δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης.

(You could not step twice into the same river.)

-Heraclitus, as quoted in Plato, Cratylus, 402a

One of my favourite responses to the Roman Catholic boast that their church is the longest surviving entity in the world is to reply that China is supposedly older than the Roman Church, the Chinese Imperium after all was supposed to have been inaugurated under Qin Shi Huang in 222 B.C., which would make it older than the Roman Church by 200 years.

Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China

One of the most remarkable things about Chinese historiography is the conviction it has ingrained in the Chinese race that China will in fact last forever. We may love or hate China, we may think that it will collapse sooner or later, but yet deep in our souls we are all convinced that it would always rise again and be reconstituted like the phoenix, and that as long as this earth lasts, China will survive unto the end of ages. Whereas people confidently predict the end of religion or the Roman Church (although to paraphrase Samuel Clemens, news of religion’s death has been greatly exaggerated), few would confidently predict the once for all collapse of China in the same way that we would acknowledge the finality of the death of the Roman or British Empire.

I wish however to examine whether this sense of continuity or even eternality is more of an illusion than fact, and in the process, to make some general remarks about historiography and historical narratives in general.

The Ship of Theseus Paradox

Before we can examine this question we need to keep in mind the following curious philosophical puzzle known as the “Ship of Theseus Paradox”. The idea of the paradox is as follows: Suppose each day you replace one plank or item of a ship. After a certain amount of time you would have replaced every thing on the ship. Is it still the same ship? Before you answer consider another scenario where after you have replaced every plank on the ship with new materials you use the old planks to build another ship entirely. Which is the original ship?


The point of the Ship of the Theseus is to raise the question of the continuity of identity. How many changes can one thing undergo before it ceases to be that thing and becomes something else? Can you replace every individual thing and yet still be the same thing? (It is important not to confuse the Ship of Theseus paradox with that of the question of universals. The Ship of Theseus paradox is about how makes a particular thing is the same particular thing over time, the problem of universals is what makes many particular things “possess” the same property or universal. It would be Hegel who would confuse everyone by postulating a universal essence or geist/spirit of a particular civic entity across time, but we need to keep them clearly distinct.

A Case Study: The “Same” Roman Catholic Church through Time?

How many changes can a civic or historical entity go through before becoming something else? How plausible are attempts to establish the historical continuity of a historical entity? Hermann Sasse summarises the arguments against attempting any such thing with the Roman Catholic Church with stark clarity:

Where was the papal church before there was a papacy? Whether any church has its origin in the church of the New Testament or not is simply a matter of faith. The Baptists and the Disciples of Christ make the claim that their church was the church at the time of the New Testament. Our Lutheran fathers never had the idea that they were founding a new church. They were of the conviction that Christ’s one church was being renewed with the pure apostolic doctrine in contrast with Rome, which had fallen away from the Gospel.

These are matters of faith, and one should not try to settle them by appeals to historical proofs. How this goes may be seen in the polemics between the Anglicans and English Roman Catholics. Both attempt to prove that they are the legitimate continuation of the medieval church in England. We Lutherans have no part to play in that sort of dispute, although it has often been suggested that we should.

To provide the proof for the identity of any historical construction is always enormously problematical. One may, for example, speak of an English nation and of a German nation that continue through the centuries. But if one looks more closely, one notices how great are also the differences. In what sense are the English people of Henry VIII’s time identical with the 10 times as many English people today? In what sense are today’s German people identical with the people of Luther’s time? Was it anything more than a fiction when it was thought that the Holy Roman Empire of Byzantium was living on in the empire of Charlemagne and the German empire of Otto the Great until it expired in 1806? Is there more of an identity between the Roman Church of today and the church of Peter’s day than there is between the Roman Empire of the first century and the Holy Roman Empire around 1800? It has been observed that the difference between the church before Constantine and after Constantine is greater than the difference in the Western Church before and after the Reformation. Here the historical proofs of identity simply fail.

-Apostolic Succession (Letters to Lutheran Pastors No.14 April 1956)

How is this…

How plausible are the claims that the Roman Church of today, especially after Vatican II, is the same as the Roman Church at Vatican I, at Trent, before the Investiture Controversy, before the Great Schism, before the Constantinian patronage, before the liturgical reforms of St Cyril, etc? Do such claims to continuity make any sense? How is such a thing to be demonstrated? How plausible are claims of Catholic unity and continuity in a time when papal supremacy in Unam Sanctam was asserted alongside with the Statue of Winchester in 1393 “prescribing severe penalties for drawing out of the realm any plea belonging to the king’s court, and this was held to extend to actions in Church courts within England”, where “[t]he courts were also expressing difficulties about the status of the pope: he was recognised as bishop of Rome, but not as a bishop to whom the court could send writs” and where “[a] papal excommunication was for that reason treated by English royal courts as invalid*”? (J.H. Baker: An Introduction to English Legal History)

*Selon v. Cokeside (1358), Sondes v. Pekham (1484)

…the same as this Austrian Mass?

We might however suspect, like the paradox of the Ship of Theseus, that we are essentially dealing with something like an illusion of continuity. Let’s say that in our paradox instead of replacing each plank with the exact same kind of wood we replace it with a different kind of wood, one by one, is it still the same ship? How about if we vary the colours of the sails a bit, change the figurehead? At what point does it become another ship altogether? Again after replacing all the planks of the old ship, along with some changes, we take the old materials and build a new ship with some minor alterations, which is closer to the “original” ship? Is this new ship made of old materials somehow more “original” (as the Protestants Reformers claimed when they said that they were merely trying to restore the Catholic Church back to its “primitive” simplicity before the late medieval accretions)?

On Chinese Historiography

The questionable boasts of the Roman Church’s claims to historical continuity gives us an interesting paradigm case for us to examine the claims to historical continuity for China. If truly, according to some narrative posture (which foundations or basis has yet to be justified convincingly), the Roman Catholic Church is two thousand years old, do not the Chinese have an even stronger claim to being 2200 years old?

However we might rightly sense some sort of historiographical sleight of hand going on here, that this impression is merely the product of a narrative spin but which cannot really find its justification in the particular facts. John Keay in his A History of China shrewdly observes:

Historians, official and otherwise, belonged to that class of scholarly bureaucrats whose status and livelihood depended on the authority of the emperor and the stability of the state. They were seen as the empire’s adornment and they acted as its propagandists. Ouyang Xiu wrote under the Song, when the empire had been substantially reunited. If his account of the Five Dynasties is unduly depressing, it is in part because it was meant to be. By disparaging a fragmented past, he glorified a more integrated present… he was dependent on materials compiled by men who [were keen to ingratiate themselves with the emperor and] used history to emphasise the singularity of Heaven’s Son and the indivisibility of ‘All-under-Heaven’ [天下]. The historiographical tradition invariably talks up empire while playing down regional variables.

This makes it difficult to answer some fundamental questions. How long has China been united? For how much of its history has it been ruled by Chinese? How continuous is its record of political integration? It all depends on how one defines the Chinese and where one starts the history. A timeline of empire based on the traditional dates of each all-China dynasty suggests that ‘the political coherence of [the] Chinese population . . . has been maintained for almost three-quarters of the time that has elapsed since the First Emperor of Qin’. So says the excellent Cultural Atlas of China, though The Cambridge History of China suggests ‘around half’ rather than ‘almost three-quarters’. Both assume that the Chinese population is synonymous with those considered ethnically and culturally Han, so excluding all those non-Han peoples prominent in the country’s history plus all those Tibetans, Uighurs and other minorities whom the government of today regards as Chinese. Moreover, both estimates raise the question of why earlier periods, like that of the pre-imperial Zhou and the ‘Warring States’ – periods more seminal to Chinese civilisation than the Greek and Roman republics to Mediterranean civilisation – should be left out of the equation. Include them, and the three-quarters-to-a-half of recorded history during which China has been ‘politically coherent’ shrinks to no more than a quarter.


The tendency has already been noted for official histories to exaggerate – or elasticate – the duration of favoured dynasties and credit them with exercising a universal authority that was not actually effective for anything like as long.For instance, the empire of the Tang, though traditionally coterminous with the dynasty (618–907), can hardly be described as politically coherent after Huang Chao’s capture of Chang’an in 881; it had in fact been in turmoil throughout the three decades previous to that, and had been seriously compromised ever since An Lushan’s rebellion in 755. Similar reservations apply to the last century of the Later Han. Add the imminent Song (who lost half the empire for 150 years), the Mongol Yuan (whose decentralised dominion became basically ‘a conglomeration of regions under strong regional governments’14), the Manchu Qing (whose last century was also one of ill-disguised chaos) and the twentieth-century republic (beset by warlords and Japanese invaders until 1949), and China’s record of political integration, whether under Han rulers or non-Han, becomes still less impressive. As in the case of the ‘Great Wall’ or the ‘Grand Canal’, episodic segments of monumental achievement have been exaggerated and conflated to convey a misleading impression of near-continuity.

This is not to deny a remarkable continuity of political culture. The Mandate, the supremacy of Heaven’s Son, the concept of zhongguo (whether as ‘the central states’ or ‘the Middle Kingdom’), reverence for a political hierarchy grounded in Confucian morality, and the superiority of this shared culture over the uncultured ‘barbarism’ of non-Han peoples – these were universally acknowledged. Political integration was invariably applauded, inter-dynastic disorder invariably disparaged; the one was synonymous with ‘good governance’, according to Ouyang Xiu, the other with ‘tumult’. Any possibility of things being the other way round, of empire being a burden and regional autonomy a boon, is not so much as scouted in any surviving text.

Yet latter-day historians, especially non-Chinese ones accustomed to Europe’s record of political fragmentation, have indeed queried this equation. They note the periodic resurgence throughout Chinese history of regional entities such as Shu, Chu and Wu, potential states that were as populous and distinctive as any European kingdom; they observe the search for power-balancing constructs based on them; they deplore the dearth of regional historical studies; and though quite unacceptable to most of China’s historians, they sometimes interpret a phrase like ‘imperial inter-dynastic disorder’ as ‘only a derogatory term for multi-state order’. Centralised rule is seen as a recipe for ossification, while state-on-state ‘tumult’ is recast as a competitive dynamic, productive of social renewal, commercial enterprise and great outbursts of creativity and invention.

Thus the ‘Warring States’ period spawned the ‘hundred schools of philosophy’, and the ‘Period of Disunion’ hosted the transformation of Daoism and the consummation of the great affair with Buddhism. The Five Dynasties/Ten Kingdoms looks to have been too brief and chaotic for anything comparable. Yet if it is taken to cover the whole period of imperial eclipse between the collapse of Tang authority in, say, 850 and the final triumph of Song authority c. 980, then it too was by no means barren of distinction.


The development of printing, seven centuries before Gutenberg, and eleven before any of India’s scripts was printed, was undoubtedly the most momentous of all Chinese inventions; as a result, Europe and India still have dozens of languages and literatures but China only one. And this ‘infotech’ revolution substantially took place during the extended Five Dynasties/Ten Kingdoms period. The first use of movable type may also be datable to the period, though ‘the earliest authoritative account of its use’ comes a few decades later in the early eleventh century.


When the particular historical facts are examined closely, we begin to get a sense of a certain artificiality of the narrative construction in the continuity and unity of China. Like the idea that Western Christendom was a unified whole when it at the same time believed in papal supremacy while kings could prevent suits in ecclesiastical causes from being escalated up to the pope, we might wonder if the postulated unity and continuity of China has any basis in historical fact. Has China truly been reconstituted or has it merely been reinvented? Who is to say really? Does an underlying unity between diverse historical phenomena exists or is it something historians merely project unto the facts?

Conclusion: The Consolations of Narrative

If the Jews are defined by their religion and the Americans by founding documents/ideals, then the Chinese are defined by its historical narrative. Whether or not this narrative “accurately” reflects the historical facts is an open question, but it is a question which has very little relevance on the ground; what matters is that people believe the narrative and to a very wide extent, many, if not most, Chinese do. It helps of course that for so many centuries historical record and narrative has been the effort of the imperial court itself, granting it an extra aura of legitimacy and Truth emanating from the imperial throne, even if court historians needs to be liberal with the facts to make their narratives work.

Perhaps people need narratives to organise the confusing array of facts and phenomena which surrounds them into a seamless coherent whole. Perhaps there is something comforting for some about stability and continuity through time and such narratives exist to provide it. Maybe it is human nature to weave such narratives to make sense of their lives and to situate themselves in a disorienting world. Maybe in an entity as vast and as complex as the Roman Church or China, such narratives becomes essential to holding the body politic together and create social cohesion.

Receiving the Imperial Edict on bended knees

While I  have no wish to rain on anyone’s parade, if they find comfort in such things I generally leave them alone, I do take an exception when such narratives are wielded, not merely as private consolations, but as an evangelistic gospel to beat the heads of others into accepting the “superiority” of their favoured historical entity because of their concocted narrative. When one begins to imply that there is more reality to one’s historical narrative than can bear the weight of the historical facts, like it being divinely ordained or embedded into structures of reality itself, one is simply asking to have one’s narrative exposed for the concoction that it is.

As both a Protestant and someone sympathetic to Chinese Legalism, I place my confidence in God directly and prefer to do history with my eyes open, and while I can understand the function of historical narratives, don’t expect me to take some human invention as a revelation into some higher objective reality; don’t confuse an expression of desire for coherence for an objective fact or truth. I can understand something like, “I find it comforting that certain practices and beliefs have stood the test of time”, but say something like, “my super big tribe, which consists of a cacophony of contradictory phenomena which I artificially force into a single narrative, is superior or stronger because I can tell a clever tale” and you’re simply asking for it.

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