Moller confirms “War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe”

It is such a pleasure that Møller’s “Why Europe Avoided Hegemony: A Historical Perspective on the Balance of Power” confirms my argument in War and State Formation in Ancient China and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Møller argues that, “from a historical perspective, the puzzle is not why balancing outcomes sometimes fail to occur, but rather why they occur at all,” which is also exactly what I argue (Hui, 2005: 26). Møller answers the puzzle by analyzing “the concatenation of interstate and state-society balancing.” Again, this is the same as my examination of “the mutual constitution of international competition and state formation” (Hui, 2005: 2). Where he thinks he disagrees, he apparently just misses the relevant discussions in my book. To that end, I outline how the two main features that he raises in his article – state-society relations and rebellions – are in reality fully consistent with my own argument.

First, Møller contends that while his analysis “corroborates a number of Hui’s more specific mechanisms of domination and balancing,” the state-society relations of Europe and China were always different, so that the former was constrained in matters of conquest while the latter wasn’t. More specifically, Møller argues that the presence of numerous strong social groups “prior to the intensification of geopolitical pressure” forced rulers to bargain in what he refers to as a ‘bottom-up’ process (characteristic of Europe), while their absence allowed rulers “to mobilize the economy and strengthen the state in a ‘top-down’ manner” (characteristic of China). This Tillyan-sounding argument is a full confirmation of my historical comparison of ancient China and early modern Europe. Regarding differences at the outset, I argue that the early modern European system was constrained by pre-existing state-society relations – what I refer to in my book as “initial and environmental conditions” – while the ancient Chinese system began with relatively few encumbrances.

European feudalism, following Downing’s definition (1992: 249), is surprisingly similar to Zhou feudalism in that both provided “elaborate normative restraints on the exercise of power and served the ‘constitutional function’ of checking arbitrary rule.” [1] Nevertheless, because of the late timing in the onset of trade expansion relative to the onset of state formation in ancient China (as opposed to medieval Europe), early Chinese state-makers had no easy recourse but to centralize authority and administrative control in order to build up large armies and raise revenue. In 645 BC, this resulted in a crucial turning point in the ‘feudal’ relationship when military service and land tax were extended from the higher social class guoren to the more populous yeren, which greatly increased the ruler’s relative capability and led to the gradual expansion of territory. In my book I add, “[s]uccess at territorial expansion, in turn, allowed rulers to extend military service and land tax to ever expanding populations, thereby blurring the distinction between guoren and yeren. Moreover, the same self-strengthening reforms that facilitated territorial expansion in international competition also facilitated rulers’ amassing of coercive capabilities in state-society relations” (2005: 196).

Still, these self-strengthening reforms were tempered by the need of Chinese rulers to give concessions to the general population in order to motivate them to fight and die in war. In comparison, Europe’s more monetized economy allowed rulers to contract out some of the responsibility and cost of conquest to intermediaries, which had the adverse affect of weakening rulers’ access to coercive power (Hui, 2005: 50-52). While the prior existence of representative assemblies meant a much stronger balancing logic, European rulers were still able to at times circumvent constitutional constraints by claiming ‘evident necessity’ in the protection of the state and by using their armies to enforce their dictates for the purposes of collecting taxes. Thus, despite early modern Europe’s ultimate constitutionalism and ancient China’s eventual absolutism, the outcomes were not preordained.

The role of European intermediaries highlights another important similarity with Møller’s discussion of state-society relations. We both believe that a major cause of divergence between Europe and China lies in the fact that there were multiple privileged social (and estate-based) orders in feudal Europe, while China only distinguished between nobility and peasantry. As I write in my book, since “the [Chinese] nobility already enjoyed privileged access to social status and economic benefits without fear of competition from other orders of society, there was little incentive to organize into a formal body” (2005: 196-197). Europe, on the other hand, also had the burgher and clergy classes. The burghers commanded immense bargaining power over cash-trapped rulers who badly needed money to go to war. The Church had large purse strings as well and from time to time supported resistance to lay rulers. Checks and balances, therefore, had much deeper roots in Europe in the early modern period. Even then, again, European rulers sought to aggrandize themselves and their territory, thus counteracting the stronger logic of balancing. It was simply not carved in stone that Europe should follow in England’s constitutionalist footsteps at the end of Napoleonic Wars (Hui, 2005: 195-205).

Møller’s second argument is based on the prevalence of rebellions in Europe and their rarity in China. He laments that a “detailed analysis” of ancient China “is precluded by the lower quality of available historical evidence.” He then takes the rarity of sources to mean the rarity of rebellions. I agree that rebellions were not abundant in ancient China, but again I take the extra step of explaining why. I argue that the lack of strong social networks during the Warring States period left Chinese peasants vulnerable to state domination. Furthermore, by fostering an atmosphere of mistrust even among family members, “the Qin court could simultaneously maximize surveillance, minimize resistance, and lower the costs of domination. In short, Shang Yang achieved ‘the ultimate dream of domination: to have the dominated exploit each other’” (Hui, 2005: 186). Moreover, Qin rulers were proficient – if not ruthless - at suppressing rebellions in conquered lands by engaging in “mass killing of royal families and defeated armies, enforced mass migration of noble and wealthy families to the capital, demolition of the six states’ defense structures, imposition of direct rule with collective responsibility and mutual surveillance, establishment of settlements in problem-prone areas by Qin’s convicts, and so on. Thus, no matter how disgruntled the subjects might be, the First Emperor was able to keep them in awe” (Hui, 2005: 218).

And while the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC) ultimately collapsed after the death of the First Emperor, the population in the prior Qin state (before 221 BC) never rebelled because the Qin king's extractions were by and large sustainable. The Qin state administered economic rewards and punishments to all classes in lieu of granting political rights, which had the effect of generating support for territorial expansion (Hui, 2005: 227). Given that state domination of the society had reached the high point by the time Qin launched the wars of unification, it is surprising that Møller compares the Qin with Habsburg Spain rather than Napoleonic France. If Møller insists on using Habsburg Spain as the reference, then the corresponding hegemon in ancient China should be the state of Wei. It is no coincidence that Wei’s hegemony was brought down by the balance of power, something I discuss in chapter 2 of my book.

I am writing this post while watching and blogging about the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. It is often overlooked that China is a composite state. Because of Hong Kong’s colonial legacy, Beijing had to promise Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” under the “one country, two systems” model when it signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. The promises made to Hong Kong are functionally equivalent to the rights and privileges granted to city-states in medieval and early modern Europe. At the same time, just as European rulers tried their best to eliminate pockets of autonomy, Beijing is finding Hong Kong’s autonomy intolerable. The one big difference is that this struggle for autonomy is live streamed for the world to see. And the world is nervously watching how this clash between a strong state and strong social forces will play out.



[1] Downing defines feudalism as “a decentralized form of government by which a relatively weak monarch rules in conjunction with an independent, beneficed aristocracy that controls local administration and constitutes the basis of the military” (1992: 249). Møller prefers to define feudalism by “vassalic contractualism.” But this does not mean that other scholars cannot use Downing’s definition. Møller also seems to dislike Creel, but then he cites Lewis and Hsu and other scholars on which my argument is based.

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