Political unification and China’s Grand Union ideal
Because let’s face it, unification is an ideology.
The EU prides itself on moving towards unification only through debate, consensus, and democratic decision-making. But increasingly, it finds itself in the impossible position of trying to convince every member state that there is something to be gained, when in many cases, the benefits are uncertain, long-term, or abstract. The EU leaders had high hopes of being written in history books when they signed this and the last treaty. In the aftermath of this episode, however, we have seen ideas seriously floated like ignoring Ireland’s vote, of procedurally maneuvering around it, of making them vote again and again until passed, even of expelling Ireland from the EU! If this isn’t the unification ideology working, I don’t know what is.
To Chinese people, the existence of such ideologically driven motivation seems only natural. Human history is one of successively larger units of cooperative society. Without pre-commitment (generally founded on an ideological faith), there is nothing to guarantee cooperation among actors, no matter what their best intentions are. If you want gains, you have to put your chips in, even as you don’t know what you will get out of it for certain. The only thing to make people realize this is a negative consequence for not participating, which often means war. Chinese thinkers have figured this out thousands of years ago, when they faced the kind of calamitous warfare like the two World Wars that finally drove Europe to embark on its current path…
It can be said that the unification ideology — or more precisely the Da Yi Tong (Grand Union) ideology — is ingrained in Chinese cultural consciousness. It is perhaps the key culture characteristic that makes China, well, China. So when you think you see nationalism or patriotism, there is often something more. Or if you came away from the movie Ying Xiong (Hero) thinking it was “stupid Communist propaganda”, then you missed the point that the cultural (and not merely political) statement predates 1949 by a long shot.
I will translate the first portion of an article that appeared in the Guangming Daily newspaper last month called Grand Union: the conception, its extent, and its historical impact. Whether you think it’s the “right” interpretation of history or not, keep in mind that it is how many Chinese themselves interpret history. (If it’s too long-winded for you, skip to the end for my summary/thoughts):
Abstract: As early as the pre-Qin era, the Grand Union ideology first proposed by Confucius already existed and described an ideal state of a prosperous country and a happy people, and included such components as unification of the domain, honest and enlightened governance, social stability, and economic prosperity — the primary component being unification of the territorial domain of China. The Grand Union ideology that co-developed with the history of China is one that expanded continually whether in ethnographic or geographic scope. Grand Union of the ethnographic sphere includes the ethnic brotherhood in which the majority Han belongs, which we today call the “Chinese nation” (Zhonghua Minzu). Grand Union of the geographic sphere historically referred to the metropolitan territories of the “unified” dynastic empires of Qin, Han, Tang, Yuan, Ming, and Qing, and today refers to all the sovereign territory of China as defined by currently practiced international law. The Grand Union ideology is ingrained in the cultural bloodstream of the Chinese nation, and has for thousands of years influenced how Chinese thought about the fate of their country. It not only pushed forward the development of Chinese history, but is also an important yardstick by which we judge historical figures.
I. The Concept of “Grand Union”
In “Ci Hai” (equivalent of the OED for the Chinese language), the definition for “Da Yi Tong” (Grand Union) is: “Da (Grand): as to indicate importance, value, respect; Yi Tong (Union): referred to all dukes in the land united under the Son of Heaven (Emperor) of the Zhou Dynasty; subsequently refers to the ability of feudal empires to rule over the whole country.” The word “Grand Union” first appeared in “Commentary of Gongyang on the Spring and Autumn Annals”. In his “Spring and Autumn Annals”, Confucius had written that, in recording the enthronement of each Zhou emperor, the notation Wang Zhengyue (lit. the king’s first month, i.e. the dukes follow the new emperor’s calendar) always appeared. The Commentary explains “What is ‘Wang Zhengyue’? It is Grand Union”. Later scholars have expounded on this further, for instance, Dong Zhongshu of early Han Dynasty, the first to systematically interpret Confucian thought, wrote: “The Grand Union of the ‘Spring and Autumn Annals’ is the common law for all lands and the universal value for all times.” The Tang Dynasty scholar Yan Shigu explained further, “Union means the totality of all things is encompassed by a singular entity … Here it means the dukes are ruled by the Son of Heaven, and may not create local monopolies.” From these we can grasp the original meaning of “Grand Union”, which is: the orderly organization of society with the Son of Heaven of Zhou at its core so that China may complete true political unification.
Although the philosophy embodied in the concept of “Grand Union” was developed interpretively by latter-day scholars of the Confucian school, it indeed fits with the intents of Confucius himself. Confucius lived in a time of a weakened Zhou Dynasty, where dukes fought for dominance and wars raged without end. His lifelong ideal was the political unification of China. The Analects contains a few words of his own that even better expresses his thought along this line: “The world has the Way when the rites and military expeditions issue from the Son of Heaven; the world has lost the Way when the rites and military expeditions issue from the dukes.” The meaning of this sentence is very clear: the Son of Heaven should control the decision making power of all major events of the country. The “kingly way” of unification under Heaven that Confucius pursued had its own prior historical background. Although we lack complete historical records, we roughly know that the area in which the Hua-Xia people lived already began coalescing into a unified political entity when the Xia Dynasty was established, and that the Dynasties of Shang and early Zhou extended this arrangement begun by Xia. It was only in late Zhou Dynasty that China gradually sank into divided rule by dukes. But even during this time, “unification” remained a mainstream thought. So we have a famous poem collected by Confucius in his Book of Songs, the first Chinese poetry anthology, which said in part, “Under the broad Heaven, nothing is not kingly soil. On the banks enclosing the soil, nothing is not kingly subject.” Most scholars contemporaneous with Confucius and slightly afterwards all promoted the Union ideology, like Mencius, who succinctly answered a duke’s query about “how all under Heaven will be calmed” with “by One”. Another representative of the Confucian school, Xun Zi, also proposed such views as “all within the four seas as one family” and “unite all under Heaven, utilize all things, nurture the people, derive mutual benefit for all, such that none in the reachable parts of the domain disobey”.
Certainly, the meaning of “Grand Union” is not a simple unification of territory. It has broader implications, including honest and enlightened governance, social stability, and economic prosperity. These can be expressed, respectively, with “has the Way” of Confucius, the “calm” of Mencius, and the “utilize all things” of Xun Zi. The late Warring States period classic “The Book of Guan Zi” summarized the implications of “Grand Union” even further: “The Son of Heaven commands all under Heaven, dukes take commands from the Son of Heaven, officials take commands from the sovereign”; “Use the resources under Heaven to benefit the people under Heaven; use clear display of authority to collect the powers under Heaven; use acceptable virtue in action to endear the dukes; judge all the minds under Heaven as guilty of guile; on account of your authority under Heaven, campaign with all righteousness; attack states that rebel, reward meritorious service, acknowledge sagely advice; with the exemplary action of one, the common people are calmed”. Taiwanese scholar Li Xinlin summarized the relationship between “Grand Union” and “unification”, and said, “The so-called ‘Union’ sees all under Heaven as home, and One World as goal; benevolent governance is the epitome of ‘Union’. Then ‘Union’ has ‘unification’ as complement, for bringing order requires stamping out chaos as the first step. There is a dependence relation … so “unification” is implied by ‘Union’.” We can also say, the concept of “Grand Union” has political unification as its methodology, while “great order under Heaven” is its ultimate goal. Political unification is the necessary condition for realizing the ideal state of “Grand Union”. The structure of unity is advantageous for enhancing economic connections between the various regions of China, for raising the productivity of society and the level of cultural and technological achievement, for promoting social harmony. One only needs to browse history to find that the few well known peaceful and prosperous periods of China’s feudal era, whether it be Han Dynasty’s Wenjing Rule, Tang Dynasty’s Zhenguan Rule and Kaiyuan Prosperity, Ming Dynasty’s Yongxuan Rule, or Qing Dynasty’s Qianlong Prosperity, none occurred without political unification as a premise. These experiences of history mean most Chinese people often broadly equate “Grand Union” with unification of the country.
Looking over the two thousand plus years of history from Qin Dynasty to Qing Dynasty, the lofty ideal state of “Grand Union” (i.e., “great order under Heaven”) actually occupies a rather small number of years. Even the basic condition underlying “Grand Union” (i.e. the state of national unity) did not occur often. In ancient history, China nominally had four periods of great unity: the Qin-Han period, the Western Jin period, the Sui-Tang period, and the Yuan-Ming-Qing period, covering 1422 of the 2132 years of imperial history, or about 66%. But if we deduct the civil warfare and division that always accompanied periods of dynastic succession (about 174 years, or 8%), the times of true unity only account for 1248 years, or 58% of the total imperial era. In other words, China of the feudal era actually spent 42% of its time in a non-unified state. However, the principal meaning of “Grand Union” is not necessarily its existence as an actual state of affairs, but as an ideology that has long influenced the Chinese nation’s thinking on national development. As a “state of affairs” or “institution”, “Grand Union” has been intermittent; as an “ideology”, “Grand Union” has never been suspended or broken. Especially since the time when Wudi (Emperor) of Han Dynasty (156 BCE – 87 BCE) established Confucianism as China’s state ideology, the “Grand Union” thinking first created by Confucius has seeped deeper and deeper into the cultural bloodstream of the Chinese nation, becoming an enduring and significant component of China’s national identity. Since those ancient times, the Chinese people have seen all too many divisions and reunions, so they only treasure the “Grand Union” ideal more and see realizing the political unity of China as the primary pathway for the drive toward a thriving and advanced country.
There are three more parts to this article, which I will not translate in the interest of time and labor, but leave for discussion:
II. The Ethnographic Extent of a “Grand Union” China
III. The Geographic Extent of a “Grand Union” China
IV. Historical Figures under the “Grand Union” Perspective
That isn’t to say there are no contrarian views. There are many — remember that Confucius was persona-non-grata in the liberal circles of 20th century China and especially the early PRC. His graves were even dug out during the Cultural Revolution, although now Confucianism is making a small comeback (blog post for another day). And today, there exists debate about the degree of regionalism vs. centralism in China — especially in developed coastal regions that feel they’d be better off with more devolved power — not to mention the “three separatisms” of Tibet, Xinjiang, and most especially Taiwan. But it isn’t a coincidence that the contrarian views generally draw from Western liberalist philosophy while the unification ideology draws on very Chinese roots. Which is exactly the point that the separatism/unification issue is not just political but also cultural, and so this flip side of the coin deserves to be told and told more.
At the end of the day, unification is still a strong mainstream ideology in China. In two thousand years, the racial composition of China changed (greatly), the rulers changed, but “ancient” China remains as one of the only countries in the world (some argue the only one) that maintain a continuous political-cultural-geographical trinity consciousness all the way back to the dawn of civilization. That gives China its defining meaning. If “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” defines the American ideal (god knows America doesn’t actually want your tired and poor, just the best of the best — Mexico are you listening? Cuba?), then a unified, stable, harmonious, and prosperous China open and accepting of all ethnicities of our big family might as well be China’s ideal.
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