CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 26, June 2011


Shengshi and the Naming of Contemporary China | China Heritage Quarterly

Shengshi and the Naming of Contemporary China

Wen-hsin Yeh
University of California at Berkeley

This essay is based on the author's presentation at the 'Shengshi Zhongguo 盛世中国 Flourishing China, myths and realities' forum at The Association for Asian Studies annual conference, 31 March 2011.—The Editor

Why pay attention to the naming of contemporary China as a shengshi 盛世, a 'flourishing age', and what may be at stake in the choice of a name? To set the world in order, says Confucius, one must begin with the rectification of names. Grave consequences will follow if names are not set right. Speech will not accord with things. Rites and music will die. Reward and punishment will miss their marks. People will not know 'where to place their hands and feet.' Nothing will be right, in short, without the proper naming of things.

The act of naming, furthermore, is a solemn one. The act acquires power when it is associated with an office. An official who misses these points is a 'boor' (ye 野), so says the Sage, and a source of disruption to the civilizing norms (wen 文) essential to the legitimacy of a state.

To call contemporary China a shengshi, there are thus two issues to be considered from within the Chinese intellectual tradition. The first has to do with the name itself—with what shengshi connotes and how it communicates. The second has to do with the practice of naming and the source of the act: about the agency and the medium with regard to the launching of the name and the distribution of its authority in contemporary Chinese context.

What is a flourishing age, a shengshi, of peace, prosperity and other probable happiness? shengshi in its earliest instance of realization, as we know, is said to have taken place under the Three Lords and Five Kings (sanhuang wudi 三皇五帝) under Fuxi 伏羲 and Huangdi 黄帝 who gave birth to the civilization and its people, and under the sage-kings Yao 堯 and Shun 舜 who made rites and music. A second moment arrived in the early Tang, when Turkic chiefs bowed to the Tang court, and when Tang rulers filled their courts with music and poetry. A third shengshi dawned in the eighteenth century when, with the might of Qing arms projecting beyond the Kashmir mountains, Qianlong Emperor produced over forty thousand (mostly bad) poems, collected even more paintings, and devoted scores of years to the copying and compilation of the greatest compendia of books ever known in history. No doubt there were other times in history, equally deserving of the appellation of shengshi. It is nonetheless evident from the above, that arms and goods alone do not do the job. shengshi is produced, above all, on 'rites and music', or on the normative claims of a universalizing civilization invigorated by the performing virtues of a sage-king.

The flourishing age, with its promise of the total fulfillment of the best to which a civilization may ever aspire, cannot but, for that very reason, also be an age of anxiety. The Book of Change 易經 teaches, that eclipse and decline set in when the moon becomes full (yue man ze kui 月滿則虧) or when the sun reaches mid-sky (ri zhong ze ze 日中則昃). In a cyclical conception of time, sheng 盛 (flourish) is inextricably paired with shuai 衰 (decline). Within the ceaseless flow of time, the age of peace and prosperity cannot but also have to be an age of decline.

At the center of a flourishing age is, furthermore, indispensably the sage-ruler, whose wisdom and virtue are synonymous with the accomplishments of his time. This blessing often turns itself into the source of another problem. So much good comes down from the power above, that a majority of those in the lower echelons of the hierarchy are doomed to a life of boredom and inactivity. Cen Shen 岑参 in Tang from his censor's office wrote few memorials. The court of the sagely king (shengchao 聖朝) had placed itself so much above and beyond reproach that (if not also their jobs) the censors saw their memorials becoming superfluous. The shengshi, in that regard, breeds indolence and complacency.

A third problem with a taiping shengshi 太平盛世—a flourishing age of great peace—comes with fenshi taiping 粉飾太平, or a cosmetic make-up in the presentation of the state of peace. Even poets report that starving beggars are never far outside the vermillion gates of the feasting rich ('Zhumen jiurou chou, lu you dongsi gu' 朱門酒肉臭,路有凍死骨). Still, social justice does not always receive its fair share of attention. Demographic issues ensue, when rulers rest their arms. Philip Kuhn, in Soulstealers, seeks to hear the noiseless march towards decline in Qianlong's age of prosperity.

To the extent that dissent is an irrepressible tradition in imperial China, shengshi as a label has been loaded over time with a considerable amount of ambiguity. Shengshi is something for the rulers to proclaim, and from which the intellectuals would seek to dissent. It is also for the courtiers to clamor. Yet it is only for the historians to name. The label gains in its persuasiveness in retrospect and with posterity: after all the major actors have departed from the scenes and when a different era has dawned to offer the basis of evaluative comparison. On the whole it is hardly a time of unalloyed joy or uncomplicated bliss for anyone to be living in a shengshi. It is a somewhat risky business for anyone to declare, indeed, that the shengshi has arrived for the here and now.

It is not clear to me how shengshi begins its circulation as a descriptive term attached to contemporary China. It's likely that it is in part the result of a popular style of thinking that works by analogies and through hinted suggestions. Within the academia, the Qing History Projects that received a significant amount of Chinese government research funding have been steadily drawing attention, in recent years, to the institutions and the accomplishments of the Qing Empire in the eighteenth century. At the popular level, a series of best-selling historical fictions plus a number of nationally televised melodramas might have further captured the public's imagination about the splendor of the Chinese past prior to the coming of the West. It is almost common knowledge in today's China, at least for those who surf the Internet, that the size of the Chinese economy was the largest in the known world up to the eve of the Opium War. By the ethnographic constructions authorized by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the Chinese people of today are the descendents of all the peoples of the Chinese past, who had been interacting and inter-marrying across the span of the empire for multiple millennia. The people of today's China, in this new construction, are brothers and sisters who share common culture and descent (whether they might have loved or cared for each other). They are not enemies who fight each other across class lines. Their history is not a chronicle of miseries being told for the purpose of igniting wars of emancipation. Instead, their history, as tales of past splendors, is a resource of proprietary pride and commercialized entertainment, if not also a centerpiece (as in the case of Xi'an 西安) for real estate development projects.

In Shengshi: Zhongguo 2013 盛世:中国2013, the book that inspires the organization of this AAS panel, the writer Chen Guanzhong 陳冠中 depicts the rise of a Chinese century when the rest of the world falls apart. Shengshi dawns upon the Chinese people in a Kafkaesque manner, upon the inexplicable erasure of a whole stretch of calendar time and an irretrievable loss of memory. It springs out of official enunciations and appears to have been realized, above all, in the discursive arena where it proclaims its own supremacy. Chen's book features a whole host of people seeking to find out about the truth, on local happenings no less than global events. And these individuals run invariably into authorities coming across as 'truth professionals' who can neither be surprised nor challenged, who have apparently seen and known it all. Words become reality through elaborate mechanisms of long standing that never cease to dispense truth. For the ordinary truth-seekers and especially those Chinese from outside the People's Republic, language is no barrier yet understanding poses a major challenge. It is a task of folly for these people to even attempt wading one's own way through such verbal torrents, coded as were the words with so many layers of convention and performance.

In the 'real' world outside Chen's fiction, the party and its leadership, have certainly been involved with the making of speeches. Yet at the same time shengshi is being heard in other contexts that ranged from the media to learned circles, from popular films and books to museum exhibitions and documentary collections. These productions do not deliver the same message. Nor is it important that they don't. What strikes me as significant is that shengshi as a discursive category should have such a wide circulation. As we know, for most of the twentieth century socialist China commemorated young martyrs rather than old ancestors. The past was a feudal country, fit only for critique or silence. With the talk of shengshi this condition is being changed. The imperial past regains its glamour. It even becomes the repository of symbolic riches with which the Chinese people re-imagine their place in the world.

Not even the Chinese Communist Party, to be sure, claims that China have entered a new shengshi. Nor is it a uniquely Chinese problem, in light of China's momentous transformation in recent decades, that there is a need to look for new conceptual categories to help make sense of the emerging China. Old binaries such as 'tradition vs. modernity', 'China vs. the West' have long been diminished of their explanatory capacity. Contemporary China is certainly not 'traditional'. Nor has it become 'modern' in the Western sense. The country, in its own reasoning, is building a society of 'socialist xiaokang 小康'. This term requires translation into Western social science terminology. It also implicates any descriptive analysis in the teleology of progress. Shengshi, by contrast, predates socialism as a Chinese idea and is relatively free of ideological underpinnings. The talk of shengshi however sets off regional as well as global alarms of the resurgence of China as a daguo 大國 (big country): the place it had traditionally reserved for itself in the days of tributary empires and Confucian civilization.

Shengshi as a choice is thus unlikely to solve the naming problem for contemporary China. It provokes intellectual dissent, threatens inevitable decline, overlooks the masses, and worries the neighbors. By and large the usage will not meet Confucian expectations of appropriate naming. Still, there is no denial that shengshi has returned in Chinese popular discourse. It is thus valuable to reflect upon the matter, which has pushed to the center a couple of key questions. Who are the ones doing the naming of things in our times? How are these tasks accomplished? What are the symbolic and communicative resources available at their disposal? And what do we stand to gain or lose whether by keeping our quiet or making our voices heard? It is with these questions in mind that I've found the AAS panel, organized and convened by Geremie Barmé, a most stimulating occasion.

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