‘Stagnation’ theories distort Chinese history

BY ZHAO QINGYUN | 04-18-2024
Chinese Social Sciences Today

Traditional architecture at the famed Temple of Heaven shines brightly against modern buildings in Beijing’s night skyline. Photo: TUCHONG 

There is a longstanding view among Western scholars that Chinese history is stagnant or static. This perspective has been displayed in different ways over time. When discussing Chinese civilization’s continuity and the persistence of feudal society in ancient China, some Chinese scholars also fail to distinguish “continuation” from “stagnation.” In fact, this “stagnation theory” and Western-centrism are complementary, providing theoretical support for Western powers’ colonial expansion. 

Theoretical evolution 

Claims about the static nature of Chinese history began to emerge as early as the 18th century when Europe began to intensify their external colonial expansions. In the 1770s, renowned British classical economist Adam Smith said in his magnum opus The Wealth of Nations, “China has been long one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world. It seems, however, to have been long stationary.”

In 1824, American thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson aired a more extreme view, saying “The Chinese Empire enjoys precisely a Mummy’s reputation, that of having preserved to a hair for 3 or 4,000 years the ugliest features in the world.” 

Famed German philosopher Hegel drew the conclusion that “Chinese history is essentially historyless, it is just a repetition of the overthrow of the monarch, and no progress can be produced from it.”

In the 1930s, Japanese scholar Akizawa Shuji asserted that Chinese society was fundamentally stagnant, cyclic, and retrogressive, so breaking the cycle was essential to advancing Chinese history. He added that China itself was incapable of historical advancement unless jolted from outside, attempting to justify and seek legitimacy for Japan’s aggression against China. 

Shuji’s view was sternly refuted by Chinese Marxist historians including Lyu Zhenyu, Deng Tuo, Wu Ze, and Hua Gang. In the debate over social history, Chinese Trotskyites such as Yan Lingfeng and Ren Shu regarded the intrusion of foreign capitalist forces as the core cause for the transformation of Chinese society, arguing that the development of capitalism in China was exogenous. Their argument was in essence also a stagnation theory. 

Following WWII, stagnation claims regarding Chinese history in Western countries were developed further in terms of the theoretical model. In his 1984 book Discovering History in China, American Sinologist Paul A. Cohen critically scrutinized three major conceptual frameworks drawing from American scholarship in the 1950s and 1960s: the impact-response, modernization, and imperialism approaches. The first two frameworks have the commonality of considering Chinese history stationary, both measuring the course of Chinese history with the West as the benchmark. Scholars using these approaches maintained that without the catalysis of Western capitalist invasion, modern changes would have been unlikely to happen in China. 

Other theories also gained wide acceptance in the Western academic community, such as “high-level equilibrium trap” and “involution growth,” emphasizing that China could never escape the trap of stagnation, but would stand still in traditional society and was unlikely to achieve modernization unless the West came to its rescue. 

Long-term continuation ≠ stagnation

In China, feudal society lasted for more than 2,000 years from the Qin (221–207 BCE) and Han (206 BCE–202 CE) dynasties to the Qing era (1644–1911). In contrast, the history of feudal society was shorter than 1,200 years in Europe. Under the perpetual feudal system, the Chinese economy was once prosperous to a high degree, while a splendid culture was created. China’s science and technology, population size, and urban scale were unparalleled across the world. Nonetheless, Chinese feudal society failed to achieve breakthroughs in the mode of production and cross the threshold of capitalism. 

Exploring intrinsic reasons for the long-term continuation of China’s feudal society has drawn intense focus among Marxist historians. Chinese scholars started to discuss this issue in the 1930s and the analytic momentum didn’t weaken until the early 1960s. Respected historians like Lyu Zhenyu, Deng Tuo, Fan Wenlan, and Jian Bozan all participated in the discussion, basically centering around China’s feudal system itself. Some scholars shed light on economic structures and production modes, while others examined land ownership. Yet there was not much disagreement among them upon China’s relatively slow development in history. 

It should be noted that slow development and stagnation are different concepts which should not be conflated. Marxist historians opposed stagnation theories. As Lyu Zhenyu said, “China’s feudal society was not static, retrogressive, regressive, or cyclic in a relatively slow development course, but it advanced in a spiral or in waves. In the years after the First Opium War (1840–1842), if foreign capitalism hadn’t intruded, capitalist buds nurtured inside Chinese society would have necessarily led to the completion of the capitalist revolution and the transition from the feudal system to a capitalist one.”

Deng Tuo held a similar view, stating that the term “long-term stagnation” is an inappropriate description of Chinese feudal society, because it is impossible that the society’s economic structure remained intrinsically unchanged for more than 2,000 years. 

Stagnation theories regarding Chinese history arose in sync with the Enlightenment concept of world history that places Europe’s progress at the core. They are Western-centric biases. These theories contain two basic assumptions: First, the Western path to civilization is necessary to development for countries around the world and the Western modernization model is a model that they should all follow; second, Western modernization originated from a dynamic system inside Western society, and Chinese society was incapable of generating such dynamism. Following this logic, Western powers became the savior who emancipated a China that was mired in predicaments. 

Unique development course

Based on realities of Chinese history, the stagnation claims are untenable. General Secretary of the CPC Central Committee Xi Jinping stressed that Chinese civilization has five prominent features: continuity, innovativeness, unity, inclusiveness, and peaceful nature. 

Chinese civilization is the only civilization in the world which has developed continuously in the form of state, but continuation is not stagnation, still less rigidification. Rather, the continuation is a process characterized by constant innovation and progress. Keeping up with the times, ceaselessly pursuing self-improvements, discarding the outdated in favor of the new, and constantly seeking progress in self-cultivation are the most profound national endowments and spiritual characters of the Chinese nation. 

Under the influence of these qualities, the Chinese nation has fostered the spirit that “If you can one day renovate yourself, do so from day to day, and let there be daily renovation,” as well as the philosophy that “When things reach their extreme, change occurs; after the change, they evolve smoothly, and thus they continue for a long time,” and the reformative political theory that state governance doesn’t rely on one approach; as long as an approach is favorable, the state doesn’t have to follow ancient systems. 

A review of Chinese history suggests that development and progress characterized China’s political system and national governance. The Zhou Dynasty (1046–256 BCE) implemented the system of enfeoffment, the Qin established a unified multiethnic nation marked by power centralization, the Sui and Tang regimes initiated the Imperial Examination, the Yuan instituted the system of administrative provinces, the Ming abolished the chancellor system, and the Qing court implemented the policy of governing different ethnic groups by custom. 

All these represent major innovations to state governance. In terms of thought and culture, and science and technology, evolutions from the contention of a hundred schools of thought in the pre-Qin era (prior to 221 BCE) to the coexistence of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, on to the Cheng-Zhu School of Neo-Confucianism and Wang Yangming’s Learning of the Mind; and from the Book of Poetry, the songs of the Chu Kingdom, and the rhyme prose of the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), to Tang (618–907) poetry, the iambic verses of the Song Dynasty (960–1279), and the drama of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), on to the novels of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasties—all these progressions mirror Chinese civilization’s enterprising spirit to continuously break new ground. Can they be distorted as “stagnation?”

There were occasionally twists and pauses during the long-term continuous development of China’s feudal society, but in general it was by no means stationary. Instead, it developed in an upward spiral. China’s pace toward civilization and progress has never stopped. This also reflects the resilience and flexibility of China’s feudal economic base and superstructure. 

The development course of Chinese history has its own logic and tempo, as Chinese civilization has demonstrated strong self-development capacities and maintained the boldness and fortitude to innovate and create. 

For many years, Chinese feudal society far outperformed medieval Europe in productivity levels and the degree of civilization. Statistics show that in 1830, China’s GDP still ranked first in the world, accounting for 29%, while the share of Britain’s GDP was only 9.5% despite the Industrial Revolution. In the late Ming Dynasty, many modernization factors had emerged in Chinese society, and the arc of progress from tradition to modernity had factually presented itself in the early Qing era. 

In recent years, some Western scholars have reevaluated and critically analyzed those stagnation theories. In his 1998 work Reorient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, Andre Gunder Frank voiced a strong objection to the claims of stagnation concerning development in Eastern society. He asserted that Asia, and especially China, dominated the global economy at least by 1800. 

The realities of Chinese history show that the combination of small-scale agricultural production and household handicrafts was a solid internal economic feature of Chinese feudal society, making it robustly renewable. This was the ultimate reason for the long-term continuation of the feudal system. Additionally,  the natural economy’s compatibility with the production structure of that society contributed to horizontal and vertical developments of agriculture in ancient China. Thus, development didn’t plateau on one level “super stably,” which is the root course for the higher degree of civilization of Chinese feudal society than that of medieval Europe. 

Under the CPC leadership, Chinese people have opened a new path after arduous struggle and explorations, advancing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation in all respects through a Chinese path to modernization. Chinese modernization has its own fundamental features and attributes, rooted in the nation’s profound historical base with endogenous impetus. Stagnation theories on Chinese history, characterized by Western-centric biases, are obviously distortions of history. 

Zhao Qingyun is a research fellow from the Institute of Historical Theory at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.