Kuora: China vs. Rome, and the question of cultural cohesiveness

We return to the subject of history this week, as Kaiser answers a question originally posted on Quora on January 6, 2016:

Why did China survive for over 2,000 years while the Roman Empire did not?

The question is not technically accurate. The idea of China may have survived for over 2,000 years — arguably, even longer — but the Chinese empire welded together in 221 BC by the First Emperor of Qin didn’t by any means survive intact through this period.

From AD 220, when the Han dynasty formally collapsed, China was divided into three separate kingdoms, and though they were briefly unified in the late 3rd century, it wasn’t long before incursions from the Xiongnu, the Xianbei, and other nomadic and semi-nomadic people carved out numerous kingdoms in North China while the South saw a rapid series of messy dynastic changes lasting until the late 6th century. These nomadic incursions that sparked this long Era of Division (known in China as the “Six Dynasties and 16 Kingdoms” or the “Southern and Northern Dynasties”) correspond in many ways with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire under the pressure of the Vandals, the Alans, the Visigoths, and the Huns — the “crisis of classical civilization.”

The major difference was that China was reunited in the late 6th century by the Sui dynasty, which briefly ruled a unified China from AD 589 to 618, followed by the Tang dynasty, which solidified rule and oversaw a period of prosperity until the mid-8th century. A bitter civil war tore the country apart again at that time, but Tang recovered, limping along until 907.

There followed yet another period of disunity, this one only spanning two generations; the “Five Dynasties and 10 Kingdoms” lasted until reunification once again under the Song dynasty in 960. Even after that, China rarely maintained real political integrity: The Khitan (Qidan) people from north of the Great Wall managed to carve out a substantial part of North China, including the city that is now Beijing, and held it through most of the 11th century and into the early 12th. They were superseded by the Jurchen (also Nuzhen) people from Manchuria, who conquered North China as far south as the Yangtze River. Throughout the 13th century, the Mongols made incursions into China, eventually conquering the entirety of the country by 1274 and incorporating it into their empire.

The restoration of ethnic Chinese rule under the Ming dynasty from 1368 to 1644 was followed by China’s conquest by the Manchu Qing dynasty, but even then, its rule of China wasn’t complete throughout its three centuries in power: We see yet another period of political division during the mid-19th century, when the quasi-Christian Taiping Rebels took control of much of South China between 1851 and 1863. Finally, shortly following the end of the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Republic, there was another era of division from 1916 to 1928 under the “Warlord Period,” though even after 1928, when the Kuomintang (Nationalist) Party took control of the Lower Yangtze and ruled from Nanjing, it would be a great exaggeration to claim that China was in fact unified. Powerful warlords still controlled the north (Yan Xishan in Shanxi, Feng Yuxiang in Henan and Shaanxi, Zhang Xueliang in the northeast) and control of the western provinces was in name only.

Through this all, though, it could be argued that an “idea” of China survived. Chinese historiography, even at a popular level, understood that there was a cyclical process at work: “The empire long united must divide; long divided, must unite” was the saying (合久必分,分久必合 hé jiǔ bì fēn, fēn jiǔ bì hé). Obviously, the idea of Rome long outlived the collapse of the (Western) Roman Empire, too: Germanic kings styled themselves Holy Roman Emperors, after all. Byzantium kept the idea of a united Rome alive, too, before it fell before the onslaught of the first Crusaders (in the early 13th century) and finally, the Ottoman Turks in the mid-15th century. Never, though, in that whole time was either the Greek-speaking East or the Latin West able to effectively reunite politically, and that’s ultimately why the idea of a Roman Empire didn’t enjoy the longevity — interrupted many times though it may have been — that China did.


As Jireh Tan suggested in his comment, it might be useful to address the question of China’s (supposed) linguistic unity as a factor in either its cohesion or its fissiparous nature. The languages spoken in different regions of China are not mere dialects: They don’t pass the test of mutual intelligibility to this day, and must be considered separate languages. A guanyu, or “official speech” of the court — what we call Mandarin is the latest example — has existed through much of Imperial (and Republican and Communist) history, but the extent to which it was known or practiced outside of the court and the bureaucracy in the provinces and prefects was always very limited.

To this day, there are a huge number of variants of Chinese, each with many sub-variants that often are not mutually intelligible, either; “Mandarin” is spoken in the North China Plain and in the three northeastern provinces, and in the southwest (Sichuan, Yunnan) where Han settlement was relatively late; the Wu “dialect” is spoken in the Lower Yangtze; the Gan dialect (assume the word dialect to be in quotes!) mainly spoken in Jiangxi; the Min dialect in Fujian Province (though with very strong sub-regional dialects-cum-languages); and Yue in Guangdong and surrounding areas. Many of these are rooted in the far, far distant past and suggest the limited nature of the empire’s cultural cohesiveness in even the times of greatest political unity. In times of fracture, the names given to geographically circumscribed dynasties or kingdoms by their various strongmen founders would often take the name of ancient feudal states or kingdoms from the Warring States period that flourished in a given geography in the distant past — arguably an indication that the separate identities of those states had survived in some cultural memory.

That said, the imposition of a standard writing system in the 3rd century BC by the founding emperor of Qin (秦始皇) went far toward knitting together the country into a single polity. As serving in the civil service — office holding was the sine qua non for membership in the elite, and was the only real ladder for success in imperial China — required passing a grueling series of written exams focused on one’s knowledge of the Confucian canon, there was a strong incentive to learn the orthodox writing system. This official written language proved a powerful force in the sinicization of conquest dynasties, none of whom ever successfully supplanted written Chinese as the dominant form of written communications.

Also see:

Kuora: On the idea that China is a civilization, not a nation-state

Kuora is a weekly column.