An observation: There’s semantic, conceptual, and historical confusion in this. The conflation of China and empire underscores the regrettable tendency in Western scholarship to understand non-Western experiences only in terms of their own historical experiences and concepts.
First, semantics: Rome had an emperor, an empire, and colonies; they were called that. China had a 皇帝, so it had a huangdinate, just like Ottoman was a Sultanate. Unfortunately, owing to the Western dominance of knowledge since the Enlightenment — Said called it Orientalism, I believe — all pre-modern polities that came after the Romans, whether in the West or non-West, were labelled Empire and Emperor. It is more accurate to say that China/Zhongguo was a Huangdinate, a grounded tributary system, which was a phenomenon that was global and that accounted for the existence of a multi-civilisational world at the time. The West had its own in the form of its feudal system. All were internally parochial systems.
Second, conceptual and historical: But if we are to overlook the semantic confusion and allow that China was an empire that went about conquering the world, we would today be conversing in some dialect of Chinese and the predominant worldview would be neo-Confucian/Daoist/Buddhist. But that is not the case, not now or the past 150 years at least: English remains the universal language, French, the language of diplomacy, most of the prominent languages have been derivatives of Latin etc, and the preponderant worldview is Liberalism. Why? That’s where history comes in.
From European feudalism emerged what can be designated Euro-modernism, a cultural form that was let loose on the world and conquered it. In short, it established an empire in the true sense of the word. If you take a look around its predations continue, unabated, putting at risk the entire fate of humanity. Its influence is why we converse in English; why the preponderant worldview is liberalism, not Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism etc. The world went from multi-civilisational to mono-civilisational to unipolar. Of course, it seems like this uni-polarity is today crumbling and we could be headed towards a multi-polar world order again, but if we are to talk of empire, is this not at least where we should begin?
I don’t know Bell’s work well but from what little I have read, he should be applauded for having the courage to urge his colleagues re-visit what they already think they know.
Tung-yi Kho <firstname.lastname@example.org>