect here since centuries, and some historians maintain that most of the time the influence tended to flow from the state to the Ev. Lut. church than other way around despite the overall symbiosis between the two.

The aspects of political power in such conflicts were not alien to Catholic cardinal Richeliu of France who financed Gustav II Adolf's war against the Catholic League in Germany while repressing the Huegenots at home.

It is very enlightening to read to the other responses below concerning the history of Confucianism, and I can be convinced China & Confucianism have very different history about the matters we (or I) often pattern-match to religion. And it makes sense that peculiarities of the Taiping rebellion or the CCP's current positions concerning Catholicism are motivated by them being in contact with European concepts of religion only relatively recently on historical timescales. Yet however:

In my understanding, the conflict between CCP and the Catholic church indicates that the party views Catholicism in terms of national identity and temporal power in ways both different and not so different how Catholicism was viewed in Protestant countries of 17th/18th century. The CCP apparently do not want Catholicism or specifically the Church of Rome's interpretation to have significant presence in the local thoughtspace, presumably in favor of something else which plausibly serves an analogous role (otherwise there would be no competition about that thoughtspace).

In this case, I find it likely that the parable about fish and water also applies to birds and air: there are both commonalities despite the differences, while water is no air, and the birds have more reason to differentiate the air from the ground. Maybe the Chinese are like more like to rockets in the vacuum of space, but that would take more explaining.

Writing out the argument how there is no entanglement and why the clarity arises (and why linking to Sun Tzu is supposed to back that argument) could possibly help here.

Consequently, the original remark and some of the subsequent discussion reads me to as "booing" all things that get called "religions" and cheering for the Chinese tradition as better for being not a religion.

comment by alexgieg · 2021-05-13T13:12:10.766Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Chinese fight Catholicism this way precisely because Catholism is politic in a way that their homegrown religions weren't.

Confucianism is extremely political. If I remember right, when an emperor's government began to severely fail, their priests practiced rites to determine whether they had lost the Mandate of Heaven and a new emperor should be chosen, opening the way for religiously-legitimated rebellions to replace the distrusted dynasty.

This influence of religion on politics in part explains the reason the CCP is always so worried about, and ruthless towards, any religion that deviates from its ideology du jour.

comment by iterativecode · 2021-02-19T03:45:13.785Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

China is nowhere near the power of America. A huge majority of their population are still peasants. Its power comes from the abuse and misery of the humans within it. 

China does not have the best poetry in the world, that is just your opinion.

China doesn't entangle religion with politics because all the people of culture were killed or fled to Taiwan. Communism banned it.

Based on the founding and core principles of capitalism, China fails, it succeeds at theft. Almost all their technology is stolen from the rest of the world.

You can get people to look at Chinese history all you want but no one will take you seriously if you sidestep the atrocities, that are even still happening. 

comment by alexgieg · 2021-02-16T15:43:19.827Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd like to suggest adding three more bits of information for every answer:

  1. The year(s) every conflict happened;
  2. What percentage of global population those numbers represented at the time;
  3. The rate of deaths caused by the conflict as deaths per 100k people per year.

This would make the ranking feel more relevant and informative.

comment by alexgieg · 2021-05-13T13:17:54.599Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Chinese religions were never exported mostly because of their lack of use in governance.

That's quite incorrect. In addition to my reply above to ChristianKI [LW(p) · GW(p)], I'll add that Confucianism has been exported all around Asia precisely because of its use in governance, having historically resulted in extensive political changes in the Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese governments of old.

Replies from: josh-smith-brennan
comment by Josh Smith-Brennan (josh-smith-brennan) · 2021-05-13T18:23:23.437Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's been awhile since I've studied Chinese History, but I wouldn't say that Confucianism is a religion. It's much more a set of protocols and etiquette regarding the ways to be successful in an extremely complicated society. For sake of ease and without knowing the author being cited, I offer this (from Wikipedia's entry on Confucianism under the section relating to religion and the mention of the Chinese concept of Tian:) 

The scholar Ronnie Littlejohn warns that Tian was not to be interpreted as personal God comparable to that of the Abrahamic faiths, in the sense of an otherworldly or transcendent creator.[36] Rather it is similar to what Taoists meant by Dao: "the way things are" or "the regularities of the world",[33] which Stephan Feuchtwang equates with the ancient Greek concept of physis, "nature" as the generation and regenerations of things and of the moral order.

Alexgieg, from your reply to ChristianKl:

Confucianism is extremely political.

I would strongly agree, but add that I believe it is much more of a politcal/social institution, and dislike the connotation of saying it's a religious institution. I even wince a little to think of it as being 'spiritual'.

Replies from: lsusr, alexgieg
comment by lsusr · 2021-05-13T19:24:38.203Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes to all. To add an attributable citation for the concept of tian 天, here is a comment [LW(p) · GW(p)] I wrote six months ago.

天 refers to material things which affect you but which you yourself lack the power to significantly influence. The standard and most poetic translation of 天 is "heaven", but 天 also includes the gods, fate, sky, weather, climate and all the other material things far above you. To the median person living today, 天 includes everything from the Federal Reserve to the orbit of Jupiter.

Many readers of Less Wrong come from a Western intellectual tradition where "heaven" is a moral immaterial Christian concept. I'm trying to draw attention to the fact that 天 is an amoral material relationship.

Note the link I use for "the gods". These are contradictory polytheistic gods, not coherent monotheistic gods.

Whether to describe Confucianism as spiritual depends on what you mean by "Confucianism" and "spiritual". Consider this scene from Mulan. It has spiritual elements but I would hesitate to describe it as "spiritual". It is related to Confucianism but the religious parts come from ancestor worship.

Replies from: josh-smith-brennan
comment by Josh Smith-Brennan (josh-smith-brennan) · 2021-05-13T20:49:29.441Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Alot going on here. 

First, I believe I can appreciate the subtlety and nuance, as well as the sublimity of a concept like 'Tian' although I don't speak Chinese. I can also appreciate the difficulty of trying to describe a concept like that, and especially the difficulty of translating from an Eastern language into a Western language. 

I'm trying to draw attention to the fact that 天 is an amoral material relationship.

I do think this is an especially important point as it relates to Confucianism. It's the amoral aspect of this philosophy/tradition/practice which results in a society, social structure and hierarchy based on tradition, ritual, etiquette and proper protocol, instead of on passion, emotion, and individual expression. 

It's this traditional Chinese Culture which is at risk of being lost to the Contemporary Western world, and possibly to a fair amount of the Eastern world as well. This is why it is important to study, as so much of the 'effects' we experience around the world today, have their 'causes' in this incredibly long and important history of China and it's neighbors.

As it pertains to governing, Confucianisms concern with the materiality of the world, and it's correct organization sets it apart from Western Tradition as well. In Judeo-Christian tradition, Man has dominion over nature, and is favored by a Monotheistic God over all other life. It is the paganistic sin filled, base human desires of the animal part of humans which corrupts society.

In Eastern Tradition, I believe it's the case that Man is considered only one part of Nature, and it is humanities skill at noticing and correctly interpreting the patterns of the world (the world of the gods) which define success or failure, and it is actually the man-made society which corrupts human nature.

I haven't seen Mulan, and I'm honestly curious to hear the true thoughts and feelings of Chinese regarding the Disneyfication of that part of Chinese history. That was definitely an attempt at acknowledging a spiritual tradition of a non-Judeo-Christian civilization on Disney's part.

As for the imagery, I do wonder why she was praying at the foot of a dragon statute. I honestly don't know if that's a realistic portrayal of the circumstances or not, but knowing Disney, I'm pretty sure it's not.

I honestly appreciate the Interesting nod to pop culture though; well played.

However, all seriousness aside, I think we can add that to Americanized Chinese Food and Kung-Fu Flicks to round out a majority of the Western Cultures ideas about Eastern Culture. Why should we bother to learn about Chinese Culture and History when the Chinese spend so much of their time learning English and Western History and Culture? s/

comment by alexgieg · 2021-05-13T20:04:34.990Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't say that Confucianism is a religion.

If we go for a very technical take, the term "religion" refers only to Christianity. That's because the term was adopted during the Reformation era, and later expanded during the Enlightenment, to make some sense of what was going on between the different Nation States going for this or that version of Christianity, and then by contrasting all of those takes with the novel alternatives of Deism, Agnosticism, Atheism, of political power grounded on the people vs. on God etc., all the while "back porting" it to the question of the earlier disputes between Christendom's (the original term) original great schism and earlier heresies, and between those as a whole vs. Judaism, Islam, and so-called Paganism. As such, any attempt of extending it to anything beyond primarily Christianity internal disputes, and secondarily Abrahamic disputes, is fraught with complications, since one's operating more on the basis of analogies than on a strictly defined conceptual axis. For more details, check Catholic philosopher Edward Feser's blog post What is religion?

Given that, taking Confucianism to be a religion, or taking it not to be a religion, are both arguably valid, since it comes down to which aspects one's emphasizing and deemphasizing in their analogical approach.

Now, I consider Confucianism a religion because it had and has a priesthood, rites, temples, and presented itself as a continuation and development of ancient Chinese beliefs. Confucius himself, for instance, was a well regarded and accomplished expert in the art of ritual animal sacrifices, and it'd be very odd to try and disengage his religious piety from his intellectual work, when both in fact complement each other. It'd be akin to thinking of the Neoplatonic philosophers, and Neoplatonism, as non-religious despite many of them being pious worshippers of several Greek deities, deities who in turn can be taken to be as abstract as Confucianism's Tian. In fact, the very Physis referred to by the scholar mentioned in the Wikipedia article was a duly worshipped primordial goddess in the Orphic tradition in Greece.

Other polytheistic and/or ancestor-worshipping belief systems have similar traits. In fact, in the set of human belief systems, it's modern Western ones that stand out as somewhat weird -- or rather WEIRD -- in their sharp distinction between secular and religious spheres of influence and action. Most everyone else doesn't do that. Hence, maybe it'd be more accurate to say neither that Confucianism is a religion, nor that Confucianism isn't a religion, but rather that Confucianism, Neoplatonism, Hinduism and others are all holistic paths (that they're "daos"), and that both Western religions and non-religions alike are, all of them, so many daos.

Replies from: josh-smith-brennan, josh-smith-brennan
comment by Josh Smith-Brennan (josh-smith-brennan) · 2021-05-14T00:08:10.789Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not sure of the preferred method of making qualifications to previous posts, so I guess I'll just make another post. 

After doing a little due diligence to the discussion by following up on Wikipedia, I think I understand better the points being made. I was unaware of the more modern developments of Contemporary Confucianism, and my comments relate only to what the Wikipedia entry refers to as Official Confucianism which ended in 1905. 

Confucianism developed from what was later called the Hundred Schools of Thought from the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BCE). 


The abolition of the examination system in 1905 marked the end of official Confucianism. The intellectuals of the New Culture Movement of the early twentieth century blamed Confucianism for China's weaknesses.

After 1905, the cultural revolution changed China. At this point, I would say that Contemporary Confucianism has become a religion. Were it up to me, I believe a rebranding would be in order. 

comment by Josh Smith-Brennan (josh-smith-brennan) · 2021-05-13T21:35:15.061Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hence, maybe it'd be more accurate to say neither that Confucianism is a religion, nor that Confucianism isn't a religion, but rather that Confucianism, Neoplatonism, Hinduism and others are all holistic paths (that they're "daos"), and that both Western religions and non-religions alike are, all of them, so many daos.

I agree and disagree. As it pertains to Confucianism, I agree it is more of a holistic concept than is acknowledged by a term like religion. 

From the Blog you linked to:

So, the definition is telling us that doctrines, rituals, and moral principles are among the key elements of religion.

I would argue that Confucianism is a tradition not of morals, but of ethics; that the primary concern is not with 'feeling' that something is right or wrong, but 'thinking' about whether something is right or wrong, and doing the 'correct' thing regardless of how you feel about it. 

comment by Teerth Aloke · 2021-02-20T09:20:48.422Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Mongol conquests happened in China, Central Asia, Iran, East Europe etc. It was a number of different wars over a long period of time.

comment by Sunny from QAD (Evan Rysdam) · 2021-02-15T08:04:20.266Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I haven't read the post, but I thought I should let you know that several questions have answers that are not spoiler'd.

Replies from: habryka4
comment by habryka (habryka4) · 2021-02-15T08:09:23.440Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am 80% confident it's intentional. But that also means 20% confident that it's an accident. 

comment by Josh Smith-Brennan (josh-smith-brennan) · 2021-05-14T04:51:23.019Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Popularization of modern culture happens everywhere, but there are more than enough people interested in history to preserve those traditions...

I'm thinking more about the loss of traditional wisdom and accurate history in favor of the adoption of modern sensibilities, modes of behavior, and societal priorities. Popularization of modern culture isn't the concern, integrity and maintenance of traditional culture and the underlying wisdom and benefits which allowed Chinese civilization to thrive and last for over 4,000 years is.

There might or might not be enough people in China to preserve and maintain that history and knowledge, but what about the rest of the world? I don't believe the West has a true picture of the East in general, much less China, and this is to our continuing disadvantage in all areas of modern life. This is what needs to change on our part, so that we are more welcoming of the true wisdom of ancient eastern culture, and not so quick to attempt to appreciate a simple and incorrect caricature of it.

At times the desire to revise history and maintain secrecy to ones advantage is also of concern as China's modern culture - much less it's traditional culture - is mostly inaccessible to most Westerners. And the problem of historical revisionism is a modern problem for all countries in the digital age, not to put the spotlight solely on China. Besides in an interconnected world, the value of sharing depends in part on what is being shared or not, and what role does secrecy play in these circumstances?

I think It is the language barrier which is the most significant part of the overall challenge of real integration of Chinese culture into World Culture. And I think in order to understand Modern Chinese culture and society, it is important to understand pre-modern Chinese history. But where does a stereo-typical Westerner learn about pre-modern Chinese History? From Disney movies like Mulan.   

Western culture has been popularized, sanitized, monetized, and prioritized around the world since at least WWII. English is spoken by over 2 billion people worldwide according to Wikipedia, which means English speaking countries have the most accessible history and culture. It also means we are the easiest to exploit around the world.  

The earliest trade between China and Europe resulted in extremely unfair treaties, and the resentment of those occurrences I believe is behind much of the strained trade and politics of the modern world.

In this world economy, I believe the West desperately needs to begin to understand more about China's history, without revision, in order to best accommodate the growing relationship between the East and the West. Having more Westerners who speak Chinese fluently would allow that relationship to be much more mutually beneficial I think.