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The present paper offers an overview of a chapter “Epilogue: China in Larger Contexts” from the book A History of Chinese Political Thought by Youngmin Kim. It is devoted to China’s identity and its relation to political thought within the three periods of China’s contested centrality: in early modern East Asia, in modern East Asia, and in contemporary East Asia. In the beginning, the author states that before delving into detail one should understand that China’s identity is not heterogeneous. While being a despotic, autocratic, and strong state, which successfully unified multiple nationalities, the Chinese polity is a fragile and complex balance of various disparate and conflicting elements. To acquire an understanding of the complex nature of Chinese ideation, one should adopt a historical perspective.
Kim continues by describing how the centrality of China was contested during the Qing dynasty. The great Qing Empire claimed suzerainty over the neighboring countries and linked them through “tributary trade” relations. Due to China being the central military force in the region, no other polity could openly contest its authority. However, Korea demonstrated an excellent example of how China could be challenged culturally and politically. After the shift in power, Korean intellectuals had to redefine the boundaries between civilization and barbarity, questioning the notion of “central efflorescence” and, consequently, Chineseness.
Moreover, Vietnam secretly defined itself as an empire, while formally remaining an autonomous tributary state. Japan also did not think of itself as a vassal state of China, after a brief acceptance of Chinese suzerainty. In summary, while remaining the most powerful military country in the region during the early modern period, China’s centrality was contested by Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
In the modern period, China transformed into the People’s Republic of China (PRC) due to entering the globally competitive arena. During the period, the country adopted nationalism and continued considering itself a leading state in the world without apparent reasons. “Central efflorescence” symbol persisted in China and Korea; however, Korea stopped being a satellite state of PRC. At the beginning of the 20th century, Japan also divorced the legacy of Chinese civilization and became the center of Oriental Culture due to the country’s advancement.
In short, the modern period of Asian history is characterized by an overall decline in Chinese cultural and political influence. Contemporary China faces the problem of duality. On the one hand, PRC strives for globalization and becoming a part of a modern world. On the other hand, it is bounded by the historical process that has shaped its identity. In conclusion, the problem in front of Chinese political thinkers is how to meet the dual challenges.
What are the reasons for the decline in Chinese cultural and political influence in East Asia? The question is crucial as the understanding that military power does not guarantee dominance over the neighboring countries in contemporary history is pivotal. The answer to the question will provide comprehension of how internal reasons correlate with the external situation in any country’s will to acquire a leading role in the global arena.
Kim, Youngmin. A History of Chinese Political Thought. John Wiley & Sons, 2017.