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May 25, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

The World belongs to All


Earlier this month, China commemorated the 90th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, probably the most important intellectual and cultural event since the infamous Opium War of 1840, when China was forcibly and reluctantly propelled into the modern world by naked British imperialism (all in the name of ‘free trade’).

To be fair, China’s weaknesses and backwardness which were exposed by Western (and later Japanese) imperialist powers had been a large part of its making. China had probably stagnated ever since the xenophobic Ming emperors halted the voyages of Admiral ZHENG He and shut the country off from the rest of the world. Freedom of thought and expression during the final two imperial dynasties—the Ming and the Qing (1368-1911 CE)—were suppressed to a level not seen since the days of the tyrannical First Emperor himself, two millennia earlier. Thousands of innocent people were executed just because some family member or even mere acquaintance had said or written something innocuous that the authorities somehow deemed problematic.

The consequences were devastating, if not immediately obvious. As the centuries went on, people learnt to keep quiet and not care too much about things that were not essential to their own material livelihoods. At the same time, Chinese science and technology, long at the forefront of humanity (having invented the navigational compass, gunpowder, and paper—of course), came to a standstill, and the general intellectual development, vitality and moral fibre of an entire nation suffered immeasurably, even to this day. It therefore came as little surprise as China suffered one military defeat after another since 1840 and was forced to recognise numerous foreign “spheres of influence” (i.e. colonies) on its own soil.

The May Fourth Movement of 1919 was a direct protest and reaction to the humiliating failure of the nascent Republic of China to assert its legitimate national interests and sovereign integrity at the signing of the Treaty of Versailles (which concluded World War One). University students, workers and ordinary citizens finally awoke from a long slumber, went on strike, and demonstrated on the streets (though I’m unsure if any flags were burnt!). Leading intellectuals such as HU Shi and CHEN Duxiu called for China to invite in and embrace “The Two Gentlemen”—”Mr De” (“Democracy”) and “Mr Sai” (“Science”). What began as a political movement rapidly became a wholesale reassessment of Chinese culture and tradition. The rest, as they say, is history.

My primary focus, however, is a certain text, the so-called Datong Passage, from the Liyun chapter of the Liji, the Book of Rites. (This passage is sometimes attributed, doubtfully, to Confucius himself.) This is arguably the single most important piece of writing in the entire history of Chinese political philosophy. (The Chinese have known and practised both philosophy and politics for a very long time!)

This is my (imperfect) translation:

“When the Great Way (‘Tao’) prevails, the world belongs to all. [天下為公, Tianxia wei Gong]

Virtuous people are selected according to their capabilities, and everywhere trust and harmony are valued. Filial piety is shown not just to one’s own parents, and familial love is given not solely to one’s own children. In this way, all will have dignity in old age, those in their prime will find themselves valued, the young will be assured of proper development, and all those who are widowed or alone or disabled or sick will be cared for. Every man will have a role, and every woman a place.

Everyone frowns when seeing goods lying unused on the ground—these need not be kept for oneself. Everyone loathes not being the one to do the work—work that does not necessarily benefit oneself.

Thus, under no circumstance will intrigue and conspiracy arise, nor will there be crime or violence. Hence, everyone can go outside without locking their doors.

Such is the world of the Common-wealth. [大同, Datong. Literally ‘the Great Commonality’]

As you can see, this represents an idealistic, almost utopian world where individual dignity and equality reign supreme. Interestingly, it has inspired numerous Chinese thinkers, both ancient and modern (e.g. KANG Youwei, the leader of the failed ‘Hundred Days’ Reform’), each of whom attempted to interpret it in his own way. The ‘Father of Modern China’ himself, SUN Yat-Sen, loved the motto “the world belongs to all” very much—see below for an example of his (not very impressive) calligraphy of the four characters:

Chinese Takeaways (for an alternative translation)


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