top of page

China: The Interconnection between Tradition and the Thinking of Leaders in Modern Era; By D. S. Raj

C3S Paper No. 0048/2016

Tradition has been and will continue to be a key factor influencing the policy making process being undertaken in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  Students of history cannot miss that due to China’s long and continuous civilization, there always exists a strong interconnection between the country’s conceptual thinking in the modern era and its ancient precedents; needless to say that it would be essential for  other nations which per force engage more and more  a rapidly rising and assertive China, to get an insight into the impact coming from  tradition on the PRC’s current policies.

China’s Tradition

Traditional ideas have always influenced the thinking of China’s leaders. Dr Henry Kissinger in his book “On China”  ( Allen Lane, Penguin Group, London 2011) finds that a  modern Chinese leader like Mao could ‘initiate major national undertakings by invoking strategic principles from millennium old events.’ Prominent such  instances include the influence of the country’s founding Emperor Qin Shihuang and the Chinese classics on the thinking of Mao Zedong. Mao admired Qin’s unification of the country; he cited the classical literature “Romance of Three Kingdoms” to justify the PRC’s opening up to the U.S. In particular, he viewed China’s 1962 aggression against India in a historical context; his belief was that China learnt operational lessons from its past ‘’one and half wars’ ‘against India (the ‘one’- at the time of Tang dynasty of the period 618-907AD,   sending troops to support one Indian kingdom against its rival 1300 yrs ago and the ‘half’- at the time of attack on Delhi by the Mongol ruler Timurlane seven hundred years later). According to Mao, the lessons learnt by China are that there cannot be a perpetual China-India enmity and that China had to use force against India in 1962 to bring the latter to the negotiating table.[1]

China’s tradition also continues to be a dominating factor in the policy making in Xi Jinping era. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supremo said in a 2014 Politburo meeting that “nurturing and developing core socialist values must be anchored upon superior traditional Chinese culture and that giving up traditions and losing our foundations are equivalent to cutting off our spiritual lifeblood.”[2]   The official line of the CCP [3] is that the leader’s  anti-corruption ideas are rooted in China’s  ancient texts and words from the classics and that  in traditional Chinese culture, rules are observed like rituals and everyone follows them.  The line thus gives a firm, but indirect message- everyone should follow Xi. As an yet past-presence link,  Xi’s “China Dream” vision stands for China regaining past glories, with respect to economic, political and cultural strengths.[4]

National Identity

What is China’s traditional view of its identity and how that is significant in the contemporary sense are key questions concerning China’s rise. There has indeed been an identity crisis following China’s defeats by Western powers in the 19th century. The country’s elite have since tried to develop a new identity; they have pondered over the question whether it should be based on Confucian or a Marxist-Leninist tradition or a mix of both.

The last mentioned is being strongly reflected in Xi Jinping’s policy course now. Under Xi, there is a trend towards developing a national identity with a mix of three characteristics – Confucian elements, party ideology and opposition to Western liberal ideas. The emphasis is on “patriotism” and “Chineseness,” in order to make Chinese identity include Hans , minorities,  the compatriots in Taiwan  and even overseas Chinese.

In any case, the Chinese national identity would always be dominated by the following unchallengeable attributes[5]:  the long history of China―at least four to five thousand years; the identity of the Han people as the descendents of the legendary Yellow Emperor; the continuity of the idea of a Chinese Empire running through all dynastic changes and foreign rule; the uniqueness of the Chinese language; the tradition of religion and philosophy (or Chinese thought) and  Chinese literature, poetry, painting, ceramics, music, etc.

Chinese “Exceptionalism”

Worth looking at next is the cultural baggage of Chinese “exceptionalism”, originating from their nation’s ‘Zhongguo’ or Middle Kingdom tradition.  Reference to ‘Zhongguo’, first appeared in the 6th century B.C. in texts of the Zhou Dynasty conveying that China is the center of all civilization. This tradition is not Han centric, but cultural-centric; Chinese culture was so attractive that it led to a long-lasting predominance over the nations and tribes that surrounded it. This predominance, and the feeling of being superior to other nations, is an aspect of the identity that had developed over the centuries.

With respect to the impact of ‘Middle Kingdom’ mentality on  modern China,  there are several assessments- (i) It is being felt  that China is getting  uniquely conflicted with   simultaneous feeling of superiority to other cultures and its inferiority to Westerners who have overtaken it’[6], (ii) ‘China’s inheritance is that of a Middle Kingdom with tributaries accepting its suzerainty and paying tributes in return for not being attacked’[7] and (iii)  ‘China is a civilization pretending to be a nation state’[8] .The counter-point of  China’s  experts is that such perspectives are intended to  attribute China’s backwardness to its identity as a pure civilization-state, making it easier to explain the many obstacles in China’s development; but  China’s  “civilizational-state” is not just a civilization, but more importantly, a resilient “clan society” united by common values. [9]

A case in point is Kissinger’s assessment of Chinese and Western exceptionalisms as streams representing different philosophical and military traditions. As he explains, Chinese exceptionalism is ‘subtle, indirect and cultural without a need to spread their traditional values to other countries’. In contrast, Western exceptionalism involves ‘decisive clash of forces’ and is missionary with an obligation to spread Western values to other parts of the world. Chinese “exceptionalism” formally grades all other states at various levels of tributaries based on their approximation to China’s cultural and political forms’.[10] Views from China on the other hand offer a defense telling that the term ‘tribute system’ is a western invention devised around the nineteenth century[11]. They say that ‘Sino- Centrism’, i.e. Middle Kingdom tradition, did not always demand foreign rulers’ submission to China as vassals, even during periods of Chinese strength. The Tang, for example, did not insist on Japan’s declaration of vassalage.

The place of Wei Qi chess in Chinese strategy

Kissinger in his book (see above) traces a link between the Chinese Wei Qi chess (‘go’ in Japan), and China’s current strategic thinking. This should be of great interest to the global strategic community. Wei Qi, as Kissinger correctly perceives, is a complicated game based on relative gains to be made for long range encirclement; the winner is not immediately obvious and the Wei Qi player aims to impose no checkmate on the opponent, instead offers a series of stalemates. Kissinger reveals that the work ‘Art of War’ written by the Chinese Strategist Sun Zu contains Wei Qi concepts, laying stress on ‘indirect attack’ and ‘psychological combat’, based on the premise that “ultimate excellence lies not in winning every battle but in defeating the enemy without ever fighting”.  Sun Tzu’s work laid emphasis on psychological and political elements over those purely military. It articulated a doctrine which speaks less about territorial contests, more about psychological dominance over the enemy. Its principle is that the enemy is to be defeated without ever fighting.

Notable is Kissinger’s opinion that Mao and other leaders in China applied Wei Qi concepts in dealing with conflicts with the US and the former Soviet Union, along with their prescription of a goal for the PRC – ‘prevention of strategic encirclement.’  Interestingly fears on the prospects of US ‘encirclement’ continue to occupy the minds of Chinese strategists even today.

It should be noted at the same time that the PRC is making an exception to Sun Tzu’s principle, by talking about fighting and winning ‘local wars’ under information conditions; such local wars may be restricted to China’s periphery, as being  felt among analysts. India may have to take a note of this.

Past Humiliation

Regarding historic baggage, most important is the justification in interpreting China’s rise in the modern era as its strong psychological response to the perceived suffering from humiliation (xiuru, 羞辱) in the past. China may be right in thinking that contributing to its humiliation had been  the  loss of its traditional control over the  tributary  states such as Annam (now Vietnam), Siam (now Thailand) , Burma, Laos and Korea which became  Western or Japanese colonies, and the effect from signing of  “unequal treaties,” with foreign powers like Britain, France, Germany, the US, Russia and Japan during the 19th and early 20th centuries, by which it was forced to concede many of its territorial and sovereignty rights. Such humiliation continues to be a part of China’s national identity till today.

Xi Jinping’s concept of “Chinese dream of the great national rejuvenation can be seen as a firm response to China’s past humiliation. It focuses on China having been a victim of colonial aggression in the past and on the need to regain past glories. Recognizing that a “status of weakness prevailed in the country for 170 years since the Opium War, subjecting China to bullying”, it says that the concept “would mean the country’s becoming a prosperous country, a revitalized nation, and having happy people by the middle of the current century” [12].

Unique View Point on Territories

Another traditional idea influencing modern China  lies in the  ‘Tian Xia’ (Under Heaven) concept on territories; it dates back to the golden age of classical Chinese philosophy—of Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and the rest—in the “warring states” period before China’s unification in 221BC under the first Qin emperor. The concept considers that all the people and areas where they lived belong to the Chinese Emperor, the Son of God, who is in possession of mandate of heaven; regarding areas which are not  under the control of the Emperor, their rulers derived their power from the Emperor[13]. It holds that the biggest political unit for the Chinese is the framework of ‘world/society’, not the ‘country or nation state.[14] The effectiveness of ‘Tianxia” system can be gauged by the fact that from the time of the country’s unification in the third century BC under Qin rule, to that of its collapse in 2012 under Qing regime, China stood at the centre of political system in East Asia; most of the rulers of regional states recognized China as pinnacle of universal political hierarchy with all other states and felt as vassals to the Chinese empire.[15]

China’s historical views of its boundaries, as seen in the modern era, merit attention; they indeed expose the country’s expansionist outlook. The PRC believes that it has ‘historically lost’ territories to foreign countries; it however says that it is not making such claims in the modern sense.  Beijing connects the country’s external boundary as existed during Qing dynasty period to the contemporary borders. The maps published in the PRC in end eighties and in first decade of the century encompassed vast areas belonging to neighboring countries (The Historical Atlas of China, 1982-1987 and History of China’s Modern Borders, vol. 1, 2007). Parts of India’s Northeast and Andamans were shown in the maps as ‘historically lost territories’ of China. Xi Jinping’s ‘’Chinese Dream” concept is being projected in China as one meant for the country regaining past glories. This leads one to wonder whether ‘regaining past glories’ would specifically mean China’s desire now to restore its external boundary as existed during Qing dynasty period.

Traditional Roots of External Assertiveness

It can be seen that China’s present foreign policy marked by a mix of win-win relationship requirement and territorial assertiveness, is rooted in the country’s culture. The Chinese traditional idea on peace (heping) contains ‘unity of opposites’ of idealism and realism; the idea stresses peace, but has simultaneously an aggressive connotation implying an option ‘to rule or stabilize the world’.

Chinese leader Dai Bingguo, who plays a major role in foreign policy making, said in end July 2009 that “the PRC’s first core interest is maintaining its fundamental system and state security, second is state sovereignty and territorial integrity and the third is the continued stable development of the economy and society[16]. The  White Paper on ‘China’s Peaceful Development’ defined core interests as including ‘state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and national reunification,  political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability, and the basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development’. China’s declaration of its core interests in such ways  can be considered as a response to its perceptions of past humiliations at the hands of foreign powers.  China says that there cannot be any compromise on the core interests of the country and hence it asserts extrnally. Such ‘’no compromise’’ position stands in conformity with the questions of ‘face’ which are dominant in the Confucian ideas, making it impossible for China to compromise on sovereignty-related issues.[17]

Territorial issues like South China Sea concern China’s core interests; Sun Tzu’s doctrine of winning wars without fighting is getting reflected in the country’s current ways of asserting on these issues, but without creating conditions for   wars.  Similar is the case of China’s “One Belt and One Road” (OBOR) initiative; it has the strategic aim of spreading its influence among countries along the Indian Ocean and beyond without raising any military alarm, at least for the moment.  The initiative no doubt seeks to establish beneficial economic linkages between Asia and Europe, but countries outside China are worried about Beijing’s entry into their traditional spheres of influence. For e.g, Japan opposes the OBOR initiative on that ground.India which can benefit from the OBOR initiative in bridging its infrastructure deficit and in getting integrated with other economies in South and South-East Asia may otherwise get concerned with the potentials of the initiative to strategically encircle it, as happens in the Chinese Wei Qi chess games. Not surprising that New Delhi thus has reservations on the OBOR. While it favors another part of the initiative, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar corridor, it opposes another OBOR scheme, China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, for obvious reasons.  The picture gets complicated when considering that India is the second largest stakeholder in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the New Development Bank of the BRICS grouping, which are designed to lend money under the OBOR initiative.


[1] Henry Kissinger, On China, Allen Lane, Penguin Group, 2011,  page 2

[2]  Xinhua,  February 26, 2014

[3] Wang Qishan’s article, ,  People’s Daily, October 23, 2015


[5] Werner Meissner,  China’s Search for Cultural and National Identity from the Nineteenth Century to the Present, 2006,

[6] David Pilling, Review of book, “ When China Rules the World”, Martin Jacques,  June 13, 2009 ,

[8] Zhang Weiwei, quoting China scholar Lucian Pye,  An apt example of ‘cvilizational-state’, China daily, April 27, 2011;

[9] As in 11 above

[10] Henry Kissinger, “On China”, Allen Lane, Penguins Group, 2011, page xvi of preface

[11] Chinese Journal of International Politics (CJIP, 2009- 2 (4): 545-574. doi: 10.1093/cjip/pop010;

[12] Xi Jinping’s speech at  the National Museum “Road to Revival” exhibition at Beijing, November 29, 2012.

[13] Sow Keat Tok, “Sovereignty in Hongkong and Taiwan”, Palgrave Macmillan, April 30, 2013

[14] Tingyang Zhao, “Rethinking Empire from a Chinese concept  All Under Heaven”, Cambridge University Press. August 7, 2012

[15] Kissinger, “On China”,  page 2

[16] Statement of Dai Bingguo, China’s Vice-Foreign minister, Zhongguo Xinwen she (China News Agency, Chinese),, 28 July 2009, translated by China Digital Times, 7 August 2009

[17] Orville Schell and John Delury on China’s Quest for Rejuvenation,, 16 July 2013

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. This paper formed the basis of his talk at a conference, organized by the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington, India, on March 30-31 2016. email:

1 view0 comments


bottom of page