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Book Review: War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe by Victoria Hui (1)

Reviewed by You-Sheng Li 5/11/2009


In 2005, Victoria Hui published her book, War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe, which is regarded as a rare endeavor in the field of sinology and world politics. It represents an important contribution to social science and is valuable reading for those who are interested European and Chinese history. She compares ancient China from 656 to 221 BC with modern Europe from 1495 to 1815. She concentrates her analysis on the dynamics of interstate systems and state formation, aiming to answer the question: Why did China end with a united empire but not Europe? Both China and Europe had numerous independent states interacting in an interdependent system of security relations, which means that one state’s security depended on other states. Barry Buzan and Richard Little argue that “a set of states that cannot pose each other military threat fail to constitute an international system.” (International Systems in World History: Remarking the Study of International Relations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) Therefore, Hui chooses 656 BC when State Qi came to invade State Chu, and 1495 when the French invaded Italy as the starting points, since both ended with an international treaty, the Treaty of Venice and the Treaty League headed by State Qi.


Traditionally the professional circus of social sciences holds a common view that the system of sovereign territorial states and the roots of liberal democracy are unique to European civilization and alien to non-Western cultures. War and competition among states eventually gave birth to democracy. Hui’s work shows that the political situation of ancient China was almost identical to that of modern Europe. In fact, pressed by security issues, ancient Chinese state governments also adapted more democratic and people-friendly policies. They also made efforts to balance power against domination. But China and Europe still ended with opposite results.


In the same year, 2005, in the book A New Interpretation of Chinese Taoist Philosophy, I compared the Axial China with modern Europe and found amazing similarities between the two. I focused on the history of culture and social/political thought but Hui focused on the mechanism of state formation and world politics. My starting points were when the authority of the Pope or the Chou dynasty was formally challenged, and my ending point was the same, 221 BC for China but 1945 for Europe.


There are three essential elements in the process of state formation: 1) monopolization of the means of coercion, namely the state only has the right to commit violence, 2) nationalization of taxation, and 3) bureaucratization of administration. Both ancient China and modern Europe went through dramatic yet successful social transformations which finally delivered the three elements to form the first state.


To Hui, states were motivated to dominate and thus achieved balance against neighboring states in both China and Europe. Domination means swallowing up other states and balance was achieved when neither state could swallow the other. During this warring period, every state had to seek self-strengthening strategies, which eventually led to the emergence of the modern state with the above three elements.


According to Hui, the difference between ancient China and modern Europe was that ancient China was always able to strengthen itself by national conscription, national taxation/productive promotion, and replacement of aristocracy by meritocracy while Europe tended to rely on self-weakening strategies such as loans and credits to build mercenary troops, the sale of public offices to private capital holders and so on.


After Europeans sailed to Asia, Jesuits took great pains to learn about Chinese civilization. A book by Matteo Ricci, a pioneer of the Jesuit mission to China, appeared in five European languages by 1648. Chinese influence was particularly strong in Prussia, which became the first state to establish a centralized hierarchy of salaried officials and a national conscription in the late 1600s and early 1700s. The complete adaptation of Chinese self-strengthening strategy was achieved during the French Revolution, especially during the Napoleonic era. A hierarchy of meritocratic and salaried officials under the central control was established, and universal conscription was introduced. The French army quickly swelled from about 200,000 before the Revolution to 650,000 in 1973 but there were 2.4 millions in the period 1804-1813. For the first time, the French army was able to become self-strengthening by exploiting the vast conquered land. For years, the French Army was ever-victorious and invincible. If conquest always leads a more powerful state, a universal empire would eventually appear in Europe, just like in China.


Unfortunately the French army finally met some impassable obstacles. The Spanish guerrillas turned Spain into a nightmare to France. The French occupying army could not get supplies locally but had to transport them from home at a cost of one billion francs. To achieve a similar effect, the Russians did not fight but let Napoleon’s troops in while adopting a “scorched earth” tactic. Unable to access the local supplies because of the vast burned land, Napoleon was forced to retreat in October19, 1812. Because of heavy snowstorms, the retreat became another nightmare.


Thus the defeat of the French army was technical or accidental. Instead of following a fixed pathway dictated by social evolution or the balance of power, history is also often determined by accidents. The same applies to the unification of China by State Qin. Seven major states and a dozen smaller states had been balanced to a relatively stable political coexistence though war and fighting were continuous. The turning point was 284 BC when an accidental event happened. States Qin and Qi, located at the west border and the east coast respectively, were the two major rival states to balance against each other with their own allies. State Qi once invaded State Yan when Yan was in an internal tumult. Yan and its people kept hatred toward Qi for years. State Yan sent a spy to persuade Qi to conquer its neighbor Song, a medium sized state. The elimination of State Song alarmed all other states and they formed an allied army to devastate the land and army of State Qi in 284 BC. From now on, the only superpower left was State Qin, and Qin sensibly adapted the most ruthless strategy: aiming at killing the men of the other states. At one incident, a Qin general buried 400,000 captive soldiers alive and only let some 240 children soldiers go. Qin made the decision to unite China by force in 237 BC. Thus, the process of uniting China lasted barely more than a decade while the seven major states coexisted for more than two hundred years. To make their success a more accidental one, the Qin deployed the most shameless diplomacy: bribing other states’ ministers and assassinating those who refused the bribe.


The realization of the importance of strategic amorality, ruthlessness, and cruelty during the long process of war and conquest was critical, though many scholars deem this a provocative argument. Among those who came to this realization are such notable political philosophers as Niccolo Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes in Europe and Fan Sui, Han Fei in China. Like a situation in which several men are holding guns to each other, the first one who shoots most indiscriminatingly and with the most deadly accuracy will be the only survivor, though everybody knows they are all nice people who hold guns only for defense.


There were many factors that contributed to the different outcomes of ancient China in comparison with modern Europe, which Hui failed to mention or discuss in detail: The original united force was a cultural institution, Christianity for Europe but a political authority, the Chou Dynasty, in China; The European citizens or peasants formed strong alliance to the vassals and other middle class powers while Chinese peasants lived mainly in villages; The French Revolution was the driving force for social reform while Chinese social reform was carried out by kings and ministers; Ancient China and modern Europe were at different stages of cultural evolution, and Europeans had much broader and clearer minds. In the analogy of several men holding guns, if a society has a clear understanding or even develop a moral code regarding such a situation, everybody would be more likely to hold back their guns.


To me, the most critical difference was that ancient China was a relatively isolated world while modern Europe was connected with and opened to the outside world. As in the situation where a group of men hold guns and point to each other, if there are many people surrounding them, they will then be much more reluctant to shoot indiscriminately, since nobody could shoot all the surrounding people dead and the surviving shooter will be subjected to the judgment of the surrounding people. Compared to Napoleon France, the Nazi Germany was much more like State Qin in cruelty. That’s why my comparison of the two ended with the years 221 BC and 1945.



Book Review: War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe by Victoria Hui (2):

Britain Played a Critical Role in Modern European History

Reviewed by You-Sheng Li 27/11/2009

If a set of states cannot pose a military threat to each other and thus fail to constitute an international system, then such a system of states tends to accelerate into an amoral anarchy with victory going to whoever wields the cruelest and deadly strategy. Like a group of men pointing guns to each other, the one who shoots first and fastest will be the only glorious survivor. Any slight moral consideration may turn out to be fatal. If there is someone who is somewhat immune to the shots, the outcome will be quite different. His cruelty will be subjected to punishment or revenge delivered on behalf of those murdered by him. In the European system, this immune man was Britain, the United Kingdom that was uniquely immune to conflagrations of war on the continent. In the Chinese system, there had never been a state like Britain. To me, Britain played an irreplaceable role in European history, serving as the major checking power to balance against the dominant powers that were trying to build a united European empire.

Britain is an island that makes it much more difficult for either Britain to occupy Europe or a European power to conquer Britain. For its own safety, Britain built the most powerful navy in the world, which offered the relative immunity to conquest by other European powers. In the warring age of dominance and conquest, Britain directed its interest to explore other worlds such as the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Australia. Their exploration started with commercial trade backed by imperial domination. As to the origin of democracy, some scholars point to military democracy during war, and some point to commercial trade. In a trade, both sides are on equal terms. Bordered by much less developed ethnic groups, ancient China never had the industrial and commercial base of modern Europe to strengthen itself by exploiting those ethnic groups through trade. As the result, there was no opening to the isolated Chinese world. They stayed with themselves in their early history.

It is no accident that the origins of the modern concept of prime ministerial government go back to Britain (1707 - 1800) and the Parliamentary System in Sweden (1721 - 1772). They coincided with each other. During the reign of King George I, as he could not speak English, the responsibility for chairing cabinet fell on the leading minister or the prime minister. The gradual democratisation of the parliament with the broadening of the voting franchise increased the parliament's role in controlling government, and in deciding who the king could ask to form a government. Other countries gradually adopted what came to be called the Westminister Model of government, with an executive answerable to the parliament, but exercising powers nominally vested in the head of state.

The Seven Year War, which began in 1756, was the first war waged on a global scale in human history, fought in Europe, India, North America, the Caribbean, the Philippines, and coastal Africa. When the war ended in 1763, Britain defeated the European continental power France everywhere around the globe. But Britain allowed France to remain as a major power in Europe as Britain had no intention to turn the continent of Europe into its territory. The American Revolution and the subsequent French Revolution served as compensatory measures to restore the balance between France and Britain.

During the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic era, Britain was the only European country that was neither subdued by nor allied with France. Britain was literally immune to the all-conquering power of Napoleonic France, which once controlled the whole continent of Europe.

In any sense, World War I and II carried forward the same dream of Napoleonic France, to unite Europe by force. Along the road of cruelty and amorality, the two world wars went much further, especially Nazi Germany. Unlike Napoleonic France that started as a revolution to voice liberty and human rights, Nazi Germany sought only revenge and expansion. So did State Qin that united China in 221 BC. The Nazis have been condemned by the world ever since but it remains a controversial issue how to judge State Qin in Chinese history. I joined those who condemn the Qin, and regard Qin as the Chinese counterpart of Nazi Germany but not of revolutionary and Napoleonic France, as Hui suggested in her book.

The bible story of Adam and Eve and the Christian concept of original sin well illustrate that Western and Chinese civilizations started differently: The former began as a chaotic secondary society while the latter, an orderly system of primary society. As the warring chaos required the sacrifice of human nature in the name of God, subsequent Western history was a process to restore human nature, or humanism. Chinese history went almost an opposite way. It started with a primary society system that was based on human nature while subsequent Chinese history has veered sharply away from human nature.

In ancient China, the emergence of secondary society during the late Axial Age was greatly influenced and limited by the cultural tradition inherited from the period of the super state of primary society from 2200-476 BC. An important assumption of a secondary society is that human nature is not trustworthy and therefore a society cannot trust humans themselves. Due to such a belief, the system of parliament and voting were developed. The voice of the ordinary people was also eventually heard, for nobody could stop his rival party from enrolling peasants and workers for support. As a primary society is based on human nature, the Chinese lacked the concept that the social order of a secondary society had to be based on law. Lao Tzu’s advocacy of the separation of primary and secondary society, namely the separation of the ruling elites from their peasants in Chinese history, prevented any strong connection between the two. The only way for Chinese peasants to enter the horizon of the secondary society was often through uprisings.

In modern Europe, the First and Second Peace Conferences were held at Hague, Netherlands in 1899 and 1907, respectively. The Hague Conventions were signed. It was only a few years before the First World War but long after modern states had emerged. It was because the parliamentary system allowed people to voice their concern, and they did not care much which state was going to conquer Europe. What about China? Two similar international peace conferences were held in 579 and 546 BC. It was long before states in modern terms emerged. It was because the elites were able to think from human nature, or from all of humanity. When the states accelerated into an upward spiral of ever expanding war, no such conferences were held again, as the Chinese had said goodbye to human nature by that time. Everyone may cite their own reasons for this difference, but I think the presence of Britain was critical. Britain was the inerasable connection of warring Europe with the outside world. Without a country like Britain, the seven ancient Chinese superpowers all had to think and act as quickly as those men who were pointing guns at each other, “Remember, only one of us will survive, and nobody can judge the winner except himself.”