Monday, March 20, 2006

Chinese Dynastic Theory

The Dynastic Theory of Chinese History is the idea that Chinese History is part of a grand pattern of national unity fostered by a strong, dynastic central government, followed by periods of disunity and chaos, out of which a strong unifying agent emerges. Traditional Chinese scholarship attributed this cycle to the morality of the leaders of China through history. In other words, virtuous leaders found favor with Heaven, and so their descendents were rewarded with the opportunity to lead a unified Greater China. This classical view posits that human nature being as it is, later generations in the dynastic succession will falter when called to maintain the high standards set by the dynastic founder. Faltering angers Heaven, which will visit disaster on China which augers a period of chaos from which a new, virtuous leader will arise.

Contemporary scholarship dismisses the view that the morals of the leaders determines the fate of dynastic succession. Instead, current scholars point to other more mundane factors effecting dynasties, including large socio-economic factors, bad decision making, or plain old bad luck. Focusing on the socio-economic reasons for the rise of new dynasties, the period of chaos from which these new dynasties arise gives the victorious new leader pretense to wipe the slate clean, and to establish new laws which allow him to codify and solidify his power. Since the new leader has the power to reward his followers and supporters with land, these supporters have reason to help him maintain and extend his rule because his power is, by extension, their power. This is the “economic” part of the dynastic succession. The “socio” part of this theory involves the extent to which royal advisors who had internalized the “classical theory” of dynastic succession thought that they divined the signs of Heaven’s disfavor which in their view would inevitably lead to a period of chaos. So, to protect themselves, these powerful families would begin to position themselves as if the period of chaos had already arrived, thereby weakening the dynasty, and making the prediction self-fulfilling.

The bad decision making/bad luck explanation for dynastic succession posits that dynasties rose up for various reasons in response to contemporary events and continue on, barring some catastrophe. But the catastrophes are the key. A recurring scenario in China is a large natural event (drought, flooding, locusts) causing widespread famine. In response to the famine, families, clans or villages band together to protect their resources or to plunder the resources of clans or villages. These roving bands often became more than the central government could handle, which precipitated the breakdown of governmental authority.
Many times, this breakdown of authority was aided by the poor decisions of the dynasty in attempting to consolidate power. Dynasties would appoint leaders of distant districts based on loyalty or family relation, without regard to any particular competence. This policy would contribute to the dissolution of the dynasties, as these patronage appointments found themselves unable to cope with crises, and lost the power on the local level that had been acquired by the larger dynasty. Once the pieces began to crumble, the dynasty itself was unable to maintain control, and it too crumbled into chaos. And once the central power was lost, regional powers based on local clans and families, mentioned earlier. Out of the competition among these clans, arose the successor dynasty.