Multilateralism from the Zhou to Qing dynasties - lessons for the international community in the modern age

Multilateralism from the Zhou to Qing dynasties – lessons for the international community in the modern age

Chinese history, and the contemporary Chinese nation, have so much to teach an international public administration such as the United Nations still in its relative infancy. All diplomacy and relations between nations should be undertaken within the exigencies of moderation and self-discipline in mind. War and division should be avoided at all costs, although not shirked from where strictly necessary.

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By Matthew Parish

To put the world right in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order, we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.

– Confucius

The prevailing scholar of the Hundred Schools of Thought Era during the Spring and Autumn period of Chinese history brought in his writings an expression of the wisdom that the order of nations derives from the order of peoples and individuals. Confucius emphasised personal virtue, modesty and respect, rather than adherence to rules, as lying at the heart of comity and accord between nations. I am starting this essay with that observation because I believe that reflection upon so fundamental a principle might guide the United Nations, the world’s principal organ of international diplomacy, in the profoundly troubled yet also cautiously optimistic transformations and confluences of the modern age.

The moderation observed in the diplomacy of the Zhou dynasty may be one reason why this was the longest-reigning dynasty of the Chinese continent and ruled over a period in excess of 800 years amidst some 37 emperors. Throughout this extended period, the the spirit of the age embraced personal and political moderation and compromise. It took the inception of the Period of the Warring States, concluding in 221BC when Qin Shi Huang unified China, for this era to draw to a close. Thereafter the influence of legalistic diplomatic philosophers, amongst others the intellectual ideas of Shang Yang, emphasised the primacy of absolute rules of legal responsibility between citizen and ruler, and the importance of the organs of state focusing around the individual leader. All citizens became as one; hence it was observed as proper to punish a person who knew of a crime but failed to inform the government.

The Qin Dynasty was of relatively short duration in the context of the broad sweep of Chinese historical standards. After a brief war, the Han Dynasty, considered by many as the golden age of Chinese history, swept to power for some four centuries amidst propagation, for the most part, of a principle of government that involved sharing power between the Emperor as the principal of Han society and his ministers and nobles based upon the principles of modesty and personal self-order rather than imposition of external legalism. The proper concepts of harmonious division of governmental power between different sources of authority could be found by searching the soul and exercising the virtues of respect and restraint. Confucianism experienced a return to popularity during this period, and contemporary economic development entailed significant successes as evildoers towards the Dynasty were repelled and repulsed.

This was also a period in which China extended its diplomatic and commercial contacts with the rest of the modern world, through the transit route that had existed since time immemorial and would subsequently come to be called the Silk Road. This diplomatic tradition, that emphasised mutual respect for cultural and political difference, blossomed after the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30BC. Export of Chinese silk to the Roman Empire rendered Han coffers replete with precious metals, and diplomatic traditions flourished accordingly and in the normal way of things.

Nevertheless ultimately Zihuan (in power from 220 to 226), the first Emperor of Cao Wei in the Three Kingdoms Period, overthrew the relative peace of the Han Dynasty as three nations emerged competing for control over the Chinese continent. Zihuan had the wisdom to adopt Changwen’s Nine-Rank System for the Civil Service, arguably the world’s first-ever professionalisation of an administrative bureaucracy notwithstanding the commotions of the era. After the fall of Shu, Wei and Wu, and the end of the Three Kingdoms period, China became further fragmented as the period of the Six Dynasties continued. It was a period of disunity and warfare, where the philosophical principles of some Emperors’ predecessors and the styles of government their enlightenment had embraced appeared to have been immersed in the gores of war.

As always in the history of a complex, sophisticated and civilised nation such as China, immersion did not entail loss; the values that had become obscured from view were destined to reemerge after some due time in the passage of history’s reflection. The Sui Dynasty (581-614) was a short-lived attempt to reunify China but again under philosophical principles of some uncertainty. The result was more unfruitful conflict. Nevertheless Chinese history teaches us that sometimes turbulence is a necessary precursor to stability and prosperity, and this is what emerged in the subsequent Tang Dynasty that lasted some three hundred years thereafter. Preservation and reinvigoration of the prior system of civil service professionalism during the Tang Dynasty was reinforced by a period of cultural flourishing, including what is arguably the first major proliferation of woodblock printing and hence the consequent promotion of literacy that entailed. Where the civil servant learns the values with which he performs his social duties from his own sense of personal moderation and self-restraint, a society will surely find itself managed upon more benign and prosperous terms.

Ultimately however the Tang Dynasty, in parallels with certain prior events in Chinese history, dissolved into the perils of infighting and fragmentation, resulting in the period of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms. On this occasion disunity was a relatively short-lived affair, and Yuanlang reunified China as the first Emperor of the Song Dynasty in 960. The Song Dynasty was an era of unity during which China became a world leader in science and technology presided over by an ethos once again embodying personal moderation and balanced relations between the state and the individual who understood and respected his place in society which likewise respected him.

The Yuan Dynasty that followed was also a period of unity in Chinese history from the conquest by Kublai Khan of China completed in 1279, but for all its cultural developments it came to represent an uncharacteristic period of unease between the Han and Mongols and a source of regret for all civilised peoples of the region. Ultimately Mongol rule was overthrown through establishment of the rule of the Hongwu Emperor in 1368 that initiated the Ming Dynasty, during which the Forbidden City was established and China was run under a centralised and militarised system that one might characterise as a renaissance of the legalism of Shang Yang.

By the sixteenth century, the Ming Dynasty found itself compelled to engage with the perils of European trade and the not always benign intentions of those who would propagate it. This engendered economic pressures, including a slowdown in domestic production. Ultimately this resulted in the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty by rebel leader Li Zicheng in 1644 who in turn was ousted by the Eight-Banner Armies just one year later. This heralded the inception of the Qing Dynasty, initiated with the reign of the Shunzhi Emperor, and a period that lasted uninterrupted until 1912. This was an era of political continuity, expansion of territory, economic development yet also of economic crisis. It was also a period that found China in conflict with European powers, and facing fiscal and administrative reforms as the nation entered the contemporary era.

At this juncture we must leave incomplete our modest narrative journey through some three thousand years of Chinese history. This is necessarily a humble account of the political and cultural development of a great continent and sophisticated people. Yet one might consider it necessary to delineate the contours of one or more dimensions of Chinese history in so humble a way, precisely because there are many outside China who are not familiar even with these elementary outlines of so great and historical a continent. China hides within the folds of its rich history some of the most extraordinary lessons for international diplomacy, and the purpose of the short amount that remains of this paper is to outline, with inordinate respect both to the people and history of China and to those others about whom this essay might be an imperfect introduction to that subject, what some of those lessons might be.

Firstly, the Confucian emphasis upon moderation in the self and in the state is a cardinal principle of statesmanship and diplomacy. Where Chinese history has had regard to that principle, it has enjoyed periods of great flourishing and achievement. Where its leaders have bickered and  have been exposed as divided, the Chinese continent has procured fewer of its rightful glories. The perpetuation of Chinese philosophy in the culture of its people and structures of governance, and the essential role this played in understanding the relationship between the citizen and the state, has been the key to the survival and prosperity, over millennia, of an extraordinary nation the achievements of which few if any others can match.

Secondly, it is my belief that where such as now an international community has become divided, it takes strong leaders, in the modes of generals rather than secretaries, to reunify any divided geopolitical divides and reinstall harmony amongst all people while doing so with due discretion and mutual courtesy essential to all proper and cordial diplomatic relations. Such accomplishments have been achievable, even in the face of discord, with the direction of wise and firm leadership. Chinese history teaches us that sometimes conflict is necessary, but never for its own sake: it is a last resort amidst periods of the utmost strife, and more usually it is possible to achieve war’s goals without war’s methods. In the words of Sun Tzu, “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”.

Thirdly, Chinese history teaches us of the perils of engaging in new encounters or conquests without caution, reason and moderation. The aggression shown towards Chinese civilisation by European interposers caused nothing but damage for both sides, and engendered regression whereas at their height, economic cooperation between China and other nations could achieve such superlative goals for all sides.

Fourthly, the emphasis from so early an era upon the professionalisation of an administrative bureaucracy necessary to run any large nation, continent or collection of territories is something now taken for granted by all civilised nations and international institutions and it was a lesson we found first promulgated in the annals of Chinese history. The traditions of governance in China should teach us to recall that it is where the principles of professionalism are promoted most thoroughly as elements not just of discipline but likewise of philosophical adherence that sound public administration achieves the most; and in periods of abdication from those principles that governance might fall into the peril of achieving little of even precipitating harm. Nevertheless every civil servant can and must act in accordance with the standards of the utmost integrity, and those who carry the privilege of service for the public good are bound by the strictest of honesty and fealty, under compunction of due sanction should they fail to comply with the standards to which they have undertaken to be bound by virtue of the process of admission to the professional ranks to which they have subjected themselves.

I make these observations because I care about the world’s foremost organ of multilateralism, the United Nations Organisation, and I believe that Chinese history, and the contemporary Chinese nation, have so much to teach an international public administration such as the United Nations still in its relative infancy. All diplomacy and relations between nations should be undertaken within the exigencies of moderation and self-discipline in mind. War and division should be avoided at all costs, although not shirked from where strictly necessary. The United Nations must embrace a philosophy that populates the culture of all its civil servants, if it is to function with the restrained embrace that characterises all wise diplomacy.

The shadow of war is more than enough for those in the midst of potential confrontation generally to resolve their differences. Professionalism in the UN bureaucracy will assist that organisation in achieving the goals common to its member states, and the philosophy inherent in that professionalism should serve to defuse, not aggravate, crises when they arise. New security dilemmas should not be reacted to with the temper of passion or heat. Where chaos prevails, strong leaders are required; and then a return to moderation must be promptly subsequently embraced.

I believe that modern history lies at precisely such a juncture. Should we persist with the current inchoate temperament amidst a period of chaos, then it would be my view that we will surely need a global leader and diplomat of strength, who may serve to restore order amidst chaos. And he too has the wisdom to ensure that restoration of order is not a mere end in itself but also a precursor to the global harmony and the common cultural and economic development of which we all stand so much need in these complex times.

Matthew Parish is a former UN peacekeeper in the Balkans and formerly served as Legal Counsel at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Washington, DC. He is the Managing Partner of the Gentium Law Group in Geneva, and formerly served as Chief Political Advisor to Vuk Jeremic in the selection process to become the next UN Secretary General in 2016. Mr Jeremic came second. Matthew is now a key political supporter of the Secretary General-elect, Antonio Guterres.,

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of TransConflict.

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