Posted with permission from Ephraim Ben Raphael
Dominion of the Later Song
As I sit by the window of the tea house where I am meeting my contact, I am struck by the crowds and the sheer number and diversity of people who walk by. Hangzhou is the largest city of this world, boasting nearly forty million people within it's metropolitan area, and to my eyes is as prosperous as any New York, London or any other centre the world revolves around.
"As virtue radiates from the Emperor outwards, so does virtue radiate from Hangzhou to China, and from China to all the world," my contact, Imperial Scholar (or jinshi) Wang Xinya explains to me. The insignia square sown on his robes denotes him as a Scholar-Bureaucrat of the Third Rank - he is an Under-Minister within the Ministry of Culture and Literature, leading the Bureau for Extra-Universal Communications. "China is the Father and Elder Brother of the world's nations. All other nations of the world pay tribute to the Emperor, barring a handful of barbarian states such as the Populists in Northern Rome. The reason is, of course, the rule of the enlightened civil service."
Jinshi Wang began studying for his examinations at the age of six. His father, also a Scholar-Bureaucrat, went to great lengths to secure an first class education for his son. As the only male child among three sisters, the burden on Wang's shoulders was high - he held the hopes of his entire family. Large sums of money were spent on his education, by the time he sat his national exams at 24 he could recite the Four Books and Five Classics from heart, alongside a bevy of other texts the civil service exams considered important. Far from the earlier iterations of the exam, the civil service exams that candidates must sit includes poetry, Chinese history, logic and writing - at various degrees of proficiency.
Almost all educated careers require passing various examinations in this world's China. The most notorious of these are the civil service examinations that are required for entry into the Imperial civil service - bureaucrats and mandarins of every level are selected for their appointments after passing the civil service examination, and the first appointments offered to to those who top the exams (which range between being held annually for the provincial degrees and triennially for the highest jinshi-rank national examinations). Each exam is strenuous - lasting almost two days, which traditionally take place in small stone cells. Applicants are only permitted a calligraphy brush, a paint stone, a chamber pot, a jug of water and some food which the applicants must prepare themselves, and are searched thoroughly before taking the exam to prevent cheating, which is a vast, if illegal, cottage industry in China. Prospective applicants must spend two days writing the essay, and health issues from fatigue is common. It is a wonder that young men (exclusively men) sit this exam, but they are required for appointment to the civil service. Such appointments are vastly prestigious and career-making, for it is the bureaucrats who rule China.
"Our governors and leaders are prepared to lead from the youngest ages," Jinshi Wang tells me. "They are educated in leadership, in decision making, and in good conduct. Those who make the decisions are the most fit to do so. That is the effect that our civil service examinations create. We are not governed by hereditary privilege, like the monarchies of Western barbarians, or by the whims of the fickle mob such as those in the various flavours of Rome that they have over there. Why should your ability to coerce the populace make you more fit to rule? We are instead ruled by our mandarins, our most senior bureaucrats, who meet in council to legislate and lead."
But surely not everyone in the civil service is appointed by exam? "Only up to a point. Entry into the provincial civil service is gated behind the exam, after which further, more senior appointments are made by the outgoing superior or their superiors in turn. Further levels of attainment require further examinations, though this is a necessary but not sufficient condition." After some time in the provincial civil service, my contact explains, scholar-bureaucrats will make a choice whether or not to continue in the province or sit the national civil service exams, which in turn may require further civil examination for further attainment. Candidates for the leadership of ministries are elected to empty seats by the remainder of the council of head Mandarins.
"Our private sector has its own exams for attainment and promotion, but they tend to follow those of the civil service closely and most institutions recognise the civil service equivalent, so it is not uncommon for bureaucrat to leave for the private sector. The reverse is impossible, of course."
And what of the Emperor? "The Emperor is the Son of Heaven, and to whim we all owe our respect and loyalty," my contact smiles. "As such, he is above the earthly concerns of leadership. He has some duties - for example, he ceremonially proctors the Jinshi exams annually - but he does not rule, no."
This world's China has long dispensed with the need for the fiction of constitutional government. After being banished to the south after the conquest of the north by the Jin Dynasty, the Song Dynasty found itself experiencing a period of revival and economic growth which made their new capital of Hangzhou the largest, richest and most innovative city in the world. After making an alliance with Mongol raiders from the north under their own charismatic warlord, the Song retook Northern China and turned on their erstwhile allies. With the nascent Mongol empire paralysed with internecine conflict after the death of the Khan due to dysentery, the Song were able to restore their hegemony over their corner of the world. As the Song's economic revolution continued, their merchants, resources and silver spread across the Old World, and along with it came Song influence. As China's wealth spread, so too did the influence of scholar-bureaucrats, who were able to sideline the military and aristocracy as influence and diplomacy superseded the need for military force. Soon, even the Emperor took their direction. When Chinese monks seeking the mythical Fusang discovered that Western continent after following the coastline across the Bering, Song influence spread there too, and now much of the world is a tributary of the Emperor in Hangzhou. Though China was not the birth of industrialism in this world - instead that honour belongs to Bengal, whose cotton spinning industry created the first steam engines and continues to be a significant power - it was an early adopter and it only grew its power. From China enlightened wisdom spreads forth, and much of the rest of the world, including the rising "Lion nations" of Europe, have adopted Chinese principles - or Chinese cultural hegemony, as critics of it tend to say.
"What is wrong with cultural hegemony?" Jinshi Wang laughs when I bring this up. "What 900 years of our stewardship over the world has shown is that it is the right way to live and to govern. It is not a coincidence that much of the world has replicated it, even outside of our tributaries. The English adopted their own version when they Sinicised in the 19th century, with their own cultural canon of texts - though their Bible is not superior. Even the Populists have exams on their own Red Book as a mandatory part of education. We are not tyrants, either. People may organise and protest, within reason, and we have revised our rulings before due to public response."
But the Song cultural hegemony has received adverse public response before. The growing Populist movement is an explicit reaction to Confucian notions of paternalistic social harmony, and even within China the cultural stagnation that the examinations cause is coming under criticism. My contact dismisses this as the complaints of malcontents and the uneducated, however.
"Confucianism is hegemonic because it is the superior way to live. We are not Confucian because we test, we test because we are Confucian. China and its tributaries have achieved a true harmony of society that Western ideologies have not. Peasant and worker revolutions are a thing of the past, and those who know their place and role in society have everything they need. We are not stagnant, either - we change technologically and have a thriving and innovative private sector. Social advancement is open to all men, regardless of their origin or the wealth of their parents, should they study and gain studious attainment. We do not have social crisis and division. We are governed by the best and most educated in the land. All the world knows that in the Later Song, we have achieved a true meritocracy."
But the regime of the scholar-bureaucrats is perhaps not as unilaterally popular as its proponents would belive. In the spartan office of Wendler Otto, chairman of the League for Democracy in China and CEO of Cycla, a successful local startup which provides bicycles for rent across Hangzhou and other large Chinese cities. Mr. Wendler was born in Hanbo - "Hamburg in the local language" - one of China's treaty port cities near the Holy Roman Populist Republic. "My parents fled to Hanbo from Germania just after the revolution," Mr. Wendler explains, "and came to Hangzhou when I was five for work. As one of the few actually succesful ethnic minorities in China, the bureaucrats would hold me up as a success story - if I wasn't a Democrat."
"The bureaucratic regime is much more stagnant than the scholar bureaucrats are even capable of believing," Mr. Wendler explains. "You have to be wholly immersed in Confucianism to be a scholar bureaucrat, and they ensure that the next generation is as well. They can't see anything outside of the lens of paternalistic authoritarianism, because that's all they've been trained to know. China is socially the same as it was 900 years ago. If you want a great example," Wendler says, stabbing the desk with his finger for emphasis, "if you are a widow, you can't remarry, ever. The scholar-bureaucrats refuse to change that, because that violates Confucian rules of filial piety. There's millions of women in China who can't have romantic fulfillment because it violates a 4000 year old concept of patriarchal loyalty. Meanwhile, in Rome -" He stop to correct himself "- the Roman Republic, South Rome, nobody in Populist Germania has rights, really - women have actual rights and can vote, hold senior roles in the workforce... Here, women can't sit any level of exam."
The stagnation is not just limited to the government. "The big corporations are just as bad. None of them are ever really innovative - all the big innovations of the last sixty years came internationally or from companies that didn't practice examinations for advancement. Hangzhou has a startup sector because here's where the money is, but the government hasn't done anything to encourage it."
"A lot of the other supposed promises of bureaucratic government are pretty exaggerated too," my contact continues, ticking them off on his fingers. "It's not as meritocratic as the privileged elite tell us. They insist that they're at the top because they deserve it, but almost every jinshi is the child of another, and scholastic attainment tends to run in families. A lot of them are products of hereditary institutional privilege, as much as they try to justify it with exams. The vast majority of people can't afford the private education and tutoring you need to sit them, and China's school system will basically only prepare you to work in a factory. It's not a coincidence that the first thing the Populists did in Germania was behead their local Mandarins. Fewer and fewer countries are part of the Song tributary system these days, and most of the ones that remain are only paying lip service to the Empire because their economies are reliant on favourable trade status. The major powers in the system have have foreign policies that run counter to Song interests and have for years. And sure, we have free speech - as long as you don't stir the pot or get too popular. There was a round of protests a few years back in Guangzhou which got big enough to annoy the provincial authorities - they got the riot hoses turned on them and the leaders are still in prison for 'violating social harmony.' We have plenty of social division, between rich and poor, urban and rural, Han and minority, but the Scholar-Bureaucrats refuse to see it."
I ask Mr. Wendler what his alternative is. Does he wish to see bureaucratic government abolished? "That's not the official position of the League, despite what the Mandarins keep claiming to shut us out. There's a few radicals in China who want that, but the country doesn't know how to function without powerful scholar-bureaucrats and it'd never get popular support. We just want Roman style popular representation - create an elected body which can approve and debate bureaucratic policy. We want the people of China to have a say in their own governance. Change is happening here - we want to be a part of it rather than let the scholar-bureaucrats pretend it isn't happening."
Man, this China has managed to avoid the Century of Humiliation, but the leaders are so complacent, they seem to be setting themselves up for ANOTHER period of humiliation.
And I'm not sure that chopping up the world gained that much. It's like seeing a map of the British Empire in 1905, just use a global map already.
A very nice scenario! I'm going to need footnotes for that map.
It won't be so bad; China is very wealthy, deeply interconnected with the world economy and has what is unquestionably the most powerful military force on the planet alongside the ability to project it. That said, it is unquestionably declining and the next big blow will come from within.