Translatio Imperii Sinici

China Heritage Annual 2019


The topic of ‘Empire’ has enjoyed renewed debate among historians and political scientists for over a decade, and it has featured in our own work since the launch of China Heritage Quarterly in 2005 and through our advocacy of New Sinology 後漢學. It was a particular focus of my 2008 book The Forbidden City, as well as being prominent in the joint academic discussion of China’s Prosperous Age 盛世 from 2010, in the long-term collaboration with the photographer Lois Conner (see, for example, our 2014 book Beijing: Contemporary and Imperial, and the essay ‘Beijing: In an Imperial Vein’), and in a collective undertaking to ‘Re-read Joseph Levenson’ over the years 2012 to 2014 (see The Practice of History and China Today, The China Story, 25 August 2015). My interest in the topic really began to take form in 1994, having been introduced to the work of Charles Moore in Los Angeles after my first trip to Las Vegas. My own account of ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ will be the topic of a future chapter in this Annual.

In Drop Your Pants!, our five-part series on the Communist Party’s 2018 patriotic education campaign, we discussed the creation in the 1920s of the Chinese party-state 黨國 dǎng guó, a Nationalist-era term revived in recent years to describe the People’s Republic. We also introduced the journalist Chu Anping’s observations on Party Empire 黨天下 dǎng tiānxià, a word he used to describe holistic Party control and one that re-entered China’s political vocabulary as a result of the investigative historian Dai Qing’s study of Chu, and China’s suppressed liberal political traditions, in 1989.

In light of developments during the first years of the Xi Jinping era (2012-), the political scientist Vivienne Shue has recently suggested the importance of discussing ‘the Sinic world’s singular experience of empire, imperial breakdown, and passage to political modernity’. Once more, it seems pressingly relevant to investigate the country’s 國體 guó tǐ — an ancient term revived for use in nineteenth-century Japan and subsequently ‘re-imported’ to China when thinkers were debating the nature of dynastic or, for that matter, post-dynastic government. 國體 guó tǐ is not merely about formal governance or the system of rule, or indeed limited to the ideological underpinnings of the state, it is also used to indicate ‘national essence’, that is those things which constitute a ruled territory, its mores and imagination, its identities and cultures, in fact, its total existential presence. In an essay titled ‘Party-state, nation, empire’, Shue asks: ‘What light … can reexamining China’s oddly intact transfiguration — from dynastic empire to people’s republic — shed on how the Party has governed since 1949?’ (See Shue, ‘Party-state, nation, empire: rethinking the grammar of Chinese Governance’Journal of Chinese Governance, vol.3, August 2018: 268-291.)

In China Heritage Annual 2019 we will contribute to just such a line of inquiry, although our interests range beyond the immediate academic concerns of political scientists. While mindful of the yearnings, or at least nostalgia, for empire redux in such diverse modern polities as Erdoğan’s Turkey, Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India and Abe’s Japan, as well as however one manages to characterise the United States of America under Donald Trump, we would posit that Translatio Imperii, is no recent fad in China; indeed, it has been unfolding since the Taiping Civil War (1850-1864) and the Tongzhi Restoration (同治中興, 1860-1874, also known as the Self-strengthening Movement). It reached a significant contemporary moment in 1997 when Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin used the old Qing dynastic-era expression — ‘restoration’ 中興 zhōng xīng — to describe the post-1978 and post-1989 restoration of his regime’s fortunes. Our concerns, therefore, are not merely with the incipient ‘Red Empire’ of the Xi Jinping era — something discussed at length by Tsinghua Professor Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 — but also with the ideas, habits, cultural expressions and aspirations of empire that have marked China’s modern history, and which still powerfully influence the Chinese world, and will continue to do so.

If we were to assay a Chinese translation of the Latin term Translatio Imperii, it would be 帝業之通變 dì yè zhī tōng biàn. This formulation combines the pre-Qin expression ‘the imperial enterprise’ 帝業 dì yè — the unified rule over a people and geopolitical territory, as well as the regulation of its customs, history and ideas, by a man of destiny and his successors, an ‘enterprise’ that reaches back well before the Common Era — with another hallowed term, 通變 tōng biàn, ‘the creative adaptation of familiar traditions’.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
January 2019

Table of Contents



After the Future in China
Xu Zhangrun’s Triptych for Today



China’s Heart of Darkness
Prince Han Fei & Chairman Xi Jinping

Jianying Zha 查建英