Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Empire in the Mirror

How it can be said that in China, which has been described as despotic, that people have been described as both more free and more fortunate as people in many republics!

Searching for articles about the Holy Roman Empire in Zeitschriften der Aufklaerung, I came across this anonymously-written aritcle in the 1797 Deutsche Monatsschrift (table of contents) , which seemed stand in stark opposition to what most 18th-century politicians thought about the Orient. The French, certainly, fetishized the Orient, especially Turkey (see Montesquieu’s Persian Letters). Rather than being accurate portrayals, these were mirrors held up to France.

German thinkers were a bit more analytical in their approach to, dare I say, comparative political science. The Humboldt brothers paid attention to the larger world (Alexander to the Americas, Wilhelm to South Asia). No state played the same role in German culture that Turkey played for the French. Herder (Treatise on the Origin of Language) accorded great respect to China, making it (probably) the first civilization, the root from which all other civilizations spread. However, each subsequent manifestation improved upon what China accomplished, and China was itself stuck in its ancient ways.

What struck me was not the esteem with which the anonymous writer held for China and its “despotic government,” but how s/he used used it. China is a model of efficiency and unity based on the “unlimited,” “undivided authority” of the emperor and the nature of the state bureaucracy. He “tames the wildness of the princes”; his court is the perfect Versailles, forcing the aristocracy to bind themselves to his will. He is “the source of all fortune” (patronage) and “by law the absolute Lord over the lives of his subjects.” He leads a strong, well-funded army. Finally, he composes “a [civil] service, that is honest, erudite, experienced, and especially accomplished.”

The perfection of this system, “for so long made of the same stuff” (ancient and unchanged), is close to the state of nature. Rather than stifling public life, the authority of the Chinese emperor simplifies rule to such a point that he need not interfere (arbitrarily) with its operation. Despotism is never practiced. Conversely, “the concept of the republic is completely foreign to the Chinese ... they see the republic as a many-headed monstrosity that would develop from the ambition and corrupt intentions into civil unrest and confusion.

I’m sure this loving portrait of Ming China is easily demolished. It’s at least a bit of critical satire, not meant to say anything about China but lots about Germany. Actually, France and Germany. The republic was probably that which was represented by the French Revolution, as exported to Germany–it’s promises of liberation compromised by harsh administration and economic exploitation.

China, nonetheless, represents what Germany needed to resist France: a strong, central authority; elimination of the sovereignty of the princes; administration by the educated (Bildung) bourgeoisie; and reform to create a mass army. China was a unity of will and action that eluded Germany, had made it defenseless. In both cases, the republic would be “the greater tyranny.”

What should the German Empire become? More like China? Bureaucracy and military became lynchpins of the Kaiserreich, the will of the emperor still locked up into the intrigues of the court. It’s perhaps not impossible that the anonymous writer saw a blueprint for Germany’s future in Chinese political traditions.