China: a Fourth Rome?

Last month Thermidor Magazine published my article on the idea of China as a fourth Rome (#China4thRome); my article was also picked up by Geopolitica. That was pretty cool. May the Lord direct the growth of his Church in China, and purify the saints there, that his Church may serve his purposes and not unwittingly those of Antichrist.


As a Chinaman born in the United States, I find myself able to speak to both places and neither. By accidents of fortune, however – or of providence, rather – I have identified more with China even as I have lived my whole life in the West. English is my third language, after Cantonese and Mandarin, even if I use it to express my intellectually most complex thoughts; and though my best of the three in writing, trained by the use of Latin, it is the vehicle of a Chinese soul. So it is in English that for the past year I have memed an idea as unconventional as it is ambitious, unto the Europæans a stumbling-block, and unto the Chinese foolishness: #China4thRome.

This idea I do not attempt to defend rigorously, between various powers’ conflicting claims to carrying on the Roman heritage; neither do I intend to claim that Moscow, which has seen itself as a Third Rome after the original Rome and then Constantinople, is fallen. Instead, I think back to the division of the Roman empire, first under Diocletian’s Tetrarchy and then at the death of Theodosius I, the last ruler of the undivided Roman empire. In the second partition, at the death of Theodosius, Arcadius became emperor of the East, with his capital in Constantinople, and Honorius emperor of the West, with his capital in Milan and then Ravenna. That the Roman empire did not stay uniformly strong under a plurality of emperors is not the point. What is significant about the administrative division of the Roman empire among several emperors is that the idea of Rome can be one even while its administration is diverse.

By divine providence, the Christian religion – and through it, Rome – has spread even through the bourgeois imperialism of the 19th and 20th centuries. Across the world, the civil calendar of common use is that of Rome, reckoned from 1 January; few places has Roman law left wholly untouched. Nevertheless, never have we observed in the world of Roman culture an ethnogenetic pattern like that of the Chinese empire as described by the prologue of Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三國演義: ‘The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.’1 According to classical Chinese cosmology, the phrase rendered the empireis more literally all under heaven 天下, the Chinese œcumene being its ‘all under heaven’ much as a Persian proverb speaks of the old Persian capital of Isfahan: ‘Esfahān nesf-e jahān ast,’ Isfahan is half the world. As sociologist Fei Xiaotong describes it in his 1988 Tanner Lecture ‘Plurality and Unity in the Configuration of the Chinese People’,

The Chinese people had their home in the vast land of eastern Asia which borders on the Pamirs in the west, the Pacific Ocean to the east with the offshore islands, the vast desert to the north, the sea to the southeast, and the mountain range to the southwest. Bounded by natural shelters on all sides, it is a geographical unit with a complete structural system of its own. In the eyes of the ancients this was the only piece of land for the human race to live in. For this reason the land was called Tianxia, meaning “all the land under heaven.” Another name for China was Sihai, meaning “the land surrounded by seas on all sides, as was believed in those times. These conceptions are, of course, long outdated. What remains true is that this piece of land, which forms a geographical entity by itself, still serves as a living space for the Chinese people.

And this Chinese œcumene has united and divided for centuries, even as those who live in it have recognized a fundamental unity. But Rome, unlike the Chinese empire, has lived on in multiple successor polities, sometimes several at once, without ever coming back together as one empire administered as one. Perhaps something of its character has instead uniquely suited it to being the spirit of a kind of broader world empire. As Dante says in De Monarchia, ‘As the human race, then, has an end, and this end is a means necessary to the universal end of nature, it follows that nature must have the means in view.’ He continues,

If these things are true, there is no doubt but that nature set apart in the world a place and a people for universal sovereignty; otherwise she would be deficient in herself, which is impossible. What was this place, and who this people, moreover, is sufficiently obvious in what has been said above, and in what shall be added further on. They were Rome and her citizens or people. On this subject our Poet [Vergil] has touched very subtly in his sixth book [of the Æneid], where he brings forward Anchises prophesying in these words to Aeneas, father of the Romans: ‘Verily, that others shall beat out the breathing bronze more finely, I grant you; they shall carve the living feature in the marble, plead causes with more eloquence, and trace the movements of the heavens with a rod, and name the rising stars: thine, O Roman, be the care to rule the peoples with authority; be thy arts these, to teach men the way of peace, to show mercy to the subject, and to overcome the proud.’ And the disposition of place he touches upon lightly in the fourth book, when he introduces Jupiter speaking of Aeneas to Mercury in this fashion: ‘Not such a one did his most beautiful mother promise to us, nor for this twice rescue him from Grecian arms; rather was he to be the man to govern Italy teeming with empire and tumultuous with war.’ Proof enough has been given that the Romans were by nature ordained for sovereignty. Therefore the Roman people, in subjecting to itself the world, attained the Empire by Right.

The chain of great civilizations from the Atlantic to the Pacific has long been Rome-Persia-China, but of these three only one, for better or worse, has now set the world’s common terms of discourse. This is perhaps not yet as much the case in the Islamic Republic of Iran, and in the cultural sphere of Greater Iran, but the entity we call China has been shaped by an encounter with Christendom, and with elements parasitic upon Christendom, whose impact cannot simply be ignored or blotted out. The very explicit concept of China as a geopolitical space – the geopolitical awareness that the ‘all under heaven’ of the axial Son of Heaven, who sits in the centre, facing south, was a space among spaces on the planet – comes from an encounter that forever shattered the older, literal interpretation of these spiritual concepts. There is no going back. The Chinese knew, long ago, that there was a Rome; even farther back, it was from Indo-Europæans (possibly those we today call Tocharians, inhabiting the Tarim Basin now part of Chinese Turkestan) that they learned chariot warfare and possibly bronzeworking, and even the ancient Chinese word wu巫, ‘mage’, may derive from Old Persian maguš. So it is not that the Chinese were ignorant of other advanced cultures, but, even with the tides that enriched the Chinese with the ideas and materials of other cultures, nothing else had the powerful pull that generated and sustained the Huaxia 華夏 culture whose cradle was the middle reaches of the Yellow River. So even the dialectic of Huaxia culture with the Steppe, without which China would not be what it is – for Turan has given China not only the pipa 琵琶 and the erhu 二胡 but also emperors of dynasties we see as native – has not so challenged the identity of the Sinosphere. The power of Rome in Christendom, and of Christendom in Rome, has reshaped China and is still reshaping China, and it is in response to this encounter most of all, as it is for the individual who is converted to the gospel of Christ, that the Chinese have had to define themselves; for it is, what the Chinese have not known before, an encounter with Christ and Antichrist.

Oswald Spengler has spoken of the (modern) West as wholly different in character from ancient Rome, Faustian rather than Roman, but it is perhaps truer and more fitting to say that in the life of the Western nations is both something we can call Faustian and something we can call Roman, sometimes the one having the upper hand and sometimes the other. For, even if much of the modern talk of Rome and living its glory be counterfeit, a mere conceit, yet something must be there to be spoken of so widely, so long after some have dated the ‘fall of Rome’ at the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in the West at the hands of Odoacer. The translatio imperii, transfer of empery, is not merely a fiction, for the polity of Rome was indeed set in Constantinople, and there it became, though smaller in jurisdiction, a more perfect vessel of the truth that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh; likewise, Frederick II of the House of Hohenstaufen, whom Dante called ‘the last Emperor of the Romans, last, I say, as regards this present time’, took up the mantle of Rome and, though twice excommunicated by the Bishop of Rome (in 1227 and 1245), from Sicily and the south of Italy extended his ambitions not only to Germany and Italy but also to Jerusalem, holding a court at Palermo that was known for its culture, where philosophy, art, music, science, and poetry from Latin, Arabic, Italian, Northern Europæan, and Greek traditions bore fruit together. Europe itself, as a geopolitical space and not merely a designation of physical geography, can be said to be a Rome, for a long time a multiple Rome. When aligned with the heavenly City of God, it breathes the spirit of the Rome used by God; when aligned against it, a Rome assimilated to the Faustian spirit. Yet the line between the two Romes, to borrow a line from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, cuts through the human heart.

That God was at work even in and through the colonialism of Rome’s Western successors, which was driven by the greed of evil men and the libido dominandi, the lust for mastery, is no idle talk built upon the sand; for even through these shameful things, great and terrible, the saving gospel of his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ has gone forth to the ends of the earth, through the humble and not through the boasting of the merchant-pirates and usurers. Some have thus seen how God spoke to their peoples through types and figures before the coming of the gospel, and in the gospel found themselves, found the principle by which their selves and their nations should be saved. From the Ming dynasty to the present, this is the power that many of the Chinese, from Matteo Ricci’s Confucian converts to Republican fathers Sun Yat-sen 孫中山 and Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石, and even Chen Duxiu 陳獨秀, cofounder of the Chinese Communist Party (more here, with abstract in English), have felt in Christianity coming from the Roman world: that it can save the empire. Thus can Rome be said to have set its expanse – or to have been set in its expanse – over the world.

The Chinese œcumene’s first significant record of the Roman empire was in the Han dynasty, in the 1st century, when military ambassador Gan Ying 甘英 called it Daqin 大秦, or Great Qin. Rome was therefore, in some way, a copy of the Chinese empire, an alter Sina. The empire’s first meeting with the gospel of Jesus Christ coming from the Roman world, however, may have been in the 7th century, with the coming of the priest called Alopen. The Nestorian Stele – of which Georgetown University has a fullsize replica – records the favour with which the powerful Tang dynasty emperor Taizong responded to this ‘luminous religion of Daqin’ 大秦景教. But the crucial direct encounter with the West, for good and for ill, was almost a millennium later.

As University of Oregon professor Arif Dirlik explains in his essay ‘Born in Translation: “China” in the Making of “Zhongguo”’, this encounter is what created the concept of China for the Chinese. The renaming of the empire of the Great Qing (1644–1911) in its last years, he says, ‘was directly inspired by the “Western” idea of “China”, that called for radical re-signification of the idea of Zhongguo [‘Central Country’], the political and cultural space it presupposed, and the identification it demanded of its constituencies’. The idea of the Central Country was, rather than a political entity, a civilizational ideal rooted in the classical culture of the Zhou dynasty (c. 1046 BC–256 BC) and its central states on the Central Plain of the Yellow River. It was not until the rise of nationalism, and finally, the Republic after the fall of the Qing, that Zhongguo became the name of an actually delineated country rather than a diplomatic convention.

We may say it was the West, being both Rome and Faust, that broke the old interpretation of the ancient Chinese cosmology and made the concept of China and thus exposed it to more open war between Christ and Antichrist. In the mid 19th century, the First Opium War (1839–1842) and then the Second Opium War (1856–1860, treaties signed 1858 and ratified 1860) blew the Qing empire open to the presence of Western aliens even in the interior, and to embassies in the capital, and thus to both Christian missionaries and the Sassoon family’s opium (cf. the Sacklers’ trade in opiates today). Meanwhile, the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), picking up the Christianity thread in doctrinally aberrant ways, was a response to the decadence of the late Qing and the suffering of the common folk under foreign imperialism, but it also killed about 23 million persons. The line between Christ and the Antichristian spirit of global capital was twisted and strange indeed, and in the midst of these convulsions was the modern national idea of China-born. Though biochemist and historian of science Joseph Needham 李約瑟 shows in Science and Civilisation in China that Chinese science had already developed indigenously before the arrival of modern Western science, Arnold J. Toynbee’s account reflects better the feeling of the Chinese people:

In breaking off relations with the West in the form in which the West had first presented itself, the Chinese and the Japanese had not disposed of their ‘Western Question’ once for all. A rebuffed West subsequently transformed itself, and then reappeared on the East Asian scene, now offering its technology instead of religion as its principal gift, and the Far Eastern societies now found themselves confronted with a choice of either mastering this newfangled technology for themselves or else succumbing to it.

The challenge was, and is, to develop technologically in such a way as to stand up to the weaponry of the West, yet without becoming the West and thus surrendering without a fight. On the one hand, the Great Qing Code was reformed along German lines, making China a potential inheritor of Roman law through the Napoleonic Code, if it will have it; on the other hand, Sun Yat-sen’s ressourcement of the Chinese tradition looked not to the Faustian West for China’s modern identity but to the wisdom of the ancient past. China can be a fourth Rome, but it cannot be the Rome of the modern West without losing its soul. Instead, it must be a Rome of true Christian orthodoxy against the dissembled and dissembling Christianity sold by Faustian agents today.

The Chinese Rome may have the power to challenge the Faustian West and its White-supremacist Faustian Christianity, a false Christianity we see not only in the most obvious exponents of the neoliberal (dis)order but also in the fantasies of Ross Douthat and Michael Dougherty about an ‘Africa’ that, as P. T. Carlo puts it, ‘exists within a narrative for the sole purpose of helping the white protagonist realize his potential’, and for this reason is assimilated by Mr Dougherty into the Faustian geopolitical entity of The West™. The fetish of some Papalists for Cardinal Sarah (the based Negro cardinal) is not, as some imagine, a Black supremacism, but a White supremacism in disguise; and this Western chauvinism in ecclesiology and geopolitics deserves to be turned back by a non-Western Romanitas, whose priorities are not those of the Faustians of the West.

A Christianity both indigenous and orthodox is perhaps hard for a Westerner to see. Following Jesus’ designation of himself as the Vine and the parts of the Church as the branches, consider wine and terroir. The seed is the word of God, which is sown into the heart. The gospel of Christ is the life of the Church – being in one Head, we have exactly the same Holy Spirit, and we drink of one cup in the Eucharist – but how exactly to treat the one grape will vary by terroir: just as you factor soil, altitude, terrain, sun-orientation, and microclimates into decisions on pruning, irrigation, and harvest time, so the same faith varies in things indifferent to its being. Cultivated in different conditions, the same plant (or the same clonal variety) looks different and makes for wines that look, smell, and taste different. The Church of China will not look like a typical Anglican church, and neither will it look like a typical Byzantine church: such is a national church fit for a China opposing the coercive and deceptive force of the West.

As reported by David P. Goldman at the Asia Times, the West is panicking at the œconomic rise of China, not least in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) linking China to Europe by the ways of the ancient Silk Road – a growing œconomic power Dr Goldman thinks is matched by cultural power, not least in Yuja Wang’s interpretation of Beethoven.

Western analysts in general dismissed China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). During the past year, though, new rail lines have lined China to Iran, Turkey and from there to Western Europe, drastically reducing the time and cost of shipping across the Eurasian continent. Two rail links to Iran are now in operation. On September 6, the first train to Teheran departed from Yinchuan, capital of northwest China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, with a 15-day journey time to Iran’s capital, half as long as sea transport. The Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway linking China with Turkey and the South Caucasus begins operations in October. China already is Turkey’s largest source of imports. As a result, once-neglected areas of Western China have become the most dynamic zones in the China’s economy. According to a recent study by the Milken Institute, the fastest-growing city in China is Chengdu, a metropolis of 12.3 million people in Sichuan province. Few Westerners can find Chengdu on a map, but it exemplifies the initial success of BRI.

Of greater moment, however, is spirituality, not œconomics. The œconomic integration of a geopolitical Eurasia led by Russia and China against the geopolitical West of the neoliberal Washington Consensus is, I think, only a sign of more significant spiritual things. The BRI designs of the Chinese Communist Party align – probably not by human design – with many Chinese churches’ ‘Back to Jerusalem’ vision for evangelizing all the lands from China to the Holy Land. Indeed, some Christians of Asian origin have reported being led by God to begin work in Central Asia in the 1990s when no one understood why, and only now is it becoming clear to them that God, who prompted that work then, has also now orchestrated BRI development in Central Asia. For China, the spiritual stakes have been raised.

It is possible that China contains, for development, an alternative of multipolarity to the Washington Consensus of open-market policies promoted by the IMF, World Bank, and the US Treasury, but the way is dangerous. The Chinese bourgeoisie is growing in power and therefore in its capacity for immorality, and to follow their lead would be a worthless endeavour.

Bourgeois culture, spiritually threatening to assimilate the powers that be in China to the global (Western) élite, is a challenge for the Church itself. Wenzhou, sometimes described as ‘China’s Jerusalem’,2 is a nouveau riche city with Christian bosses who rose from rags to riches; it features a capitalist Boss Christianity whose prosperous lay leaders believe they serve God by making money, running churches as entrepreneurs and running factories as Christian enterprises drawing poor labourers to the promise of a better life in Christianity. It looks like the religion of Americanism, a nihilism that grew into the global capitalism of the post-Cold War world. Will China go with a Wenzhou Boss Christianity, oriented toward the business of manufacturing outsourced from the West, and the seeking of power and glory through commerce? or will it go with a Christianity oriented toward the Eurasian continent, and the voluntary laying down of boss power to build neighbours up? Chinese Christianity must align not with high-finance imperialism, which breathes the spirit of Antichrist, but with those who like Burkinabé president Thomas Sankara in the 1980sare resisting that neoliberal disorder’s supremacy by struggling for independence from it. Only thus will the Church be the spiritual life of a China that takes the shape prædestined for it by God, a China that leads other nations by the strength of Christ in a common resistance against the geopolitical powers of Satan. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Now back to Zion goes the pilgrim’s eye,
Translating holy leaves into Chinese,
The sages for Aquinas. Riding high,
He circumambulates the Dipper’s keys.

Around the four directions goes his sign,
Yet stays where northern lights have made their home,
Facing the south, where province-cauldrons nine
Are come to offer to this lord of Rome.

For this is where we find Jerusalem,
And holy Zion in the pious heart;
This is the dwelling, faith the bosom’s gem,
Where Holy Ghost and Holy Church ne’er part.

By faith is fair Jeshurun in Cathay,
A promised temple for a coming day.


  1. Fei Xiaotong, in ‘Plurality and Unity in the Configuration of the Chinese’, 214: ‘Going back in history, China as a state was unified during two thirds of the post-Qin period, and it was divided for the remaining one-third of the historical span. But the picture was different concerning ethnic relationships. Throughout the ages the Hans had been expanding themselves, and the process of absorption and assimilation went on with more vigor whenever the country found itself under separatist rule, as conquests by national minorities generally brought the ethnic groups closer together.’ 
  2. See Nanlai Cao’s study Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, Power and Place in the City of Wenzhou

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