|BOOK TALK by YK Kwan (Mar 2010)
New Discourses on Chinese History by Qian Mu
This book is a compilation of five discourses by the Author written between the years 1941-1951
ranging from the war years with the invading Japanese when the capital retreated to Chungking to the
Nationalist government migrating to Taiwan.
Despite the passage of over fifty years, despite the devastation caused by the “Cultural Revolution” to
China and its subsequent revival under the modernization programs, the viewpoints offered by the
book has not diminished in value at all. On the contrary, as the events unfolded, they seemed to verify
the force of China’s historic past on China’s present and into the hearts of the Chinese people. The
Author asserted that the future of a civilization is motivated by its history in the past.
On China’s civilization, to make it more easily comprehensible, the Author illustrated with the
civilization of Babylon, Egypt and Greece. They flourished in history for a while but vanished like
blooming of a flower. The civilization of Europe was a like an opera with a play acted by leading actors
one after another, by companies one after another. Whereas in China, it is the same company, from
the early legendary kings to Qin and Han, Tang and Sui, Song Yuen Ming and Qing, all Chinese
actors. The continuity of the play is obvious. Another example he quoted is: China’s history is like a
distance runner from the start, whereas Europe is doing a relay by different races of people under
different banners of civilization.
The Author also observed that in China, its civilization happened at the same time on its widespread
domain, with no particular distinction of a capital or a region. It is homogeneous in nature. In, Europe, it
was a relay from country to country, from city to city, such as it started from Athens and moved to
Rome. After the dark ages, it radiated to other cities such as Paris, London and Berlin etc. During the
migration, it may abruptly end in one country, to be reignited in another. In China, it has been a
continuous flow on the same place by the same people.
It is noted that though China had been a monarchy by name, it was all along most of the time, an open
government. There were no nobles or feudalism after Qin (206BC). Officials of the government
including the prime minister came from the common people. Government was not only represented by
the people, government was the people itself. As from Han, officials were nominated to government by
the local authorities drawing from reputable people. The prime minister’s office was open to the public
without appointment, not to say lesser officials. It was why it had a drum outside the main doorway.
In Sui and Tang, the system was taken over by examination. The first was conducted by the ministry of
education and the second one by the home office which presided over the officialdom. Officials again
came from the common people. That system preceded those of the West in the modern age by over a
Neither was monarchy equivalent to dictatorship. It was commonly known in many instances that an
emperor’s decree without the prime minister’s seal and signature could not depart the palace walls. In
one case an emperor appointed a minor official without the consent of the prime minister and in order
to go around the prime minister, he had to send it in a different envelope, one with a slanting opening,
and sign it in black instead of in red which was the conventional practice.
Some other features were also there to ensure good administration. There was a counseling officer,
though not high ranking, to counsel the emperor on his decisions. The other was a deputy prime
minister whose job was to supervise the functions and operations of all other officials in the
government, both imperial and provincial. Though there was no opposition party, these were systems
which acted as check and supervision.
The Author suggested that if we say western government is constitutional, then Chinese government
was in the nature of trust. Instead of defining the rights of the people it stressed on the morality and
responsibilities of the government. When politicians failed in their moral standards, revolutions and
party politics became purely a struggle for power and never reached the core of politics. This
explained the shortcomings of the revolution in 1911 and the rest that followed after.
The book was first prefaced by the Author in 1950 when he was head of the New Asia College in
Hong Kong. From Google search, it seems it has a recent edition in 2001 published in Taiwan.
Anyone really interested in the progress of civilization and politics of China, this book is to be