Empire as analytical category

In a discussion held on our e-platform, Lorenzo Andolfatto, Jon Chappell, Leigh Jenco and David Mervart engaged in a discussion about empire as an analytical category. What are the heuristic limits of this category? How far can it encompass the specific features of the very different political institutions it often refers to? Is it possible or desirable to get rid of it? Here are some reflections on the issue:

LA: Here’s an email that I received through Kirk Denton’s mailing list:

“Re: Chinese “empire”

“An observation: There’s semantic, conceptual, and historical confusion in this [expression: “Chinese empire”]. The conflation of China and empire underscores the regrettable tendency in Western scholarship to understand non-Western experiences only in terms of their own historical experiences and concepts.

“First, semantics: Rome had an emperor, an empire, and colonies; they were called that. China had a  皇帝 [Huangdi, emperor], so it had a huangdinate, just like Ottoman [empire] was a Sultanate. Unfortunately, owing to the Western dominance of knowledge since the Enlightenment –Said called it Orientalism, I believe– all pre-modern polities that came after the Romans, whether in the West or non-West, were labelled  Empire and Emperor. It is more accurate to say that China/Zhongguo was a Huangdinate, a grounded tributary system, which was a phenomenon that was global and that accounted for the existence of a multi-civilisational world at the time. The West had its own in the form of its feudal system. All were internally parochial systems.

“Second, conceptual and historical: But if we are to overlook the semantic confusion and allow that China was an empire that went about conquering the world, we would today be conversing in some dialect of Chinese and the predominant worldview would be neo-Confucian/Daoist/Buddhist. But that is not the case, not now or the past 150 years at least: English remains the universal language, French, the language of diplomacy, most of the prominent languages have been derivatives of Latin etc, and the preponderant worldview is Liberalism. Why? That’s where history comes in.

“From European feudalism emerged what can be designated Euro-modernism, a cultural form that was let loose on the world and conquered it. In short, it established an empire in the true sense of the word. If you take a look around its predations continue, unabated, putting at risk the entire fate of humanity. Its influence is why we converse in English; why the preponderant worldview is liberalism, not Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism etc. The world went from multi-civilisational to mono-civilisational to unipolar. Of course, it seems like this uni-polarity is today crumbling and we could be headed towards a multi-polar world order again, but if we are to talk of empire, is this not at least where we should begin?

“I don’t know Bell’s work well but from what little I have read, he should be applauded for having the courage to urge his colleagues re-visit what they already think they know.

Tung-yi Kho“

JC: There are several interesting points there which should be taken seriously. One thing to immediately point out is saying China had an empire (if one wanted to make that claim) is not in any way logically equivalent to saying China set out to conquer the world (i.e. As he seems to imply, the whole world, rather than the more limited 天下 (tianxia – all under heaven, a term describing lands within the spheres of Chinese civilizational influence).  His second point appears (unless I am misreading it) something of a straw man.

LJ: Of course categories such as empire are constructed. They do the work we can defend them to be doing. You don’t have to have indigenous equivalents to particular terms within a given society in order to use them as ways of describing that society—otherwise most social science would be impossible.

DM: And there is also plenty of middle ground between insisting on purely indigenous, native categories (“huangdinate” vs. “imperium”) and using categories entirely as heuristic tools of universal social sciences. Namely, it is not like these moves occur in insulated linguistic and discursive universes, “Chinese” and “Western” and suchlike that are at all times hermetically sealed from one another and only function as echo chambers of their own, native and indigenous conversations.

What I mean is: there is constant production and pragmatic negotiation of tentative comparisons and equations of various forms of polities and ruler titles right across Eurasia, and it definitely doesn’t wait for the nineteenth century to take off. Mongols/Tatars established “khanates” in Eastern Europe and in Middle East, where they encountered the idea of universal Islamic rulership of a caliphate. The Ottoman “empire” was arguably the outcome of just such a synthesis, yet when Mehmet II (“the Conquer”) took Constantinople, he immediately proclaimed himself, with the blessing of the orthodox patriarch of the city, Kayser-i Rum, that is literally “Cæsar of Rome”. Out there east, down at least to the end-seventeenth century, the Siberian tribes, including the Manchus, called the ruler of Muscovy/Russia “white khan” and indeed the said ruler was quite happy to assume that mantle vis-à-vis his new Tungus, Evenk, Khalkha and other tribal subjects in the East even while emanating westward. He (Peter Alexeevitch, “the Great”, that would be) was at the same time anxious to establish a brand new title “Tsar” for himself, a cognate of “Cæsar” just like German “Kaiser” or Dutch “Keyzer”, drawing a wishful connection to the paradigmatic greatness of Roman “emperor”ship. And from Pamela Kyle Crossley I learn that the Qing “emperors” were surely huangdi to their conquered post-Ming subjects, but they also continued to act out other universal sovereign modes for their various constituencies.

In other words, there have typically existed several optional modes of universal sovereignty over diverse and territorially disparate constituencies, modes that could be expediently used at the same time, cross-bred or played off one another. Is not following these actual strategies and overlaps a handier and historically more faithful way of hammering out, say, a non-Eurocentric category of “empire”? For one thing, this conceptual and pragmatic promiscuity actually seems to be a definitional part of most typical practices of the sort of dominion that we tend to call “imperial”.

When the educated German Engelbert Kaempfer saw the Japan of 1690s, he called it an “empire” not because it was especially grand or ruled overseas territories, but, firstly, because it looked similarly internally fragmented as the central-European Holy Roman Empire of his days and, secondly, because it seemed to share in that familiar separation between a “secular” and “ecclesiastical” supremo, which he understood along the lines of the “emperor–pope” dichotomy. “Empire,” to him, seems to be a composite body, potential shaky and provisional unity, unlike, say, the kingdom of France, which at least in Keampfer’s day under Louis XIV was a fairly unproblematically clearcut and integrated whole. Tellingly, where Kaempfer spoke of “Emperor” without further qualification, he meant the Tokugawa shogun: the secular hegemon who presided over a federation of mostly independent dukedoms, kingdoms, bishoprics, free cities and provinces like a Habsburg emperor in Europe. This usage continued right until the nineteenth century: the 1853 letter by the US president Fillmore demanding the “opening” of Japan was addressed to “His Imperial Majesty, the Emperor of Japan”, which meant the Tokugawa shogun and not the largely irrelevant person in Kyoto whom our history books now commonly refer to as the “Japanese emperor.”

By the last decades of the eighteenth century, the burgeoning cottage industry of translation of Dutch-language European books in Nagasaki and Edo was busy establishing functional equivalents between European/Dutch and Sino-Japanese conceptual terminology. When texts like Kaempfer’s made it back to Japan, the “Keyzer” of the Dutch version was paired-off apparently without much hesitation with the ideograph 帝 (di).

In 1825, one Aizawa Seishisai, in his manifesto-like Shinron 新論, which went on to become one of the most influential texts in nineteenth-century Japan, counted seven major “lands of DI/Keyzer” 帝国 (diguo, empires) in the world: Japan (中国, zhongguo), the Qing, Mughal, Persia, Turkey, Germany, and Russia. He mentioned that Ethiopia and Morocco also aspired to the designation “empire”—because of their size and the prominence in the sphere of Islam, respectively—but did not really qualify, as Ethiopia was the land of foolish negroes and Morocco was reeling from internal strife. Note the utter absence of France and above all Britain, the paradigmatic colonial empire of the time by our lights.

Aizawa read no Dutch himself, but was deeply interested in and well acquainted with the translation literature and translation strategies adopted by the “Dutch studies” people. Yet while Aizawa partly accepted the comparative typology, he was at the same time anxious to keep a distinction: the Dutch-studies scholars in Nagasaki rendered “Keyzer” as di 帝,  simply to convey the sense of relative nobility and grandeur; I (Aizawa) understand that pragmatic conceptual equation, but in reality the western barbarian rulers (like the Romanov or Habsburg “emperors”) of course bear no resemblance to our incomparably and uniquely exalted di帝  and that is why I (Aizawa) refuse to equate the di 帝 graph with whatever title those westerners choose to apply to themselves. Aizawa’s di帝-dom is ostensibly an exclusive concept, a category of its own whose purpose is singling out the “Middle Kingdom” Japan as a top of any conceivable ranking of relative worth. But of course, as such, it is precisely a product of Eurasia-wide comparison.

In the event, Aizawa’s text turned out to be an important milestone and rallying cry on the way toward the overthrow of the Tokugawa hegemony and the so-called “restoration” (though in reality rather a complete invention) of a proper “empire,” a di帝-dom. This was at least in part due to an exalted status to the di帝, under the combined influence of the ancient Chinese usage and the translated Dutch/European sources. And of course, the “restored” di帝, dressed in Prussian-style uniform, became a figurehead of a project of nation- and empire-building that endlessly rehearsed nativist myths, but practised normal colonial expansion carefully emulating the example of British, American, Spanish, Russian, German or French … er, empires.

What I mean by piling these examples is: “empire” is complicated, but it is complicated in ways that don’t allow for any straightforward (western) “empire” vs. (eastern) “huangdinate” sort of dichotomies.


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