Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power

  • Published

Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power by Yan Xuetong. Princeton University Press, 2011, 300 pp.

The nature of China’s rise or reemergence has become one of the more widely discussed topics of the post-2008 era, particularly as the United States grapples with the changing global order. In 2011, Yan Xuetong authored Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, which became the first major study about why and how China historically “sees” foreign policy, the role of government, and especially power. Yan is the preeminent Chinese international relations theorist and a well-established thinker on the global stage; he has been named one of the Top 100 Public Intellectuals by Foreign Policy. His role as a leading thinker within the Chinese intelligentsia is difficult to overstate, particularly as his stature grows internationally.

The book is an attempt to explain how pre-Qin philosophers Hanfeizi, Mozi, Guanzi, Mencius, Xunzi, Confucius, and Laozi developed the Chinese concept of humane authority. Humane authority is a pre-Qin idea of the ideal basis of government in which thoughtfully considered proposals were carried out through established norms for the good of the people. This was balanced against hegemony, which sought to accrue power for the sake of it. The key argument is that through stability, well-thought-out support, and a moral base, government can wisely navigate itself. These philosophers developed their theories during the Spring, Autumn, and Warring States periods in China as a way to interpret which form of leadership worked well and which did not.

Throughout the book, Yan mentions how the concept of the “Sage King” who listened to “capable advisors” was an appealing ideal in China. This is particularly relevant as Pres. Xi Jinping, another contemporary who came of age during the Cultural Revolution, continues to consolidate power across China and cull corruption from the ranks. The lasting impact of the Cultural Revolution cannot be overstated for either man, as it dramatically shaped their lives and, in the case of Yan, made him a committed realist in how he viewed the world. It begs the questions: how much do Yan’s theories influence present Chinese leadership, and how is he influenced by present Chinese leadership?

Yan makes an exceedingly well-researched argument—although dry at times—that the philosophies of these Chinese scholars should be incorporated into the present pantheon of Western-based theories, which continue to dominate international relations theory. While his points are valid, pre-Qin philosophies were developed within a homogenous culture; meanwhile, the majority of Western thought developed among a more heterogeneous group. Integration should happen, but overemphasizing its importance as it relates to interactions between states needs to be understood within the context of its development.

A weaker aspect of this book is Yan’s occasional generalized comments about how US neoconservatives were working to accrue power for hegemonic purposes. He neglects to mention that neoconservative views were heavily based on Democratic Peace Theory. While it may be a Pollyannaish view of how governments interact, idea of the Neocons was that stability, an overarching theme of the book, was critical to world order. This poor generalization appealed to some policy makers.

While Yan is often referred to as a neo-comm, this book places heavy emphasis on the importance of stability and order in global relations, especially as it relates to how China should cooperate with the United States. He advocates cooperation, and the underlying basis for that line of thought should be reassuring to those who fear a twenty-first-century replication of a pre–World War I British-German arms race. While there are distinct similarities in the comparison, the acknowledgement of that threat among policy makers on both sides of the Pacific should serve as a distinct damper upon that potential.

All those who call themselves students of China and those who contemplate the future of the United States in the world should read this book. The research presented here will be a well-appreciated addition to annals on the studies of international relations.

Maj John Barrett, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."