Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Ming & Qing : Lessons for a Dying Culture from Two Dynasties in China 

Years ago, the faculty at the Software College (Beihang University) where I was teaching bused us to a retreat near the place where the Qing Dynasty began. It is called "Shanhaiguan" or "Shanhai Pass" (pictured above), and it is very near where the Great Wall meets the sea at Laolongtou (Old Dragon's Head).

The story I was told at the time was that the government minister from the Ming Dynasty opened the gate to let the Manchus in because the Ming had become so corrupted. The real story is a bit more complicated, and there is some dispute about the details, but one thing is beyond dispute: For the entire Qing Dynasty, China was ruled by the very people the Great Wall was built to protect them from. But lest you think that this means "walls don't work," it is important to note that, as one of my students pointed out to me, "you can't say that the Great Wall never worked." He's right. If the Wall had never worked, there would probably not have been a Ming Dynasty, or at least you could safely conclude that it would not have lasted nearly as long:

Ming Dynasty (1368 ? 1644 A.D.)
Qing Dynasty (1644 ? 1911 A.D.)

You see, the downfall of the Ming was not due to the failure of the wall. It was due to a failure of the culture. The point is that the best wall in the world cannot protect you from yourself. So the Manchus came in and the Ming Dynasty was over. As I said, the Manchus ruled China throughout the Qing Dynasty. But who were they? The Manchus were descendants of the Jurchen people, who ruled the Jin Dynasty. Chinese dynasties can be confusing, because, for example, the Jin Dynasty did not rule all of China, just a portion of it in the Northeast, so it ruled concurrently with the Song Dynasty and therefore is often not listed separately as a dynasty in China. The Jurchen were overthrown by the Mongols, and I guess it can be assumed that there was some intermarriage between the Jurchen and the Mongols. The Manchus were the descendants of the Jurchen, but really the Jurchen just changed their name, although it is true that the people group had changed too, as it became, although predominantly Jurchen, probably a mixture between Jurchen and Mongol. So I guess you could say that the Manchus were essentially Mongolized Jurchens. I say this to emphasize the the Manchus were not irrelevant barbarians who came out of nowhere. Both the Jurchen and the Mongols had been intimately involved with China. The Mongols, you remember ruled all of China under Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan was the first emporer of the Yuan Dynasty. You may not be as familiar with the Jurchen, because their dynasty was actually sort of a sub-dynasty, as I mentioned earlier.

At any rate, after Shanhaiguan, the Manchus were in charge. The corrupted and decrepit Ming had been replaced by the Qing. But was the Qing Dynasty really an improvement? Listen to this lively debate presented by the Sinica Podcast and decide for yourself:

This debate was held at the Beijing Bookworm which is (or was) over in the Sanlitun (expat bar street) area on the east side. It's interesting, but as you might expect, it focuses on the comparison between the two dynasties. I am more interested in the transition. But not just the transition from the Ming to the Qing. The end of the Qing Dynasty is also of interest. So maybe the grand question could be phrased as: "What is the end of a Dynasty like?" or "What makes a dynasty rise and fall?" This is a question most Americans do not understand well, because America has only had one dynasty, and Americans do not read history much, so they tend not to be aware that no dynasty in history has lasted forever. Dynasties rise and fall. If you look at Chinese dynasties (especially the Ming and Qing) you see that they both lasted just under three hundred years. The American dynasty will be 300 years old in 2076. If the American dynasty lasts no longer than either the Ming or the Qing, it has less than fifty years left. Can a dynasty last longer than that? Yes. The Zhou Dynasty lasted longer than 800 years. But the Zhou Dynasty went into decline in the latter half. It's a separate subject for a different time, but I believe that the writings of Confucius may have extended the Zhou Dynasty far beyond what might otherwise have been likely.

Here's my point: I believe that the American dynasty has entered a period of decline. I don't see the American dynasty lasting another fifty years. No way. Because Americans have no conception of what makes dynasties rise and fall, they tend to talk about "eliminating poverty," or "making America great again." But to make America great again, Americans need to understand what makes a dynasty great. Can you guess what it is? If you said, "democracy," that's the wrong answer. The one thing above all others that makes a dynasty great is righteousness:

Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people. (Proverbs 14:34)
But as you can see, the statement has two sides to it. Sin..corruption..dishonesty..these things erode the foundation of a culture, making it extremely unstable and vulnerable to attack. So when it comes to the basic inescapable reality that all dynasties governed by sinful man ultimately decay, the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty are more alike than they are different. The Ming and Qing both had their rise, and tney had their decline and fall.

When a dynasty dies, so much goes with it. One of main casualties is language. Don't get me wrong--when the Qing Dynasty came to an end just over a hundred years ago now, that was the end of Manchu rule, but not the end of the Manchus as a people. I have known several Manchus. There are ten million of them alive today. But there are exactly nineteen native speakers of the Manchu language left in the world. It's gone.

So what about the American Dynasty? Is it more like the Qing or the Ming? I am not sure it matters. They both fell eventually, and the American dynasty will too, perhaps sooner than we think. Is there any way to forestall the decline of the America dynasty? Sure. I just mentioned the Zhou dynasty, but with many dynasties the decline is actually not a straight line. It goes up and down. God has extraordinary forbearance toward a culture and a people who want to turn from the wrong and do the right:

If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among my people; if my people, who are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (2nd Chronicles 7:13-14)
But when is the last time you entered a church or place where believers gather and found them on their faces before God, begging Him to have mercy on their country? Is there any place in America where you see Christians focused on praying for their country? They seem to be focused on fighting for the right to talk about politics without losing their non-profit status. America is a democracy, so it is understandable that citizens would be thinking about how best to exercise the freedom and responsibility they have been given. But even in the years since I left the United States in the mid-noughties I have seen a moral decline in America beyond what I could have imagined. Politics alone will not address this issue.

And what about China? I am often asked about this. This is perhaps the most frequent question I hear. I always say that China is a country at the crossroads, trying to decide which way it is going to go. If the people follow after truth and justice, then China will become a great country. But if they follow after money and power, then China will become a very dark place. And this direction will be shaped by the masses, not by the ruling elite. It is righteousness that exalts a nation. And it is corruption and dishonesty that bring it down.


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