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Dunhuang Manuscripts show advanced communal social organization

Meng Xiashi | 2014-02-27 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A Dunhuang mural from the 148th Cave


In 1006, an incident spurred the sealing of the Buddhist Library Cave at Dunhuang. Through centuries and dynasties, the existence of the cave remained a secret, until the homeless Taoist priest Wang Yuanlu re-discovered it by accident in 1900, uncovering a 900-year-old secret.


As a nation with a long, rich tradition of recording scriptures, secular accounts and information, and literature, the sheer enormity of China’s vast collection of documents handed down from recent and distant centuries is unparalleled by any other civilization. However, many if not most of these documents perished either at the hands of humans or through broader catastrophes. Because they were hidden from the world for nearly nine centuries, the Dunhuang Manuscripts fortunately avoided this fate, and have been regarded as precious cultural relics treated with the utmost care and by the whole international community ever since their rediscovery.


Dunhuang communes: equal and transparent

One extremely valuable aspect of the Dunhuang Manuscripts is the large quantity of folk literature they include. Relating either to common people’s lives or folk writing, these documents provide a window into ordinary people’s perspectives on their experiences, their relationship with society and the government, and their connections with friends and kin. These discoveries have led researchers to revise some of their views on farmers and the governance of agricultural communities. However, for many years, the traditional research underrated the farmers’ management capacity and they were considered “backward” because of their small-scaled mode of production. Data from communes contained in the Dunhuang Manuscripts show that famers typically resolved their daily problems through communes. The evidence portrays these communes as being both time-honored traditions and particularly advanced in their organizational structures.

This discovery is incredibly pertinent to one of the most pressing and mulled over questions debated by China’s modern thinkers, as it is at the heart of China’s modernization. The theory that “the people’s wisdom has not yet blossomed” has been something of a sentence without trial in China’s modernization process, but understanding the folk communes can offer a reversal of this verdict. The supreme principle of the communes is that all members of the community are equal, and that no strict hierarchies exist. Members co-formulate and jointly abide by the provisions for maintaining the commune’s operation, as opposed to the government formulating national law that the people compulsorily obey.


In a commune, leaders and members are bound by the division of labor rather than a system of authority. Leaders are elected by all members at a people’s congress, which, as the highest policy-making organ, ensures that no group or individual is deprived of power within the commune. The clerical principle of the communes detailed within the Dunhuang Manuscripts held that all affairs had to be recorded and made public, thereby guaranteeing political transparency and providing technical support for the healthy existence and development of folk communes.


Discoveries overturned stereotyped portray of tradition

The documents discovered with the Dunhuang Manuscripts included a template, or “sample” document for commune provisions, which, together with other provisions within individual societies, provided a blueprint for drafting the communes’ clerical documents. This practice reveals a long, well-established and stable tradition. Each commune shared similar organizational principles, with shades of difference among them. According to currently available materials discovered among the manuscripts, these communes varied in scale with the largest consisting of around one hundred people.

Without strong principles of organization, the vitality of a commune would have been difficult to maintain. Folk communes were quite prevalent around Dunhuang, with some even establishing patrilineal membership systems. Comparisons to contemporaneous national organization show a stark contrast between centralization and stratification of state power symptomatic of the latter versus the equity and contractual participation involved in the former—after all, the provisions of the communes, in essence, were the contracts between all their members. Regarding the organizational forms of folk communes as a social system means recognizing them as a system co-existent with the state system, but essentially incompatible in terms of organizational principles, though they may be treated as a social rather than a political phenomenon.


Since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), folk communes have continued to evolve, but this has had little effect on the dominant state system. The cultural custom represented by folk communes is in fact an integral part of Chinese tradition, and one which differs significantly from stereotypes of Chinese governance and even more from the dynastic court centralism. These folk traditions deserve to be held in higher esteem.

It is farmers who fulfilled these organizational tasks. Maintaining the same occupation generation after generation, they spent the great majority of their time toiling in fields, and enjoy moments of leisure during breaks in the cycle of labor. Today, the names painted on murals and manuscripts are merely characters symbolizing people who once lived. But it is they who carefully took charge of the communes they established, cherishing them and serving them. More than a thousand years ago, these farmers built the communes from scratch, convincing themselves with simple truths that in organization lies the power to overcome difficulties. Participating in communes voluntarily and adopting the simplest approach to management, they discussed and exchanged ideas, reaching consensus based on the views of the majority. Recording notes on everything, including not just quantitative account-keeping but also noting each member’s opinions, they ensured the transparency and openness of the communes’ management.


Revaluing the tradition of Chinese social organization

Dynasties played a significant role in selecting which manuscripts were passed down and became canonical. For both the court and scholar officials, this was an issue of great importance, and one that was inevitably affected by court centrism. Relative to other documents and subjects, common people’s lives and folk writing seldom enjoyed the favor of the court, and thus were more often discarded than passed down. The entropy over time is apparent: fewer manuscripts were preserved from older dynasties, and history based on folk manuscripts faded into oblivion with the passage of time. Huge segments of China’s history and culture were overshadowed by the premium the court placed on chronicling its own history, and the conclusions that can be drawn about Chinese history and culture are only drawn from this limited historical evidence. Thus, the Dunhuang manuscripts make it possible to assess and appreciate the value of Chinese tradition, especially the customs of social organizations. Court centrism should no longer be the overarching concept used to make generalized inferences about the entirety of Chinese tradition; compared with the court, folk traditions should be regarded with equal importance.


Meng Xianshi is from the School of Chinese Classics at Renmin University of China. 



The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 546,January 8, 2014                   



Translated by Bai Le

Revised by Charles Horne