China, The Great Unifier

Our world is exhausted by its persistent failure at stopping political disasters, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Solution? Try tackling the issue first from an institutional design perspective. That's how the Chinese have done it for thousands of years.
March 28, 2024
Deputy director of China Institute,Fudan University
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Few topics have been met with more enthusiasm in China’s cultural circle than the recent exploration of “What makes China China”. Those who are curious may now choose from a fresh emergence of works on the subject addressing the issue from various perspectives such as archaeology, history, and culture. It is also a topic I’m keen to contribute to from my own standpoint-the point of political civilization.

To understand what China is, one needs to look at the origin of its written language. The character “中” (zhōng) in 中国, which is China’s name for itself in its native language, means “middle” or “center”. The earliest version of the chacater, first seen in the oracle bone inscriptions of the Shang Dynasty from more than 3,000 years ago, bears two basic features. First, it shows a vertical line passing through the center of a circle or a square, resembling a flagpole standing upright. In various oracle bone inscriptions, fluttering flags can be observed drawn at different positions of the line. Some archaeologists believe that the vertical line can be understood as a representation of primitive sundials.

“中” in oracle bone inscriptions

The importance placed on correct timing can be attributed to China’s early entrance into the agricultural civilization as timing is crucial for carrying out agricultural activities. As recorded in the first chapter of the Chinese ancient book “Book of Documents“, Emperor Yao ordered a dedicated group of tribes to observe the movement of the sun, all for the purpose of calendar formulation. Calendar, the most important public product in ancient times, undoubtedly lent authority and legitimacy to whoever could comprehend the time system.

According to records in ancient texts such as the “Zhou Bi Suan Jing(《周髀算经》)” and the “Huainanzi《淮南子》”, it was a stick, a primitive form of “sundial” , that Chinese people resorted to for their earliest attempt to measure the movement of the sun. And it is likely that Chinese as a civilization gradually came to grips with space, including the“four directions”, in the process of grappling with time. [1]

As the middle,  “Zhong” (中), can only be understood in relation to the “four directions”, it can be inferred that the Chinese character of middle, “Zhong” (中), derives from an understanding of time and space.

As for the flags fluttering on the sundial, various attempts have been made in interpreting its meaning. Some scholars believe that this was an early clan’s flag or totem used to gather their people, while others argue it to be a reflection of the ancient practice of setting up a sundial alongside a flag, for example, in times of battle or hunting expeditions. In such instances, customs dictate that a sergeant raise a flag alongside a sundial and the commander lower the flag when the designated time expired, and those who arrived late be executed. This practice can be found recorded in China’s classic text on history “Records of the Grand Historian“. Therefore, the character “中” (zhōng) not only signifies the central position in terms of direction but also implies an authoritative center enforcing orders.

So when did the characters “中” (zhōng) and “国” (guó) come together in formation of 中国, China? An archaeological excavation in 1963 found, the earliest appearance of the word “中国” (Zhōngguó) in the inscription, reading “宅兹中国” (“Reside in China”) in one He zun (a type of ritual vessel) unearthed. Here, “中国” referred to the city of Luoyi built by the Zhou people, located in present-day Luoyang. [2]

After overthrowing the Shang Dynasty and its affiliated feudal lords, King Wu of Zhou found himself at his wit’s end on how to sustain his newly acquired territory. Exhausted from numerous sleepless nights, King Wu was visited by Duke of Zhou in the middle of the night, and a timely solution presented itself.

In a nutshell, they came to the conclusion that it was crucial to set up a center for the newly-established Zhou. Luoyang, along with its surrounding territories, was chosen as the ideal location for this center. The area would later be given a new name of Luoyi.

The choice of location was supported by the prevailing perception at that time-Luoyang, with its surrounding areas, was perceived as the center of all territory under the heaven, as evidenced by its popular name “土中” (tǔ zhōng, middle of all territories) recorded in “Tribute of Yu” from the “Book of Documents“. This perception still resonates today, as Luoyang continues to place itself at the center of PRC. If person A drives from across China from west to east, starting from Baoji and Xi’an to Zhengzhou, Kaifeng, Xuzhou, and Lianyungang, while person B drives from north to east, starting from Datong, Taiyuan, Changzhi, south to Nanyang, Xiangyang, Jingzhou, Changsha, all the way to Guangzhou, they will still cross paths in places near Luoyang today.

China’s history thereafter has been one revolving around a geographical center of Luoyang, marked by constant expansion and integration. The concept of “中国” (Zhōngguó), or China, gradually expanded to encompass areas beyond Luoyang to include the regions of the Yellow River, Huai River, Yangtze River, and Han River. Over time, China gradually become to represent succeeding dynasties established on a territory with the Central Plains as the core.[3]

The name later evolved to represent a unified multi-ethnic country in modern times and eventually a shared homeland of all Chinese today. As Liang Qichao rightfully puts it, “With diversity of origin ingrained since its inception, the Chinese nation gradually coalesced into one great entity that has withstood the passage of thousands of years.”

Luoyi is located at the red dot on the map

Tracing back the origins of the name 中国 illustrates a fundamental characteristic of Chinese civilization, which is the formation of a strong centripetal force and an identification with a cohesive central core to ensure survival in the face of common threats.

Why is the concept of 中 relevant today?

Looking back at ancient times, China’s geographical scale had been quite large from an early time on, making it a large nation by all modern standards. Its diversity in terms of geography, population, and culture surpassed that of any country claiming cultural pluralism today.

We have often attributed Europe’s political fragmentation to its diverse geographical features. However, China’s geography is no less diverse. Consider the Sichuan Basin, surrounded by towering mountains; the strategically vital Guanzhong Plain, positioned amidst military passes; and Shanxi, nestled between high mountains and rivers. Challenges posed by these geographical features don’t seem any easier to overcome than the regional divisions in Europe. When I traveled in Europe when I was young, I found traversing the geographical spaces in Europe easier than those in China.

Some people also attribute Europe’s struggle for unity to its cultural diversity. However, China, with its multitude of cultures, has remained unified for two to three thousand years. Today, the differences in local dialects are no less significant than those among the major languages in Europe. Additionally, I came across an article by an Arab scholar who painfully asked, “Why are Arab people divided despite speaking the same language, while the Chinese, who speak so many different languages, can remain unified?”

Therefore, we have to acknowledge that what nature bestowed on the land of China predisposes the region to split rather than unity. Greater level of unity was brought by a people whose civilization, culture, and institutions find their essence reflected in the character “中” (zhōng, middle).

The Chinese people have demonstrated remarkable ability in integrating its vast territory as early as during the time of Yao, Shun, and Yu thousands of years ago. Today we Chinese may pride ourselves on traveling thousands of kilometers across China by high-speed rail or driving ourselves during holiday season, but “Tribute of Yu” chapter in the “Book of Documents,” had already meticulously planned and managed the nine provinces of then China. Arguably, some may say that the “Tribute of Yu” could have been written during latter times of the Warring States period and hence cannot be trusted due to its romanitized portrayal of the ancient times. Nonetheless, the scale of ancient civilizations unearthed by modern archaeological work is sufficient to astonish contemporary people. While the Xia and Shang dynasties might relied on military strength and theocracy for unity, the Western Zhou dynasty marked a new stage where integration was realized solely through a set of political and ritual institutions.

What is the greatest challenge for running a vast country? That it might disintegrate through internal strife. Montesquieu of France once said, “If a republic be small, it is destroyed by a foreign force; if it be large, it is ruined by an internal imperfection.” And he was referring to countries with populations ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. For a super-sized country like China, establishing a central authority to maintain stability is the key to reducing civil disorder. It is also the wisdom we have gathered from the painful lessons of countless years of warfare.

Wang Guowei, a remarkable historian despite his better-known reputation as a poetry expert, believed that the most important merit of the innovative political institutions Western Zhou Dynasty has to over was the elimination of disorder, a conclusion derived from his study of oracle bone inscriptions. He divided Zhou’s political system into two levels: at the central level, figures like the Duke of Zhou aimed to install a stable authority, where the position of the sovereign was not to be casually contested, in another words, the property rights of the position of emperor needed to be clearly defined. At the execution level, sufficient competition and merit-based selection of capable individuals, rather than hereditary succession, should be encouraged. Wang Guowei elucidated the logic behind political authority and governance quite clearly. In fact, even today, humanity still faces issues on these two levels in politics, as many countries continue to grapple with similar challenges.

Since the Qin and Han dynasties, the centralized imperial system replaced the Zhou-style sovereign system, and the bureaucratic system of prefectures and counties replaced the feudal system of the Western Zhou. However, the two fundamental principles in design of political system as illustrated by Wang Guowei—authority and governance—have persisted. For example, the position of the emperor was not to be contested casually, but the selection of officials relied heavily on competition. Eventually, this led to the creation of the imperial examination system. The contributions of the Qin system to modern state institutions are often underestimated; its significance is no less than that of the Four Great Inventions.

Whether under the political system of the Zhou Dynasty or the Qin Dynasty, an established central authority has always been the prerequisite for widespread security, continuous improvements of people’s livelihood, large-scale social division of labor and market spaces, as well as extensive resource allocation and integration.

In China, the yearning for central authority has always been particularly potent in times of turmoil. The most typical example is the common ground advocated by all intellectuals during five hundred years of the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods, despite their attacks on each other for diversing viewpoints from various schools of thought. They all acknowledged the importance of central authority in societal stability and prosperity.

Therefore, in Chinese history, we see the overlay of geographical, institutional, and cultural factors forming a resilient central structure, around which Professor Zhao Tingyang’s “whirlpool model” emerges: regardless of one’s background, participation in China’s historical processes ultimately leads to becoming a Chinese; and all religion and ideology would become an organic part of Chinese culture upon engaging with it.

Having examined what makes China China, the natural extention of this logic is that the continuation of the Chinese civilization requires a strong leadership core and an institutional and cultural centripetal force to enable people of all ethnicities to achieve diverse interests and values through unity and cohesion. Externally, China must also become a source of benign order, bringing peace, cooperation, development, and justice to the world, alongside the unique political principles China will have to offer.


Deputy director of China Institute,Fudan University
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