Great Unity Datong 大同

Obviously, it all started with a couple of articles about the re-discovery of Confucius in the XXI century, as a way to proclaim unity and a shared cultural framework while reforming society in China.

Actually, I will share a summary of my readings on that subject (as usual, along with references to articles and other material online) over the next few weeks, but in this short article I would like to focus on another cultural concept that, as much and even more than Guanxi (“Guanxi 关系and Mianzi 面子in the XXI century”), is worth reviewing, if you are a Westerner and learning Mandarin.

The first step was a reference to the “Datong shu”, the book by Kang Youwei published in the first half of the XX century.

A little bit of Chinese history (I will write more in the future, but this is just two-paragraphs detour).

As you probably read while learning something about Chinese history (as learning a language without a curiosity on the society that uses it is a waste of time, in my view), between the end of the XIX century and WWII China witnessed few attempts to reform the empire of the late Qing Dynasty, after the infamous episodes of the Opium Wars, where we from the “civilized West” basically pushed drugs- how trade imbalances were fixed in the XIX century.

So, between revolutions and attempts to think how to bring the Qing Dynasty within the XX century, a short-lived republic with Sun Yat-sen right before WWI, and the restoration of the last emperor, Pu Yi (have a look at Bertollucci’s movie “The Last Emperor”), Kang managed to write his book, where he wrote about an utopian society.

The complete book was actually published after his death, which happened on March 31st 1927 (easy to remember for me, as it is… my birthday- the day, not the year!).

Don’t worry, I will not discuss that book or its historical context, and instead I will focus on the Datong concept, as discussed within the essay by Albert H. Y. Chen, “The Concept of ‘Datong’ in Chinese Philosophy as an Expression of the Idea of the Common Good”.

The essay is 21 pages long, so I will not try to summarize it- have a look, if you want.

Instead, I would like to share few points while re-reading it, more questions than assertions, hoping that you will find your own answers before the next post on wodeshudian will be published, on December 1st.

As you can see from the title that I selected for this post, I am inclined toward a “political”/programmatic definition of the concept- and, from my perspective, a concept closer to my understanding of the passage from the “Book of Rites” that is quoted within the essay, or the difference between a “structural harmony” (as defined by “datong”) and a “consensual harmony” (“xiaokang”, the lesser good; my less-than-perfect and partially inappropriate characterization, but easier to visualize), where obviously consensus is a potentially unstable condition.

Personally, reading those passages within the essay focused on discussing how “Datong shu” innovated on its own sources of inspiration, made me think to “A Theory of Justice”, from John Rawls: “The increasing realization of ren is accompanied by an advancing level of culture, education and moral cultivation among the people, and the gradual reduction of inequality in society.” (page 8 within the essay).

The means to achieve that objective? Eventually, the establishment of a world government, with local democratic self-government, built to remove and overcome what Kang calls “the nine boundaries” (or “nine distinctions”), between nations, classes, races, sexes, families, occupations, disorders, kinds, sufferings.

Anyway, the difference between Rawls and Kang is also that the author of the “Datong shu” was discussing a future (or futuristic) world, more or less as Aldous Huxley did few years after Kang’s death in his own “A Brave New World”.

Let’s be frank: it will be a while before my Chinese will be good enough to read in Chinese and appreciate the subtleties of the “Datong shu”.

So, for the time being, I will content myself with the essay, including its considerations about how that book can still be worth reading while thinking how our XXI century world (and not just in China) should evolve, e.g. “some of Kang’s practical and concrete suggestions regarding a better world are still sound and yet to be realized today. For example, he understands that the ultimate solution to the sufferings of warfare can only be found in a rational and democratic system of governance at the global level.” (page 17).

Obviously, any thinker that looks forward to a distant future might have ideas that, being safely distant from her/his own time, probably if implemented would be unbearable also to the author.

As the author of the essay states, it is still worth looking at, because “there is in fact a surprising degree of convergence between some important ingredients of Kang Youwei’s datong thought and the official ideology currently propagated by the Chinese Communist Party” and “The official view of the level of economic development of Chinese society now is that it has just reached the xiaokang level; it is hoped that by the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (in 2021), China will have reached a “higher level of xiaokang society”, and by the centenary of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (2049), China will have reached the level of a middle-level developed country and will have “basically completed its modernization”. (page 18, quoting parts of the 9th paragraph of the Preamble to the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party, as amended in 2007).

For the time being… have a nice week!

PS Please read the introduction to understand how to use this website 🙂


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