Religion Sinicized and China modernized


Can the normalization of ties between China and the Vatican help everybody address one of the most urgent issue in the world – the reform of the Chinese state and its adaptation to the modern/western world? This is a crucial question at the time of a landmark agreement whereby for the first time ever the Chinese government in principle recognizes a separation of state and religion.  Eminent sinologist and journalist Franceso Sisci gives a detailed account.

This article was first published in on September 21, 2018

The Church, with the Jesuits 300 years ago helped to “Sinicize” the European state. Now a parallel effort might be demanded. The administration of the territory and the existence of the bureaucracy is an element of Chinese civilization at least from 1,000 B.C., as among others historian Li Feng has shown.[1]

Birth of states from forests and starvation

The Zhou empire stressed administration and organization. The ancient Zhou Li, Rituals of Zhou, a compendium of what we could now call administrative practices and laws, defines the system by which the empire is and should be organized. Nothing of this kind existed in Greek or Roman history, where laws, we shall see, developed slowly as preferred customs between equals. In China the administrative laws are dictated from above. There was no society of equals – the ruler was clearly above the others in imposing his order. The modern traditional interpretation of this, since historian Wittfogel and his “Oriental Despotism”, was that this was dictated by the management of rivers. Rule, zhi, is a character composed by embankment and water, i.e. ruling was controlling and channeling the floods of muddy water.

This interpretation however buys into the view of imperial history as a continuity of a united empire since the earliest times. Yet, the historical documents give us a very different picture. We don’t know clearly what kind of rule the Zhou emperor imposed on the land under his rule, and there are disputes among scholars about whether there was continuity or discontinuity between the Shang and Zhou culture and political tradition.But we see clearly that the Zhou empire was dotted and divided into many “states”. These were called at least two names, bang or guo.

Guo, the name that became more common, has a clear origin, although it had many variants: it comes from a logogram of a walled entity, namely soldiers armed with halberds and mouths or fields. That suggests that walls were enclosing more than a city, and fields were to be protected with halberds. Therefore the enemy was not the chaos of water but foreign attacks. The other term, bang, is even more suggestive. It represents a hill with plentiful agricultural resources.

In neither case, we have the idea of a state that needs protection from floods. This does not counter the argument for the importance of water management, but we can say that by the eighth century BC, floods were not a huge problem. Hilltops were safely above the rush of waves. This also suggests a political geography quite different from the lowlands that were periodically flooded by the river Nile in Ancient Egypt or the Tigris and Euphrates.

Bureaucracy against competitive wars

In the eighth century, we have a reality of hundreds of small states in fierce competition with one another. Their problem was clearing the land of brush and forests for agricultural development, having more people (the basis of wealth at the time), staving off enemies, and conquering new space. Dense forests and elephants might have been a bigger problem as Mark Elvin argued in his “The Retreat of the Elephants” (2006).

The states centered around the river, he, which we call the Yellow River, and were surrounded by populations of barbarians in different shapes and forms. These states recognized belonging to a community, a koinè, and in an earlier period possibly even recognized a common religious/spiritual figure (though it’s unclear how much real political leverage that figure would have) in the person of the son of heaven, tianzi. He was an intensely spiritual figure represented also by the logogram wang, a vertical line uniting three parallel horizontal lines signifying heaven, the world of men, and the world of nature. But certainly by the eighth century, many heads of states started to call themselves “wang”.The fact that they all called themselves wang means they all referenced one culture and set of ideas, but also that each state claimed a fierce independence, and each had its own church-state system. Recent archeological findings confirm the idea: the system of logograms was common but many individual characters differed from one place to another. We still have vestiges of the different languages and writings for instance in the two Chinese modern words for “river”, he in the north and jiang in the south.

In this world, warrior-scholars, shi, wandered from one place to another seeking employment as warriors-administrators-teachers. They originated the earliest Chinese philosophy. Again the fact that they roamed the land proves the existence of a community; the fact that they sought employment to make one state more powerful against other states attests the fierce competition. In this situation, the main danger, we are told by the historical literature, was not the rare natural disaster, be it earthquake or flood, but war. War didn’t limit itself to raiding a place and looting riches, which was the prerogative of Greek and Roman wars. As wealth was seen not in the loot that could be plundered away, but in wealth production, i.e. good land and people working it, war was about occupying the land and yoking the people. Then states would be annihilated, mie.

This was done by destroying local temples (meaning there were different deities to worship), cancelling local cultures and traditions, exterminating the officers (and later even the soldiers) and ruling class, and dividing the land and surviving population according to the wishes of the winners. The goal was to fully incorporate the conquered state into the old one. This led to two phenomena in the following centuries. The number of states dwindled, and their organization and administration grew more sophisticated and efficient. This made states understand that the ultimate power, and model for survival, was to make one’s state as efficient as possible. In all of this, some states emerged as extremely powerful, and for the first time ever, they imposed a hegemony. From the early seventh century until the late sixth century, five states imposed their hegemony over China. Of these, the first and most groundbreaking was Duke Huan of Qi (r. 685–643 BC), who with the help of his prime minister, Guang Zhong, centralized the power structure of his state. This proved to all that powerful ideas of an efficient man could change the state.

Guang Zhong set up a system of semi-independent farmers who paid their dues to the state in grain and labor or military service. Land was not theirs but allotted by the ruler, equally divided not based on extension but yield. That is, each farmer had to till an appropriate lot of land most efficiently: one should not be given too little, so they could not produce surplus and had little to do, and they should not have so much that the land would not be properly taken care of.

As they were given a place in the land and the prime minister was the master, so they were given place in the army and the general was the master. Both had highly discretionary powers but served the wishes of the king, wang.

As we shall see, it is all very different from the assembly of equals in Greek and Roman society. In ancient China, the annihilation wars between states of the same culture and the same level of technological progress apparently forced states to a greater form of organization, and thus more hierarchy, administration, et cetera. It is possible that earlier seeds of organizations came from necessities of water management, but certainly those annihilation wars pushed the organization much further. Moreover, the cycle of rise and fall of hegemons in that period and the parallel dwindling of smaller states brought China from what is called the Spring and Autumn period to the Warring States period. States became just a dozen, and annihilation wars were more difficult, risky, and expensive. Hegemony was harder to impose and an understanding of some kind of balance of power emerged. Alliance and counter-alliances were crafted not in order to conquer but to survive and maintain some kind of status quo. That is, despite the bellicose name, wars became less common and less fatal at the time. Yet states still were wiped until a handful remained.

The philosophy of bureaucracy in a one dimensional state

In the middle of the third century B.C., the philosopher Han Feizi systematized the structure of the bureaucracy that has been maintained until now. It must have been essentially a mechanism in the hands of the sovereign. He identified various elements of this “mechanism” (the word used was ji the trigger mechanism of the crossbow) that made the state work.

For example, in the chapter “Ten Errors” Han Feizi says, «in harmonizing the feudal lords, we must use rituals, this is the mechanism that makes living or losing (the state)».[2] Or in “Losing Victory”: «The mechanism that causes the loss of sovereignty lies in bringing order into chaos and the mutual dependence between strong and weak in the state».[3]

The state, in other words, for Han Feizi, a theory later adopted by the state of Qin when they unified China, must be a mechanism in the hands of the sovereign. The officials had to be the nervous transmission system of the sovereign’s will. But in reality the sovereign must unify the system of the servants of the state (chen, see Han Feizi “Ai Chen”, which I would translate “unify the officials”). Moreover in “The Two Handles”, the philosopher explains: «If the sovereign wants to stop disorder at court then he must reallocate appointments and punishments carefully. Words are distinct from facts. In appointing an official to look carefully at his words, he then gives him an assignment based on what the person says, but then rewards him according to what he does».[4]

This clearly separates the will of the state, embodied by the sovereign, and its management according to that will, entrusted to the officials. This is the model that actually marked the Chinese state for two thousand years. And these concepts were adopted with the bold plan for administrative reforms and offensive wars of the emperor of the Qin in the second half of the third century B.C. Inspired by the drastic legalistic theories and led by prime minister Li Si, the prince of western state of Qin annihilated all surviving states and established what was really the first unified empire.

His power was direct, radical, and imperial in very modern way, very much unlike Augustus who, we shall see, had to carve up powers through the complex machinery of the Roman republic, and whose title, princeps (the first one, or emperor and commander), reveals that below broiled a society of equals. The first emperor was very different. His title was di, the name of the ancient supreme god, with the adjective illustrious, huang. It was like calling himself “Super Jupiter” or “Super Yahve”, “God on Earth.” The analysis of the name gives us a sense of the radical break he and his people felt they had to communicate to the people.

The other elements that are a legacy of the first emperor are the unification of the language and of knowledge. This meant destroying all traces of languages other than that imposed by Qin, and burning all books but the official sanctioned books. Copies of all volumes were kept in the official library. The practice was maintained de facto until modern times.

In the meantime, the vocabulary of the bureaucracy has changed. At the time of Han Feizi, there were over a dozen terms that defined the officials of various levels. The prime minister, for example, was called xiang or zai, perhaps reflecting the linguistic differences of the various states, or even the different responsibilities of the various ministers in the states. In general, the officials were all chen, high servants of the sovereign. Closer to the modern era, however, came the general term of guan, which originally indicated the man who moved in the rooms of power, but has a graphic and phonetic similarity with guan in the sense of pipe/conduit. That is, the great servant of the sovereign was also the one who stood in the rooms of power to convey faithfully the will of the sovereign. But in all this, the state was ideally “one-dimensional”. The officials had to faithfully apply the will of the sovereign. If they did not do so, they put the government at risk. The state and therefore had to be eliminated, as Han Feizi specified in “Ai Chen” (unify the ministers).

Sinification of Europe in 17th and 18th century

The “profound state” in Europe perhaps arose between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries from the need evidently to improve the efficiency of the state itself, however, to accommodate the needs of new and old classes. On the one hand, there was the sovereign who wanted to introduce a new bureaucracy that would govern the state. The concept and institution of modern bureaucracy comes from China[5] through the translations of the Jesuits. On the other hand, the sovereign wanted to cut off the powers and privileges of the aristocracy in order to then centralize power; and therefore he still wanted to give space to the new bourgeoisie as a social and political counterweight to the old aristocracy.

This structure then changes with time when the legislative and executive power of the sovereign is replaced by that of parliaments and elected governments. Then the unstable but fundamental dynamic is created between elective power, bureaucracy, and economic powers that are in permanent dialogue and negotiation, and condition each other. Thus a complex political, economic, and social process takes shape, which also underwent the cultural influence of China in some “spiritual” way. It was a question of adapting a feudal western state, where power was personal and divided between kings and nobles with hereditary loyalty, with a state of impersonal structure, with administrators chosen by the king on the basis of the needs of the state rather than personal needs. In this adaptation, new and old elements have been mixed into a new compound.

China vice versa did not have this process or similar processes of strong adaptation of the state structure and substantially maintained a conception of power deriving from the centralized imperial structure of the state. Here the power of rulers is absolutely prevalent, and the power of merchants and entrepreneurs is secondary. Furthermore, there is no break between the power of those who govern as elected and the power of those who administer and send forth the machinery of the state or the economy. The ultimate administrators of the state are not elected and proceed through an upward path that goes from the lowest to the highest step. There is therefore no dialectic between elected executive power and bureaucracy. In fact, the Leninist state, post-revolutionary, has strengthened the characteristics of the Chinese bureaucratic system. Perhaps because of this consistency with the old imperial system, the new Leninist system was more easily accepted and digested in the new Chinese state.

Breaks between imperial and Leninist state

But there are also differences. The old imperial state had a bureaucracy that had a central hub function. Imperial power was fundamentally independent of the bureaucracy because the emperor was not to pass imperial exams and was not selected through the bureaucratic system. The emperor was the “owner of the state” and “was the state” (hence the origin of “the state I am” of Louis XIV), and the state was a person with a will of his own (as translated by Cardinal Richelieu). The Chinese bureaucrats were those who carried out the will of the sovereign-state.

Beyond the limit of the bureaucrats were the large families that dominated and ruled the rural areas in a dialectic with the bureaucrat who was sent by Beijing. The bureaucrat had to impose the center’s will on a mediated basis, not to displease the center but also without angering the countryside, home to perhaps 95% of the population and of the GDP.

Today these two ancient limits have fallen. Below, the Communist Party entered the village administration, something that had never happened in Chinese history. At the top, the number one of the national party is selected through a complex process of tests and exams, and is not master of the state, so it is not the state.

This new reality is also reflected by the numbers. During the defunct empire, the last dynasty, a substantially restricted army of about 100,000 bureaucrats ruled a country of 300–400 million people. Today, with 1.4 billion inhabitants, China has 2–3 million officials largely chosen by Beijing and almost 90 million members of the party. It is therefore a much stronger and more rigid structure, but also with a sense of continuity from top to bottom. In this, it is different from the imperial past.

In substance, those who have been doing business in China since the beginning of the 1980s – that is, from the beginning of the period of reforms onward – have always done so by remaining in a very close relationship with the state. There is therefore no deep state nor an “elective state”. The state is integral part of the party and the state is a huge exoskeleton made up of 90 million members of the party – a member of the party for every 15 people – which holds together the entire structure of the country.

This structure then is not constantly in tension, which would continuously put stress on the state. But this structure can be activated, as happens to a network left to catch the fish. It is not always closed, but in most cases, it is open on the bottom and activated when needed. The Western state, on the other hand, is subjected to daily micromanagement because every day the relations between the various parts of the state must be active. The structure is the behavior of the Chinese or Western state, and therefore radically different. In the West, there is a continuous and unstable dialectic between the various real powers, between the deep state and the superficial “elective state”.

In this dialectic, it is difficult to understand when the state is on the verge of a deep crisis or instead it is a superficial crisis. In any case, the dynamics and strength of the Western model state are enormous because there is not a single system that governs it, but various structures that cross. There is the bureaucracy, there are entrepreneurs, and there is the parliament divided in turn between government and opposition. There are also associations, trade unions, religious groups, and so on. Furthermore, the history of the management of these complex clashes has given great experience and strength to all the structures, individually and collectively. The Chinese system, on the other hand, is different and has more weaknesses. If the exoskeleton is compromised, the rift is immediately seen and almost immediately reflected in the state’s hold on power. But this fragility must not be exaggerated, looking at it from a foreign point of view.

In fact, the complexity and strength of this exoskeleton cannot be underestimated – it has lasted through centuries. Moreover, historically the Chinese Communist Party has resisted very strong shocks in moments of great internal weakness. The Communist Party won the war with India on the Tibetan border in 1962, immediately after the mammoth famine of the Great Leap Forward (1957–1959) and after the rebellion in 1959 by the Dalai Lama against the Chinese occupation of Tibet[6]. This solidity is not unique to the Communist Party. The imperial system itself fell in 1911, but had lasted for about seventy years after the first Opium War. This happens because even if a small rift undermines the whole system, the armor is very extensive and very structured. So in theory the outer shell can withstand and even compensate for an incidental split. In other words, this creates dynamics in the Chinese state that are very different from those of the Western states.

Nevertheless the system is not without dynamics. Of course, the mass of officials and members of the party must obey the supreme leader, especially today after the anti-corruption reforms led by President Xi Jinping. But even the president cannot ignore such a vast and elaborate structure. Indeed, the governing of this structure itself is the main issue of China’s own government.

Governing the government

That is, first the administration is governed and then the country. We can say that it is so everywhere, but in the West, in reality, the administration is only a piece of the state (there are parties, entrepreneurs, nobles, religions, etc.). Instead, in China the administration is all that holds the state together. China is in some ways governed by concentric circles. Starting from the outside, there is China outside the party and China within the party. The party itself is not uniform but composed of several increasingly important layers as you approach the center. Each stratum is marked by specific powers and privileges that go beyond the perceived salary. A structure of this kind isolates the central power from the feelings of the mass of the population and from the outside. This model actually protects the structure from corruption and influences of various kinds, but in fact also separates it from the country and the world and therefore makes it shortsighted in perceptions of the reality between China and the outside world.

It also tends to be blind-sided because the officials must convey the will of the leader down, but not necessarily the opposite. The officials do not need to tell the truth, but to get the leader’s approval and not incur his wrath. Unpleasant information is often massaged and there is no incentive to receive thoughts contrary to the accepted vision. The results are therefore not always based in reality. On the other hand, this structure creates a very strong objective weight against change in the system. This system had been shaken and broken from the inside during the Cultural Revolution of Mao (1966–1976).

When in the late 1970s Deng launched his reform program, in fact there was not an apparatus that resisted. The new officials rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution and old officials who continued to work during the end of the Cultural Revolution were all disheartened by the system and without a proper vegetable garden to defend. Forty years of reforms have instead enriched the whole of China but especially enriched the Communist Party’s aristocracy at various levels. These internal levels today are hostile to any change that puts their privileges at risk. This is the foundation of resistance to the ongoing anti-corruption campaign and also the basis of resistance to external and US pressures on international trade.

The Communist Party has in fact created something similar to the curia in the Church with its own logic and its own meta-languages through which to see the world – things that in fact filter and obscure reality. The perception of rights and duties towards the outside is also in concentric circles. It is about first defending the rights and privileges of the party; secondly, in varying degrees, thus defending the rights of China; and thirdly, defending the rights of the world.

The three levels are not all the same but have very different priorities. First comes the party, then China, and then the world. On one hand, the structure is so strong and so rigid that one cannot realistically think of destroying the structure of 90 million people. We need some form of accommodation.

On the other hand, 90 million people cannot think of putting their rights and privileges before those of all 7 billion people on earth. In this logic, only the members of the narrower circle of the party feel a sense of responsibility and belonging to the state and to the country, and therefore they think that the long-term needs of the party and the country coincide with their own. The vast majority of the Chinese population lives in a state of great instability and their lives are aimed at maximizing short-term benefits because in the long term, there is no certainty – as demonstrated by the recent campaigns against corruption, which have uprooted the structure of present power, and as happened in the past with the Cultural Revolution.

This structure therefore also creates enormous problems because it generates objective conflicts between the world and China, between “normal” Chinese and party within China, and between China’s lower-level aristocracy and the party’s great aristocracy. Since the structure does not have open and clear mechanisms of dialogue to solve its internal problems, it is not clear how and if a possible crisis might turn into an international tsunami.

Changing the Chinese Curia to avert a tsunami

Therefore, it is necessary to modify and reform the system as soon as possible, before it turns into sclerosis or a tsunami. On the other hand, there is the inertia of the system that resists any change and therefore in fact may pull the rope until it breaks. Finally, the Chinese state does not understand the Western state, so it has not understood the intentions of Trump with the trade war, let alone the deep intentions of America in the late ’80s. Or perhaps China thought they were manageable, that there was no need to worry because the reactions of the deep Western state are often impalpable, even if very clear. It was a bit like when the British say to an invitation, «Certainly we shall meet», but they mean, I do not want to come. A Chinese person or foreigner, not accustomed to culture, may take the statement literally as, I will certainly come.

The opposite is also true. When a Chinese person responds to a suggestion by laughing, saying nothing, or kindly saying “no”, often foreigners think that it means “yes” because they think those who keep silent are agreeing. In addition, the concentric circles are not the only element of the organization of the country.

Along with a hierarchical warp, there is a perpendicular weft that is exercised through a complex spectrum of organizations, also placed in hierarchical order but mutually dependent on one another. First, in reality, it is not the army, as in the easy statement «the power comes from the barrel of the rifle», but the ideology, that which holds the apparatus together and convinces the soldier to take up and shoot the rifle.

The affirmation and control of ideology is the main point of the organization of the Chinese state, which is why every new president presents himself with a new “idea” to be launched. There are the security apparatuses (the internal order in the party and in the state), and then there is the army, and then the economy that has to be able to pay for everything. They are delicate balances.

There are two differences: one with the outside and the other with the Chinese past.

Outside of China, the states are divided into the “superficial state” and “deep state” and find constant ideal and ideological renewal in the countrywide voting process, where ideology progresses and moves. According to the general principle of the protection of “liberties and the system of the state”, this system in turn is adapted and redefined gradually. The process can run amok, and got hijacked by “fake news” and populisms, but these uproars often are very superficial and do not touch the deep structure of the state, while introducing elements of renewals.

In China, on the other hand, there is no open process of ideological renewal. The process is closed and internal, but it exists equally because for example Mao, Deng, or Xi won power with ideological platforms. Simplistically, for Mao it was nationalism and communism, for Deng it was development and decentralization, and for Xi it is a fight against corruption and centralization.

The essential difference between China and its past is that recently, under the communist party, the state has pushed the country to radical “Western” reforms. For 2,000 years, the fertility of China, its good administrative tradition, and the industriousness of its population guaranteed the wealth of the country once it had been kept in order. Mao had all these conditions but the country became impoverished. Deng enriched the country by including it in the world economic and political system. That is, China is no longer self-sufficient, and will never be.[7] Its wealth depends on its integration in the world. China will naturally strive to mold the world in its image, but this will be extremely difficult, and the world ought to push for radical reforms that would save China and everybody else.

[1] Early China: A Social and Cultural History (New Approaches to Asian History), Cambridge 2013.
[2] 合諸侯不可無禮,此存亡之機也《十過》
[3] 亡徵:亡王之機,必其治亂、其強弱相踦者也
[5] See Derk Bodde and Howard Wilson. Chinese Ideas in the West, 1948.
[6] See also
[7] See

Link to the original article:


We have chosen an etching from Athanasius Kirchner’s 1667 China Illustrata, showing Matteo Ricci and Xu Guangqui, representatives of the Jesuite order and the Chinese state bureaucracy, to illustrate this article. File retrieved from wikimedia commons.


RaT thanks Marcello Neri and SettimanaNews!

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