Anyone who wants to have a fundamental understanding of China needs to know the basics of China’s roughly 4,000-year history, the many patterns that have repeated in it, and the timeless and universal principles that the leaders of China have gained from studying these patterns—even though getting that basic understanding is quite an undertaking.
While I can’t guarantee that my perspectives about China are the best ones to believe, I can guarantee that they have been well-triangulated with some of the most informed people in the world and are presented here in an exceptionally forthright way. Here it is in brief.
China’s civilization with its highly civilized behavior has a long and continuous history that began about 4,000 years ago. I can’t possibly recount the extensiveness of it because there are far too many dynasties from the Xia Dynasty around 2000 BC (which lasted about 400 years and was highly civilized and known for creating the Bronze Age) through over 1,000 years of various dynasties to Confucius around 500 BC (whose philosophy greatly influenced how the Chinese behave with each other to this day), to the Qin Dynasty (which united most of the area we now call China for the first time in 221 BC), then through the highly developed Han Dynasty (which developed governance systems that are still in use today) that lasted from around 200 BC to around 200 AD, and then a number of other dynasties until the Tang Dynasty in 618.
While I scanned China’s history from the Xia Dynasty through the year 600 AD (i.e., just before the remarkable Tang Dynasty), I looked at most of the dynasties since then more carefully to see the patterns. I wrote up my study of them that I will share later. I will now focus very briefly on the post-600 AD period.
In the chart below I plotted the same overall power gauge that I showed you in the first chart but applied only to China from 600 AD until now. It conveys how powerful China was relative to other empires in the world over that time frame.
As you can see, for most of that time China was one of the world’s most powerful empires, with the notable exception from around 1840 until around 1950 when it went into a steep decline. As shown, around 1950 it started to rise again, at first slowly and then very rapidly, to regain its position as one of the two most powerful empires in the world.
Over most of last 1,400+ years most dynasties were very powerful, civilized, and cultured. Under the Tang Dynasty, China expanded its borders extensively and experienced a cultural flourishing; in the Northern and Southern Song Dynasties (from the 900s to the 1200s), China was the most innovative and dynamic economy in the world; in the Ming Dynasty (1300s to 1600s), China was a great power that enjoyed an extended wonderful period that was both very prosperous and very peaceful; and in the early Qing Dynasty (1600s to 1700s), China had its maximum territorial expansion, governing over a third of the world’s population while having an extremely strong economy.
Then in the early 1800s and through the first half of the 1900s, China lost its power while European countries, and especially the British Empire, gained theirs. The shift of relative wealth and power from Asia to Europe from around 1800 until recently, which created one of the biggest wealth and power shifts in world history in which China was uniquely weak, should be considered an anomaly rather than a norm. This evolution and the lessons this history provides are very much in the minds of Chinese leaders and are especially interesting to me.
In the chart above, note the cyclical ups and downs. The reasons for them are mostly the reasons I explained in my description of the archetypal Big Cycle—because of the gaining and losing of the most important strengths and weaknesses in cyclical and mutually reinforcing ways. (My more detailed descriptions of the rises and falls of these dynasties will be given to you in Part 2 of this book, which covers the major cycles of the major empires and dynasties covered in this book in greater depth.)
Notice that these dynasties’ Big Cycles typically lasted about 300 years. Within each of these were the different stages of development and the things done by emperors to bring the dynasties from one stage to the next, and the reasons for setbacks and declines. In other words, there are many lessons embedded in these histories. That is why Chinese leaders study history to learn lessons that help them plan for the future and deal with the cases at hand. Believe me, the lessons learned from these histories are now guiding Chinese leaders’ decision making.
What was especially interesting to me was to see the patterns of the archetypal Big Cycle go back much further in history and be described in such detail because China’s continuous history is so ancient and so well-documented. It has also been interesting to see what happened when the Eastern and Western worlds met each other and interacted from the 17th through the 19th centuries and how, as the world has become much smaller and more interconnected since then, the Chinese and Western Big Cycles affected each other so that they are now one of the biggest influences on both these two regions and the entire world.
Probably the most important thing I learned from studying hundreds of years of history carefully and thousands of years of history more superficially in a number of countries is to see things very differently than I did before I did this study. I found shifting my perspective in this way to be similar to going to a much higher level in Google Maps because I could see contours of history that I never saw before. I also could see that the same stories played out over and over again for basically the same reasons, and I learned timeless truths about how the really big movements take place and how to deal with them better.
Besides affecting how I view things, I see how studying so much history up to the present has greatly affected how the Chinese think relative to how Americans think. From living in the United States, which is a country that has about 300 years of history (because Americans think their history began when settlers from Europe arrived) and from living in a country that isn’t as much interested in looking at history and the lessons it provides, I can see that the perspectives of Americans and the Chinese are very different.
For example, to Americans 300 years is a very long time. For the Chinese it is very recent. While having a revolution or a war that will overturn our systems is unimaginable to an American, it is inevitable to a Chinese person (because the Chinese have seen that they have always happened and the Chinese have studied the patterns of why they have happened).
While most Americans focus on particular events, especially those that are now happening, most Chinese, especially their leaders, see evolutions over time and put what is happening in the context of them. While Americans fight for what they want in the present, most Chinese strategize how to get what they want in the future. As a result of these different perspectives the Chinese are typically more thoughtful and strategic than Americans, who are more impulsive and tactical.
I also found Chinese leaders to be much more philosophical (literally readers of philosophy) than Americans leaders. If you read their writings and their speeches, you will find this to be true. Philosophies of how reality works and how to deal with it well are woven into their thinking, which is expressed in their writings.
For example, in a meeting with Liu He soon after he had his first negotiation session with President Trump, he conveyed his concerns about the possibility of US-China conflict. Liu He is Vice Premier of China responsible for economic policy and also a member of the Politburo. We have known each other for many years, during which we have had informal conversations about the Chinese and world economies and markets.
Over those years we came to develop a friendship. He is a very skilled, wise, humble, and likable man. He explained that going into his meeting with Trump, he was concerned about how it would go, not because of the trade negotiations, which he was confident didn’t have any issues that couldn’t be worked out, but because he was concerned about the worst-case scenario where tit-for-tat escalations could get out of control and lead to more serious consequences. He referred to history and gave a personal story of his father to convey his perspective that wars were so harmful and the damage could be worse if we had another war today. He focused on the World War I example.
We exchanged views on long-term cycles in history and his belief in the concept of a community with a shared future for humankind. He talked about reading the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu and Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant, and how he realized that he should do his best, and then the outcomes would take their course. From there he gained his calmness. I told him that I shared that perspective. I told him about the “Serenity Prayer” and suggested meditation to him as a way of helping to obtain that perspective.
I tell this one story to share with you one Chinese leader’s perspective on the risk of wars ……in order to help you see the issues through their eyes.
To understand how Chinese people, especially Chinese leaders, think and what they value, it is as important to understand their history and the values and philosophies that have resulted from generations experiencing that history and reflecting on it.
Their history and the philosophies that have come from them, most importantly their Confucian-Taoist-Legalist-Marxist philosophies, have a much bigger effect on how Chinese people, and especially Chinese leaders, think than America’s history and its Judeo-Christian-European philosophical roots have on Americans’ thinking. That is because the Chinese, especially their leaders, pay so much attention to history to learn from it.
For example, Mao, like most other Chinese leaders, was a voracious reader of history and philosophy, wrote poetry, and practiced calligraphy—e.g., I was told by an esteemed Chinese historian that Mao read Comprehensive Mirror in Aid of Governance, the mammoth 294-volume-long chronicle of China’s history that covers around 16 dynasties and 1,400 years of Chinese history, from around 400 BC to 960 AD, and the even more mammoth Twenty-Four Histories several times as well as numerous other volumes about Chinese history and writings of non-Chinese philosophers, most importantly Marx.
I’m told that his favorite book was Zuo Tradition, which focuses on political, diplomatic, and military affairs in a “relentlessly realistic style” in the period from 722 BC to 468 BC, because the lessons it offered were so relevant to what he was encountering. He also wrote and spoke philosophically.
If you haven’t read anything he wrote and are interested in how he thought, I suggest you read “On Practice,” “On Contradiction,” and of course The Little Red Book, which is a compendium of his quotations on a number of subjects, which I only had time to skim but was impressed by. It is interesting and informative in ways that are relevant today.
As a result of their longer history and their more intensive studying of it, the Chinese are much more interested in evolving well over much longer time frames than Americans, who are much more interested in making quick hits—i.e., the Chinese are more strategic than Americans, who are more tactical.
The arc that Chinese leaders pay the most attention to is well over a hundred years long (because that’s how long good dynasties last) and they understand that the typical arc of development has different multidecade phases in it, and they plan for them.
For example, the first phase, which occurred under Mao, was when the revolution took place, control of the country was won, and power and institutions were solidified. The second phase of building wealth, power, and cohesiveness without threatening the leading world power (i.e., the United States) occurred under Deng and his successors up to Xi. The third phase of building on these accomplishments and moving China toward where it has set out to be on the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2049—which is to be “a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, and harmonious,” which would make the Chinese economy about twice the size of the US economy—is occurring under Xi and his successors. Nearer-term goals and ways for getting toward these goals are set out in nearer-term plans like the Made in China 2025 plan, Xi’s new China Standards 2035 plan, and the usual five-year plans.
Chinese leaders don’t just plan and try to implement their plans; they set out clear metrics to judge their performance by and they achieve most of their goals.
I’m not saying that this process is perfect because it isn’t, and I’m not saying that they don’t have political and other challenges that lead to disagreements, including some brutal fights over what should be done, because they have them (in private). In summary what I am saying is that they have much longer-term and historically based perspectives and planning horizons, they bring those down to shorter-terms plans and ways of operating, and they have done an excellent job of achieving what they set out to do by following this approach.
By the way, I have coincidently discovered over many years that my studying history, looking for patterns, and dealing with tactical decisions has had a similar effect on how I see and do things—e.g., I now see the last 500 years as recent history, the most relevant arcs seem about 100+ years long, and the patterns I observe from taking this perspective are very helpful to my anticipating how events are likely to transpire and informing me about how I should be positioned over the coming weeks, months, and years.