Political Organization. Throughout imperial, Republican, and Communist China, varying political philosophies have all emphasized the creation and maintenance of order by establishing benevolent authority and preserving proper relationships between superior and subordinate. At the same time, counterideologies have stressed egalitarianism, distrust of authority, and mass action. The interplay of these two themes has shaped Chinese political history for more than 2,000 years.
For the twenty-one centuries of the imperial era, the ideology of order took the form of reverence for the emperor and respect for his appointed ministers and officials. The emperor was often referred to as Tian Zi, or "Son of Heaven," indicating that he played a pivotal ritual role in ordering the relationships between the human world and the cosmos. In addition, his formal power in human society was theoretically absolute, and most emperors were active executives as well as symbolic foci.
The power and position of the emperor were both supported and circumscribed by the ideology and actions of the bureaucratic officials. Beginning in the late Tang period, the officials were primarily drawn from the gentry or literati class, a nonhereditary group whose primary economic base was landlordism and whose ideological basis of legitimacy was their knowledge of the political philosophy of the Confucian school, which emphasized government by virtuous men as the key to social order and harmony. The literati needed the emperor (otherwise they would have nowhere to serve), and the emperor needed the literati (he needed men to administer his realm), but there was always tension between them, with the literati fearing the despotic tendencies of emperors and emperors fearing the factionalism, localism, and class privilege of the literati.
The literati, or gentry, also formed a kind of hinge between the formal hierarchical structure of the bureaucracy and the kinship-, locality-, and religion-based structures of local society. Because the literati participated both as subordinates in the imperial bureaucracy and as leaders of local communities, their loyalties were divided. From the standpoint of the ordinary peasants, the literati were their neighbors and relatives and, at the same time, their landlords and often tax collectors.
In times of prosperity, this system was relatively stable, due at least partly to the system of civil-service examinations, in which almost all males were eligible to participate, and to the free market in land, which allowed economic as well as political status mobility. But when corruption, mismanagement, natural disaster, foreign invasions, or other destabilizing factors were introduced, the links between emperor and literati and between literati and peasant became strained and eventually the regime was unable to restore order, causing periods of chaos and eventually the overthrow of the dynasty and its replacement by a new and vigorous ruling house. In these periods of interdynastic turmoil, counterideologies, such as those held by Buddhist and Daoist millennarian sects, successfully challenged the imperial orthodoxy for a while but eventually retreated when a new regime was consolidated. This dynastic cycle repeated itself every few centuries over the imperial era.
In the nineteenth century, however, this political system was fundamentally altered in response to the threat posed by European and U.S. colonial and imperialist expansion. After China was forced to sign a series of unequal treaties with the Western powers, Chinese intellectuals were forced to reevaluate their political institutions and increasingly found them wanting as responses to the advance of world capitalism. Socialism, anarchism, militarism, liberal democracy, and finally Marxism all gained their advocates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The political ideology of the Republic was an amalgam of traditional ideas and Western concepts of socialism and democracy; neither of these, however, was realized, and the government became more conservative in the 1930s and 1940s as its rivalry with the Communist party increased, culminating in the 1949 establishment of the People's Republic. That Communist government bases its ideology on the Marxist ideas of class struggle and of the proletariat as a vanguard class; it implemented its programs through a combination of all-pervasive propaganda and a party-state political organization that penetrated every village, factory, and neighborhood in the country.
Initially, the Communist party in power followed a course of Socialist development based on the earlier Soviet experience, but Mao Zedong's impatience with the slowness of orderly Socialist development led to radical, voluntarist politics of mass movements in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Especially in the latter period, the party and state organizations themselves became targets of populist propaganda and mass action, and orderly development was shunted aside in favor of voluntarist fervor. With the Reforms of 1979, however, the party retreated both from its mass-action mode of operation and from its immediate Socialist goals. In recent years, China has increasingly become a conventional one-party bureaucratic state, interested more in furthering economic growth and suppressing dissent than in directing the lives of the populace in much detail.
Social Control and Conflict. Traditional Chinese political philosophy emphasized the avoidance of conflict and the creation of social harmony by rule of an elite of morally cultivated scholars. Law and litigation were considered backup measures applicable only in the partial breakdown of moral government and society. Disputes ought ideally to be settled locally by lineages, villages, guilds, and other unofficial organizations, and were only supposed to come before the courts when local settlement failed. Nevertheless, Chinese magistrates were often overwhelmed with litigation, and legal codes were in fact highly developed.
In recent times, both the Republican and People's Republic governments have adapted European-derived notions of law and legality, but in neither case have these entirely superseded the earlier ideas and institutions of rule by virtuous officials. Especially in the People's Republic, most disputes are mediated by semiofficial mediation committees or by local officials, and neither legal codes nor procedures are highly developed.
Many Han people are reluctant to enter disputes and will go to great lengths of politeness and accommodation to avoid conflict. When conflict does begin, it is often difficult to stop. Most people are worried about maintaining face, or the feeling that one is respected by the community, and losing a legal dispute threatens loss of face as much as it threatens loss of money, land, or other material goods. For this reason, avoidance of conflict and persistence in conflict both continue to be features of Han culture.