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Han Dynasty political thought remains relevant today

XIANG JINWEI | 2022-03-31 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

FILE PHOTO: A page of the Gongyang Commentary on Spring and Autumn Annals annotated by He Xiu (129–182), a Confucian scholar from the Han Dynasty 

In the vast span of Chinese history, the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) witnessed the establishment of the foundation of a vision for “Great Unity” (da yitong). As one of the golden ages in ancient China, the Han fostered a national and cultural spirit that had far-reaching implications for political and cultural development of later generations. At the historical turning point for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, it is crucial to absorb and draw upon the essence of Han Era thought. 
‘Three-Age Theory’
According to Confucianism in the Han Dynasty, or Han Confucianism, China had been mired in political chaos and social anomy since the late years of the Spring and Autumn Period (770–476 BCE), and the turmoil peaked in the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE). During this tumultuous situation, the primary task was naturally to “bring order out of chaos” (boluan fanzheng).  
Mencius (Mengzi) highly praised Confucius’s contribution to taming chaos through the compilation of the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu). As he said in Mengzi, “In former times, Yu repressed the vast waters of the inundation, and the country was brought back to order. Zhou Gong’s achievements extended even to the barbarous tribes of the East and North, and he drove away all ferocious animals, and the people enjoyed repose. Confucius completed the ‘Spring and Autumn,’ and rebellious ministers and villainous sons were struck with terror.”
The commitment to setting things right and restoring order was later inherited by scholars of the Gongyang School, which specialized in researching the Gongyang Commentary of the Spring and Autumn Annals (Chunqiu Gongyang Zhuan) written by Gongyang Gao, a disciple of Confucius’s disciple Zixia. 
On this basis, He Xiu, an ardent defender of the Gongyang School in the Eastern Han Dynasty (25–220), further proposed the famous “Three-Age Theory” (sanshi shuo), which elevated the Confucian political ideal of bringing order out of chaos to the height of historical development law. 
According to He Xiu’s theory, history moves through three great ages: the age of disorder (juluanshi), the age of approaching peace (shengpingshi), and the age of universal peace (taipingshi). He Xiu’s summary, elevation, and extraction were divorced from specific historical facts and instead investigated the general laws and ultimate objectives of historical development, reflecting the goal of eliminating chaos and restoring order more explicitly alongside a hopeful attitude towards historical evolution.  
The Three-Age Theory well demonstrated the spirit of Han times and society. To bring order out of chaos was the common aspiration of Confucian scholars in the dynasty, whose loftiest vision was to realize universal peace. 
In fact, every great age is guided by a set of scientific and systematic theories on historical development with clear goals and paths for endeavors. 
Currently, China is on the great course from standing up to getting rich, on to becoming strong. The achievement cannot be made without generations of Chinese communists who continue to summarize the nation’s historic development path and diligently explore humankind’s development paths. The scientific and systematic theory on socialism with Chinese characteristics has not only charted a bright course for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, but also contributed Chinese wisdom and proposals to problems facing humanity. 
Human-heaven interaction 
The theory of “interaction between humans and heaven” (tianren ganying) was quite popular in Han society. In recent years, however, it has been discarded as unwanted remains of the feudal system. In fact, “heaven,” in this theory, is simply a formal element. What it conveys is much more important. 
Heaven was an aggregate of values gradually refined by philosophers and thought leaders since the pre-Qin Period (prior to 221 BCE); it carried a series of political, moral, and cultural values. Its natural and theological attributes had been downplayed since the Spring and Autumn Period. In the human-heaven interaction theory, humans, or the people, are predominant, while heaven is completely in a passive position. Behind the theory are the human-oriented or people-centered thought of traditional Chinese political culture. 
From the perspective of Han Confucianism, all realistic political systems and apparatuses were installed for the sake of the people. The throne was no exception. According to the Book of Han (Han Shu), sovereigns were instituted to govern the people, but the territory was not delimited for the son of heaven (tianzi, the emperor) to control, nor was the enfeoffment system implemented for vassals to obtain land; it was all for ordinary people. In this light, popular will was the intention of heaven (tianyi), so valuing and providing for the people was the basis for the ruler to undertake the mandate of heaven (tianming). 
On the premise of this political ethos, Han Dynasty philosopher and politician Dong Zhongshu believed that heaven did not create people for monarchs to rule; it designated that rulers serve the people. If the ruler was virtuous and made people peaceful and happy, heaven would bestow the people to his care, but if he was evil and harmed the people, he would be deprived of this mission. 
As humans and heaven interacted, auspicious signs and calamities were key to communication between the two sides. Whether good or bad omens appeared depended on the monarch’s governance philosophy. Mirroring heaven’s will in the mortal world, auspicious signs and calamities required the monarch to continually reflect upon his political and moral behaviors with reverence for political order and ethics. Here the status of heaven was further weakened, with emphasis laid on the ruler’s political self-awareness and self-cultivation. 
Although the human-oriented connotation in the Han Dynasty human-heaven interaction theory is vastly different from today’s people-centered governance philosophy, upheld by the CPC in terms of practice, they share the same spiritual essence. There is no higher power manipulating our world. The people represent the true “heaven.”
Great Unity
“Great Unity” is one of the core concepts of Han Confucianism. The word da in its Chinese equivalent da yitong is originally an adjective, meaning “big” or “great.” In the discourse system of the Gongyang School, it was used as a verb to mean “promote,” suggesting a value orientation and objective. 
Since ancient times, China has been a community consisting of multiple ethnic groups. The relationship between Siyi, “barbaric” tribes surrounding ancient China in four directions, and Huaxia (Zhuxia), the ancestors of what later became the Han ethnic group, consistently remained a vital political issue. 
Despite tension and warfare between the two major forces at times in history, these groups were supposed to be harmonious regarding cultural mentalities and political thought. [The Chinese term Siyi refers to eastern barbarians (dongyi), western barbarians (xirong), southern barbarians (nanman), and northern barbarians (beidi).] In the traditional Chinese cultural context, these ethnic groups were regarded as uncivilized and ill-educated. Only the civilized and well-educated stood for China and Huaxia. Therefore, Confucius proposed leveraging the Huaxia culture to influence outsiders and align them with Huaxia standards, thereby actualizing the ideal of “Great Unity of All Under Heaven” (tianxia datong). 
In the Han Dynasty, mainstream culture carried forward this thought tradition. At that time, people agreed that the distinction between the Chinese and non-Chinese cultures should be based on propriety and morality, not on kinship and race, nor on geographical territory, and still less on the strength of each ethnic group. 
This is an outlook concerning ethnic groups with a strong consciousness of equality, treating all people “under heaven” as a family. The criterion for distinguishing Huaxia and Siyi provided a reasonable logic for people from external cultures to enter China and realize ethnic integration. 
This cultural mentality was vividly reflected in the blueprint of Great Unity mapped out by Sima Qian in the Records of the Grand Historian, or Shiji, in which Huaxia and Siyi share the same ancestor. It can also be found in the portrayal of the “age of universal peace” in the abovementioned Three-Age Theory. 
Since the Qin and Han dynasties, the awareness of Great Unity has been the paramount political notion of the Chinese nation. For all ethnic groups, Great Unity has always been considered an ideal and goal. The success of ancient China in maintaining national unification for thousands of years is inseparable from the Great Unity philosophy. 
The vision of Great Unity is not limited to the traditional Huaxia-Siyi relationship. This world view of traditional China is an outlook which extends to “all under heaven” with a clear center yet blurred peripheries. Communication between different civilizations beyond the territory of China falls into the broader category of the Huaxia-Siyi relationship. 
In other words, the ultimate cultural aspiration of Han Confucianism was to create a harmonious society featuring “Great Unity of All Under Heaven.” Highly valuing the equality between Chinese and non-Chinese cultures, this theory buttressed the formation of the world-famous Silk Road, which channeled exchanges between Asian and European civilizations, thus accelerating the renewal of the civilizations and in return further reinforcing the importance of equality and integration between nations. 
Through the lens of history, Chinese civilization grew and expanded exactly amid constant communication and mutual learning with other civilizations in the world. Today, China still needs to anchor itself on equality-based international communication, striving to build a community with a shared future for mankind in the new era. 
Refined traditional culture is the spiritual lifeblood of the Chinese nation, and the critical carrier of core socialist values. The Han Dynasty laid the foundation for an empire of Great Unity in Chinese history. Many principles for political culture and intellectual qualities, established during this period, embodied profound insights of ancient Chinese philosophers on the universe and history. The essence of these thoughts is illuminating to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. 
Xiang Jinwei is a professor from the School of History and Culture at Shanxi University.