Power and Strategies of Social and Political Order

Research plan of the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences


about the project

Starting from 2015, the Oriental Institute (OI) of the Czech Academy of Sciences is pursuing a multifaceted, interdisciplinary long-term research plan entitled Power and Strategies of Social and Political Order. It the first stage, it focuses on China and aims to open up a perspective for an interdisciplinary, comparative research that will expand and transcend the boundaries of Chinese Studies proper while bolstering the viability and relevance of Chinese Studies as a discipline in the Czech Republic and Europe through an innovative amalgamation of the traditional strengths of Sinology as a form of historical-philological scholarship with impulses from the social sciences and other disciplines.

Proceeding from a broad conception of power as the heteronomous reduction of individual and collective autonomy which can be effected through military, economic, ideological, and political means (Michael Mann), the project will address a range of questions pertinent to the study of Chinese civilization from the ancient past to the present. Additionally, it is designed to contribute to a deepened historical, sociological, cultural, and anthropological understanding of the emergence, stability and transformation of political and social structures more generally. In this sense, the project promises to foster a fruitful exchange with scholars who pursue research on other cultures and in other fields of specialization, including such disciplines as sociology, intellectual history, philosophy, archaeology, and anthropology. The project will also prove to be highly relevant to the pressing issue of understanding contemporary China, though not from the perspective of a shallow presentism but, instead, through a methodologically and theoretically informed study of the longue durée based on a close examination of primary sources.

From the pre-imperial period until the present, various forms of coercive and non-coercive power as well as rafts of legal, moral, ideological, and cultural means of exercising control over populations have formed crucial mechanisms aiding in the maintenance of domestic political and social order. On the level of non-coercive control and manipulation, Chinese political and social elites have since time immemorial relied on the propagation of firmly codified ethical and social principles expressed by a coherent ideology to maintain their ruling status and their claim to act in accordance with the cosmic order or to be the representatives of such an order. Simultaneously, various forms of non-state control, coercion, ideological indoctrination, and collective self-organization have profoundly influenced local and regional society, not the least because tensions between the interests of the political center on the one hand and local elites on the other persisted throughout premodern history despite attempts to co-opt elite members into the state system by opening up routes to official careers for individuals possessing the requisite cultural capital.

Many means and principles utilized in the creation and maintenance of order have remained influential even in modern times, for instance when the KMT and CCP as the organizations in charge of the governing agencies of Republican and Communist China respectively instituted what has been called “organizational emperorship” (Zheng Yongnian). This complex of norms, institutions and practices can be fruitfully interpreted within the conceptual framework of “governmentality” (Michel Foucault). Both parties consolidated their power by formulating ideological tenets in support of their control over Chinese society and by creating institutions and agencies that served to secure, advocate and legitimize their authority. In tandem with its formulation of a normative ideology, the state in both “traditional” and “modern” China used to devise and still devises today laws, education programs, tightly controlled routes to official appointment, propaganda efforts across various different media of expression, censorship, schemes to control and direct scientific research, historical narratives, language policies, ethnic policies and other strategies to construct its identity, legitimize its existence, project its present, and inculcate its ideological universe into a population conceived as a mass of subjects rather than a group of citizens.

In order to shore up their positions, both the imperial and the modern Chinese state and, as far as non-state actors are concerned, regional and local social elites have relied on military power, on an administrative and ideological apparatus that ensured the “legibility” (James C. Scott) and pliancy of the population, the extraction of wealth, and the state’s ability to wield instruments of surveillance and coercion. This has frequently led to outright repression and violence in order to exercise physical control over society. The chronological breadth across which such phenomena can be observed in China is remarkable and, quite possibly, singular in human history. The earliest surviving sources allowing for a precise reconstruction of such practices are the recently excavated legal and administrative manuscripts from the early imperial period (Qin-Han) that attest to the surprising level of detail at which bureaucratic agencies operated in their efforts to maintain state control even over individual members of local populations. At the other end of the chronological spectrum, inasmuch as the late 19th and the 20th century can be perceived as the beginning of a process of modernization in China that involved the selective adoption of “Western” utilitarian (yong 用) inventions, institutions and concepts, it is possible to trace direct continuities in the existence of numerous core (ti 體) mechanisms of control wielded by the Chinese state.

In some respects, the means and scope of control exercised by the contemporary Chinese state over society may be diminishing in comparison to earlier periods. Among other reasons, this is due to recent domestic social and economic transformations (surging private involvement in business and the emergence of a propertied and educated middle-class), technological progress particularly in communications (mobility, internet, information), and the increasing interconnectedness of economies, populations and cultures around the world summarized by the catch phrase globalization. These changes, and their effects on state power, attest to a substantial variability in the relationship between the state, ruling elites, society, and individuals. By investigating strategies of imposing order and exercising power that have been utilized by state as well as non-state actors in China before and after the end of the empire, this project seeks to address broader issues such as continuity and change in China’s political sphere, social structure and cultural identity.

In a wider sense, the project also strives to open up comparative vistas on a number of issues of global significance such as discourses about a desirable social order and the means to achieve it; the inculcation of values and their effectiveness in bringing about order; the social basis and organization of agencies of security and their interactions with the population; systems and practices of knowledge intended to ensure the legibility of the population; the extraction of wealth by state agencies and non-state elites, its consequences for the population and its effects on the nature of power structures both in and outside the state; the objectives and limits of state control; the emergence of patterns of self-organization among groups and populations as well as intergroup conflicts; reactions to top-down attempts at imposing order, ranging from internalization and compliance over open resistance to withdrawal and the creation of alternative value systems and forms of social mobilization (cf. Albert Hirschmann on “exit,” “voice,” and “loyalty”). These and other, related issues will inform the direction that our research program will take in the long term in order to involve scholars from other specializations and to attract the interest of a general audience.

In the second stage, the plan will gradually involve also experts in other area studies (Northeast Asia, Inner Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia and MENA). The plan is further structured into several interrelated, topically and disciplinarily framed research panels. Rather than clearly delineated teams pursuing particular research projects, the panels are conceived as forums for effecting interaction and research cooperation across specific geographical areas and time periods. The activities of the Oriental Institute are also closely coordinated with university teaching and the training of future Asian Studies experts, namely with Charles University in Prague. In a long-term perspective, the Oriental Institute aims to establish an international interdisciplinary cluster of expertise in Asian area studies.


Foundations of Power

Power relationships call for explanation or justification in political, moral, historical, or religious terms. At the very least, they need to be masked in ways that make their presence appear unquestionable or agreeable, which may be achieved by naturalizing them or by presenting them as inevitable, benign, or beneficial. Various strategies to attain these ends may be observed in different periods and societies, and their comparative analysis promises to shed light on the moral and ideological convictions that have made hierarchical social relationships acceptable in various contexts or, on the contrary, on historical ruptures which mark times when received justifications of power became contested. This part of the project, which will focus on ideological, religious, and philosophical facets of power, will investigate how power relationships are being conceptualized and contested in interactions between non-state actors as well as between social groups and the state.

Representations of Power

In order for power to effect an abiding influence, it has to make itself felt in other ways than by blunt coercion. It needs to be communicated through symbolic forms of representation. Displays of power may assume various guises such as conspicuous consumption, patronage of artworks, displays of military potential, royal progressions, elaborate ritual, and monumental architecture. To explore symbolic projections of power, this section of the project will explore the potential of such fields as art history, archaeology, and cultural history.

Structures of Power

States rely on institutions and administrative structures in order to assess and extract resources, to enforce laws and regulations, to threaten and apply violence internally as well as externally, and to gather and process information. Just as states develop institutions, however, so do all manner of social groups which form such organizations as lineages, guilds, provincial associations, religious orders, and temple associations in order to articulate and pursue their collective interests vis-à-vis the state or other non-state actors. This section of the project is devoted to the analysis of such structures through which power is concentrated and exercised both on the level of the state and the level of society.