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Archaeology sheds new light on ‘Great Unification’ philosophy

XU LIANGGAO | 2020-08-12 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

The above-pictured gu (left) and jue (right) bronze ritual wine vessels were typical of the Xia ritual vessel system, which was inherited by the later Shang and Zhou dynasties with variations. The consistency of ritual bronze vessels in the dynasties suggested a common approval of the ritual and music culture and the convergence of political systems and religious beliefs across the vast land of China at the time. Photo: FILE

The concept of “Great Unification” (da yitong) is undoubtedly one of the most time-honored traditions in the Chinese culture. It not only has had far-reaching implications, but constitutes the foundation for public opinion on the contemporary pursuit of national reunification. The deeply rooted cultural tradition is grounded in cultural monism and a common cultural identity. 
Dispute over ancient culture
The formation and reinforcement of the Great Unification philosophy is first closely related to long-term political practices of unification by dynasties in Chinese history. The successes of the Zhou, Qin, Han and Tang dynasties seemed to prove that the division of the world would result in turbulence while the unification would lead to prosperity, so the highest political ideal was to realize the “Great Unification of All Under Heaven” (tianxia yitong).
Moreover, the narratives of ancient history based on the Great Unification, such as the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors, shaped the historical memory of the Chinese people: “We are all Descendants of Emperors Yan and Huang” (yanhuang zisun). This laid the foundation for the common cultural identity and cemented the Great Unification philosophy. 
However, modern Chinese historians have questioned the monism of Chinese culture and ethnic groups. Gu Jiegang, a leading figure of the Doubting Antiquity School (yigu pai), challenged the traditional narratives of ancient history, such as the view that the nation was monistic and the territory had always been unified. Studies by scholars Meng Wentong, Fu Sinian and Xu Bingchang also revealed that ancient China didn’t feature only one culture, one regime or one ethnic group, but the coexistence of diverse cultures. 
From the perspective that culture is a proactive way in which humanity adapts to the environment, it is also inconceivable that China, with a vast territory, complex geography and varying historical traditions, had a single culture and ethnic group in history. 
In this regard, developments in archaeology have provided new materials and angles for us to see what ancient Chinese culture was actually like. 
New insights from archaeology 
Archaeologists discovered that in the Neolithic Age (c. 10000–c. 4500 BCE), different regions varied significantly in terms of material culture and cultural tradition. The evolutionary model and development path of the regions evidences diversity in ancient China. 
Renowned archaeologist Li Boqian noted that the Hongshan Culture (4000–3000 BCE) in northern China, the Liangzhu Culture (5300–4000 BCE) in the southeast and the Yangshao Culture (5000–3000 BCE) in the Central Plains had all developed to the stage of being an ancient state, but they took entirely different paths and forms. The Hongshan Culture was a pure theocracy; the Liangzhu Culture was founded on dominant theocracy, kingship and military power; and the Yangshao Culture was a kingship-based state integrating military authority.
Cultures in the Neolithic Age, though diverse, interacted a great deal. The interaction was manifested in the exchange of symbolic, exquisite articles of luxury, such as jade ware, ivory ware, turquoise, and special painted pottery, indicating communication and learning regarding ideas, religious beliefs, and political ideologies and systems. The interaction sometimes also included contact between people from the upper classes of different cultures. 
To quote archaeologist Li Xinwei, “In the latter half of the fourth millennium BCE, major cultural regions in prehistoric China, based on simultaneous social development, interacted deeply on all levels and in all aspects centered around long-distance exchanges between upper strata of society. They gradually formed a cultural community sharing a similar cultural essence and bearing greatly on the development of China in the historical ages geographically and culturally. It was Primitive China.”
Traditions coexisted
How should we understand, between different regions, the difference in daily practical culture, typically domestic pottery, and yet the similarity in symbolic culture represented by luxury items? The theory of “little and great traditions” is applicable to the phenomenon. 
The concept of little and great traditions was proposed by American anthropologist Robert Redfield in his 1956 book Peasant Society and Culture: An Anthropological Approach to Civilization. Great traditions refer to written culture representing the state and power and managed by urban intellectuals, while little traditions hint at popular culture connoting the countryside and passed down by villagers from mouth to mouth. Great traditions are national and ideological, whereas little traditions are regional and folk, concerning the everyday life of the public. 
Based on the theory, diverse cultural remains from daily production and life in the Neolithic Age, notably domestic pottery, reflected little traditions. On the contrary, symbolic artifacts standing for political systems, ideology and religious belief represented great traditions. The exchange of symbolic objects between regional cultures is indicative of communication and learning regarding political institutions, ideology and the system of symbols in the interaction sphere. 
During the period of the Erlitou Culture (1735–1530 BCE), which has been closely associated with the Xia Dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BCE), pottery from different regions still varied considerably, which means the regions kept their own little traditions. Meanwhile, a ritual vessel system exemplified by pottery or copper gu, jue and he drinking vessels was formed on the basis of the symbolic culture system of the interaction sphere in the Longshan Culture era (2500–2000 BCE). 
The Shang Culture (c. 1600–1046 BCE), while carrying forward the ritual vessel system of the Erlitou Culture, developed a ceremonial vessel tradition centering on gu and jue wine vessels. The following Zhou Dynasty (1046–771 BCE) was marked by tableware such as ding and gui vessels. Ritual bronzes, as well as jade ware, of the three dynasties came down in a continuous line with their own characteristics, as the “bronze cultural sphere” extended outward constantly. 
Ritual vessels were highly symbolic in ancient China. They played unique roles in ancestor worship and religious, legal and political systems. Ceremonial bronzes, together with rites, music and language, were typical of great traditions. The consistency of ritual bronze vessels in the three dynasties suggested a common approval of the ritual and music culture and the convergence of political systems and religious beliefs across the vast land of China at the time. The inheritance of and changes in the ritual vessel system reflected the continuation and development of great traditions from the Erlitou Culture all the way up to the Zhou Dynasty. 
Throughout the three dynasties, diverse regional cultures acknowledged the great tradition of rites and music, while the great tradition accepted and embraced the little traditions of regional cultures. The great and little traditions shaped an interactive and complementary political and cultural pattern. 
In light of the little and great tradition theory, regime change from the Xia, Shang to Zhou dynasties was not a linear process in which one culture replaced another. Rather, different regional cultures expanded themselves while identifying with the great tradition of the same culture, and seized the leading role successively while replenishing, revising and developing the great tradition with their own culture. 
Even in the chaotic Spring, Autumn and Warring States Period (770–221 BCE) when many vassal states fought and competed for supremacy, the inheritance of and identification with the great tradition was not disrupted. Nor did China head toward the political landscape of Medieval Europe. This reveals not only differences between Chinese and Western cultural traditions, but also the continuity of the Chinese culture. 
Through an archaeological lens, the diversity of various states in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty was based on the unity of the Western Zhou ritual and music culture. It was a kind of power separation grounded in cultural identification. The common cultural identity was also the basis for the unification of the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE), which was not the real beginning of the Great Unification. 
Ethnic integration 
From the perspective of ethnic integration, the assimilation of different ethnic groups into China was also a process of accepting the great tradition of Chinese ritual and music culture and fostering a common cultural identity. That ethnic groups from the Wu-Yue area in the southeast of China blended with the bronze cultural sphere and became part of the Chinese culture is a good example. 
Despite communication with the Central Plains, the aboriginal culture in southeastern China was always distinctive. Through frequent contact with the Central Plains in the Xia and Shang dynasties, the ritual, music and vessel system of the mound tomb culture in the southeast absorbed the system of the Zhou culture in the Western Zhou period. 
In the Spring and Autumn Period, when the Wu and Yue states emerged in history, they claimed that they originated from the Central Plains. The claim was eventually recognized by states in the Central Plains. 
After the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE–220 CE), the Wu-Yue area completely integrated into the Chinese culture. Its unique cultural tradition was selectively left in oblivion, while the statement that the Wu-Yue culture originated from the Central Plains struck root and has been taken for granted ever since. 
However, archaeological findings show that while converging toward the great tradition, the Wu-Yue area retained its distinctive regional culture, namely its little traditions. 
The coexistence of great and little traditions was a common phenomenon in Chinese history. As such, the Chinese culture has passed down with variations, pursuing unity in diversity. It has embraced other cultures and maintained its vitality through integration and innovation, thus continuously adapting to changing environments. 
Xu Lianggao is a research fellow from the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. 
​edited by CHEN MIRONG