Hegel on China (1873)


Part from Hegel’s “Philosophy of History”.
by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel 1770-1831

With the Empire of China History has to begin, for it is the oldest, as far as history gives us any information ; and its principle has such substantiality, that for the empire in question it is at once the oldest and the newest. Early do we see China advancing to the condition in which it is found at this day ; for as the contrast between objective existence and subjective freedom of movement in it, is still wanting, every change is excluded, and the fixedness of a character which recurs perpetually, takes the place of what we should call the truly historical. China and India lie, as it were, still outside the World’s History, as the mere presupposition of elements whose combination must be waited for to constitute their vital progress. The unity of substantiality and subjective freedom so entirely excludes the distinction and contrast of the two elements, that by this very fact, substance cannot arrive at reflection on itself — at subjectivity. The Substantial [Positive] in its moral aspect, rules therefore, not as the moral disposition of the Subject, but as the despotism of the Sovereign. ..

No People has a so strictly continuous series of Writers of History as the Chinese. Other Asiatic peoples also have ancient traditions, but no History. The Vedas of the Indians are not such. The traditions of the Arabs are very old, but are not attached to a political constitution and its development. But such a constitution exists in China, and that in a distinct and prominent form. The Chinese traditions ascend to 3000 years before Christ; and the Shu-King, their canonical document, beginning with the government of Yao, places this 2357 years before Christ. It may here be incidentally remarked, that the other Asiatic kingdoms also reach a high antiquity. According to the calculation of an English writer, the Egyptian history (e.g.) reaches to 2207 years before Christ, the Assyrian to 2221, the Indian to 2204. Thus the traditions respecting the principal kingdoms of the East reach to about 2300 years before the birth of Christ. Comparing this with the history of the Old Testament, a space of 2400 years, according to the common acceptation, intervened between the Noachian Deluge and the Christian era. ..

This empire early attracted the attention of Europeans, although only vague stories about it had reached them. It was always marvelled at as a country which, self-originated, appeared to have no connection with the outer world. In the thirteenth century a Venetian (Marco Polo) explored it for the first time, but his reports were deemed fabulous. In later times, everything that he had said respecting its extent and greatness was entirely confirmed. By the lowest calculation, China has 150,000,000 of inhabitants; another makes the number 200,000,000, and the highest raises it even to 300,000,- 000. From the far north it stretches towards the south to India; on the east it is bounded by the vast Pacific, and on the west it extends towards Persia and the Caspian. China Proper is over- populated. On both rivers, the Hoang-ho and the Yang-tse-Kiang, dwell many millions of human beings, living on rafts adapted to all the requirements of their mode of life. The population and the thoroughly organized State-arrangements, descending even to the minutest details, have astonished Europeans ; and a matter of especial astonishment is the accuracy with which their historical works are executed. For in China the Historians are some of the highest functionaries. ..

The dynasties in China have often been changed, and the one now dominant is generally marked as the twenty-second. In connection with the rise and fall of these dynasties arose the different capital cities that are found in this empire. For a long time Nankin was the capital; now it is Pekin; at an earlier period other cities. China has been compelled to wage many wars with the Tartars, who penetrated far into the country. The long wall built by Shi-hoang-ti — and which has always been regarded as a most astounding achievement — was raised as a barrier against the inroads of the northern Nomades. This prince divided the whole empire into thirty-six provinces, and made himself especially remarkable by his attacks on the old literature, especially on the historical books and historical studies generally. He did this with the design of strengthening his own dynasty, by destroying the remembrance of the earlier one. After the historical books had been collected and burned, many hundreds of the literati fled to the mountains, in order to save what remained. Every one that fell into the Emperor’s hands experienced the same fate as the books. This Book- burning is a very important circumstance, for in spite of it the strictly canonical books were saved, as is generally the case. ..

The Chinese regard themselves as belonging to their family, and at the same time as children of the State. In the Family itself they are not personalities, for the consolidated unity in which they exist as members of it is consanguinity and natural obligation. In the ‘State they have as little independent personality; for there the patriarchal relation is predominant, and the government is based on the paternal management of the Emperor, who keeps all departments of the State in order. .. The duties of the Family are absolutely binding, and established and regulated by law. The son may not accost the father, when he comes into the room; he must seem to contract himself to nothing at the side of the door, and may not leave the room without his father’s permission. When the father dies, the son must mourn for three years — abstaining from meat and wine. The business in which he was engaged, even that of the State, must be suspended, for he is obliged to quit it. Even the Emperor, who has just commenced his government, does not devote himself to his duties during this time. ..

This family basis is also the basis of the Constitution, if we can speak of such. For although the Emperor has the right of a Monarch, standing at the summit of a political edifice, he exercises it paternally. He is the Patriarch, and everything in the State that can make any claim to reverence is attached to him. For the Emperor is chief both in religious affairs and in science — a subject which will be treated of in detail further on. — This paternal care on the part of the Emperor, and the spirit of his subjects — who like children do not advance beyond the ethical principle of the family circle, and can gain for themselves no independent and civil freedom — makes the whole an empire, administration, and social code, which is at the same time moral and thoroughly prosaic — that is, a product of the Understanding without free Reason and Imagination. The Emperor claims the deepest reverence. In virtue of his position he is obliged personally to manage the government, and must himself be acquainted with and direct the legislative business of the Empire, although the Tribunals give their assistance. Notwithstanding this, there is little room for the exercise of his individual will; for the whole government is conducted on the basis of certain ancient maxims of the Empire, while his constant oversight is not the less necessary. The imperial princes are therefore educated on the strictest plan. Their physical frames are hardened by discipline, and the sciences are their occupation from their earliest years. Their education is conducted under the Emperor’s superintendence, and they are early taught that the Emperor is the head of the State and therefore must appear as the first and best in everything. ..

The deportment of the Emperor is represented to us as in the highest degree simple, natural, noble and intelligent. Free from a proud taciturnity or repelling hauteur in speech or manners, he lives in the consciousness of his own dignity and in the exercise of imperial duties to whose observance he has been disciplined from his earliest youth. Besides the imperial dignity there is properly no elevated rank, no nobility among the Chinese; only the princes of the imperial house, and the sons of the ministers enjoy any precedence of the kind, and they rather by their position than by their birth. Otherwise all are equal, and only those have a share in the administration of affairs who have ability for it. Official stations are therefore occupied by men of the greatest intellect and education. The Chinese State has consequently been often set up as an Ideal which may serve even us for a model.

The next thing to be considered is the administration of the Empire. We cannot speak, in reference to China, of a Constitution; for this would imply that individuals and corporations have independent rights — partly in respect of their particular interests, partly in respect of the entire State. This element must be wanting here, and we can only speak of an administration of the Empire. In China, we have the reality of absolute equality, and all the differences that exist are possible only in connection with that administration, and in virtue of the worth which a person may acquire, enabling him to fill a high post in the Government. Since equality prevails in China, but without any freedom, despotism is necessarily the mode of government. Among us, men are equal only before the law, and in the respect paid to the property of each; but they have also many interests and peculiar privileges, which must be guaranteed, if we are to have what we call freedom. But in the Chinese Empire these special interests enjoy no consideration on their own account, and the government proceeds from the Emperor alone, who sets it in movement as a hierarchy of officials or Mandarins. .. The second point to be noticed here, is the legal externality of the Family relations, which becomes almost slavery. Every one has the power of selling himself and his children; every Chinese buys his wife. Only the chief wife is a free woman. The concubines are slaves, and — like the children and every other chattel — may be seized upon in case of confiscation. .. A third point is, that punishments are generally corporal chastisements. Among us, this would be an insult to honor; not so in China, where the feeling of honor has not yet developed itself. A dose of cudgelling is the most easily forgotten; yet it is the severest punishment for a man of honor, who desires not to be esteemed physically assailable, but who is vulnerable in directions implying a more refined sensibility. But the Chinese do not recognize a subjectivity in honor; they are the subjects rather of corrective than retributive punishment — as are children among us; for corrective punishment aims at improvement, that which is retributive implies veritable imputation of guilt. In the corrective, the deterring principle is only the fear of punishment, not any consciousness of wrong; for here we cannot presume upon any reflection upon the nature of the action itself. Among the Chinese all crimes — those committed against the laws of the Family relation, as well as against the State — :are punished externally. .. As regards responsibility, the distinction between malice prepense and blameless or accidental commission of an act is not regarded; for accident among the Chinese is as much charged with blame, as intention. Death is the penalty of accidental homicide. .. The printers of an objectionable book and those who read it, are similarly exposed to the vengeance of the law. .. It may be said of the Chinese that they are extremely sensitive to injuries and of a vindictive nature. To satisfy his revenge the offended person does not venture to kill his opponent, because the whole family of the assassin would be put to death; he therefore inflicts an injury on himself, to ruin his adversary. In many towns it has been deemed necessary to contract the openings of wells, to put a stop to suicides by drowning. For when anyone has committed suicide, the laws ordain that the strictest investigation shall be made into the cause. All the enemies of the suicide are arrested and put to the torture, and if the person who has committed the insult which led to the act, can be discovered, he and his whole family are executed. In case of insult therefore, a Chinese prefers killing himself rather than his opponent; since in either case he must die, but in the former contingency will have the due honors of burial, and may cherish the hope that his family will acquire the property of his adversary.

Among the legal relations of the Chinese we have also to notice changes in the rights of possession and the introduction of slavery, which is connected there with it. The soil of China, in which the chief possessions of the Chinese consist, was regarded only at a late epoch as essentially the property of the State. At that time the Ninth of all moneys from estates was allotted by law to the Emperor. At a still later epoch serfdom was established, and its enactment has been ascribed to the Emperor Shi-hoang- ti, who in the year 213 B.C., built the Great Wall; who had all the writings that recorded the ancient rights of the Chinese, burned; and who brought many independent principalities of China under his dominion. His wars caused the conquered lands to become private property, and the dwellers on these lands, serfs. In China, however, the distinction between Slavery and freedom is necessarily, not great, since all are equal before the Emperor — that is, all are alike degraded. As no honor exists, and no one has an individual right in respect of others, the consciousness of debasement predominates, and this easily passes into that of utter abandonment. With this abandonment is connected the great immorality of the Chinese. They are notorious for deceiving wherever they can. Friend deceives friend, and no one resents the attempt at deception on the part of another, if the deceit has not succeeded in its object, or comes to the knowledge of the person sought to be defrauded. Their frauds are most astutely and craftily performed, so that Europeans have to be painfully cautious in dealing with them. Their consciousness of moral abandonment shows itself also in the fact that the religion of Fo is so widely diffused; a religion which regards as the Highest and Absolute — as God — pure Nothing; which sets up contempt for individuality, for personal existence, as the highest perfection. ..

Though in one aspect the sciences appear thus pre-eminently honored and fostered, there are wanting to them on the other side that free ground of subjectivity, and that properly scientific interest, which make them a truly theoretical occupation of the mind. A free, ideal, spiritual kingdom has here no place. What may be called scientific is of a merely empirical nature, and is made absolutely subservient to the Useful on behalf of the State — its requirements and those of individuals. .. The Chinese have as a general characteristic, a remarkable skill in imitation, which is exercised not merely in daily life, but also in art. They have not yet succeeded in representing the beautiful, as beautiful; for in their painting, perspective and shadow are wanting. And although a Chinese painter copies European pictures (as the Chinese do everything else) correctly; although he observes accurately how many scales a carp has; how many indentations there are in the leaves of a tree; what is the form of various trees, and how the branches bend; — the Exalted, the Ideal and Beautiful is not the domain of his art and skill. ..

This is the character of the Chinese people in its various aspects. Its distinguishing feature is, that everything which belongs to Spirit — unconstrained morality, in practice and theory, Heart, inward Religion, Science and Art properly socalled — is alien to it. The Emperor always speaks with majesty and paternal kindness and tenderness to the people; who, however, cherish the meanest opinion of themselves, and believe that they are born only to drag the car of Imperial Power. The burden which presses them to the ground, seems to them to be their inevitable destiny; and it appears nothing terrible to them to sell themselves as slaves, and to eat the bitter bread of slavery. Suicide, the result of revenge, and the exposure of children, as a common, even daily occurrence, show the little respect in which they hold themselves individually, and humanity in general. And though there is no distinction conferred by birth, and everyone can attain the highest dignity, this very equality testifies to no triumphant assertion of the worth of the inner man, but a servile consciousness — one which has not yet matured itself so far as to recognize distinctions.


I actually put those excepts from Hegel’s “philosophy of history” online for comparisson purposes. Hegel’s accout on the Chinese is of special interests because it points to the possible origin of communism, the historical organisation of the Chinese state resembles communism in many aspects. The history of the Soviet union has many similarities to parts of the history of China; “At a still later epoch serfdom was established, and its enactment has been ascribed to the Emperor Shi-hoang- ti, who in the year 213 B.C., built the Great Wall; who had all the writings that recorded the ancient rights of the Chinese, burned; and who brought many independent principalities of China under his dominion.” The iron curtain was the equivalent of the Chinese wall, and books containing former laws and history were burned as well.

The system of the EU, Neo-Marxism, is of Mongolian origin and Europeans are currently indoctrinated and conditioned, aka brainwashed, to accept this alien way of live as mere drones without individual freedom as normal. Collectivism and a generell contempt for individuality in favor of uniformity were core elements of the Chinese totalitarianism, Marxism is more or less the old Chinese system under a new name with little changes and huge mountains of false conclusions and more often than not equally false thesen.

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~ by metadave on November 12, 2007.

3 Responses to “Hegel on China (1873)”

  1. Dear Sirs,
    I”m very interested in an English version of the writing of Hegel “Geist der Orientalen”, one of his “Historisch-politische Studien aus der Frankfurter Zeit.
    Thank you a lot.
    Xanh Nguyen X.

  2. Communism is a Western idea through and through.
    Hegel’s account of the Chinese is highly unreliable, and reveals more than anything else his ignorance of and bias against Chinese culture.

  3. Hegel’ s knowledge about Chinese in very limited

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