In Anyang We Are Witness the Beginning of the Hybridic Process of Tianxia to Its Continuing Influence in the Contemporary World
It is a great honor to be invited to participate in a conference convened to celebrate the unrivaled role of Anyang as not only a source of traditional Chinese culture, but also the engine of this culture’s continuing importance in the modern world. I first came to Shanghai in yesterday’s mainland China in 1985 when the Peace Hotel was the tallest building. This was less than 35 years ago. We drove from Shanghai to Beijing through Shandong province, 20 kilometers at a time. There only local roads, and we had to stop and ask our way at every town. Men and women wore the same clothes. Beyond bread, garlic, and baicai, there was little for people to eat.
Last month I visited the new Zhuhai campus of Zhongshan university. After arriving at the new airport, I drove for 1 ½ hours on new roads with huge building projects on either side. We passed by the new bridge that goes from Zhuhai to Macau to Hong Kong, and that is 55 kilometers long and takes a good part of an hour to drive. The month before I visited Zhangye in Gansu and the building projects are the same. The speed and the scale of what has happened to produce the new China over this past one generation is unprecedented in human history.
The Yijing describes the evolution of Chinese culture in terms of change and continuity (biantong). While the change that China has seen over the past 35 years is truly remarkable, what is more remarkable yet is the irrepressible continuity of the Chinese cultural tradition reaching back into high antiquity. My good friend Zhao Tingyang at CASS has published a book entitled 惠此中国 that tries to answer the question: “Where did China come from?” Zhao Laoshi tells the story of how on the central plain of China, from earliest times down to the present day, different peoples with different customs were drawn into a centripetal whirlpool向心漩涡that made the “many” one and many at the same time. It is China’s signature story of 和而不同，of 一多不分. In his efforts to interpret China’s historicity philosophically, Zhao touches on many questions in many relevant areas of knowledge, from the discovery of the oracle bone script and China’s exciting century of archaeology in which the ancient silk and bamboo manuscripts are continuing to be recovered, to the theorizing of China’s history of thought and its sociology, politics, and economics.
What drew these different people into the whirlpool was the cultural attractor文化吸引子of the Chinese written character. The written characters served as a sophisticated system for perpetuating a cultural corpus that, standing independent of the many spoken languages of the various peoples drawn in by it, could be read by all of them. At the Museum of Writing in Anyang in the middle of this same central plain we see on display today a vast collection of the oracle bones as the earliest extant record of this writing system. Remarkably, this Shang dynasty script already in its own time had a vocabulary of over five thousand characters, a number that exceeds the normal literacy of an educated Chinese person today.
Zhao argues that this writing system was a technology of enchantment, a kind of magic, that enabled human beings to grasp the past and anticipate the future, and in so doing, transform time into their own self-awareness, self-narration, and historicity. This system established a legitimizing spiritual world the ownership of which gave political leaders the narration of an authorized history and the capacity for knowledge production that could be used to organize the hearts and minds of their people.
The written language was the powerful medium through which norms, laws, and institutions could be established, interpreted, perpetuated, and employed, and thus carried with it a determinative force that far exceeded economic influence and military prowess. Galvanizing the spiritual importance of this writing system itself was what it was what it was used to convey as the shared narration of history and the values of a common lineage. The cultural corpus perpetuated through the compilation of the canonical texts provided a growing population with an evolving, collective spiritual identity, and the development of a common cosmology through which the human experience could be organized and explained. Indeed, within this spiritual world, these classics and history were aspectually one, reinforcing and lending authority to each other. And even while during different historical epochs the center of the whirlpool would shift geographically from north to south and east to west, the continuing spiritual center was this culture of the central plain.
This process of identity formation driven by a series of interrelated “cultural attractors” included as the most significant among them the written character, and then included the canonical texts that perpetuate a shared cultural identity, and the social and political narrative that grew from them. These attractors have drawn disparate populations on the central plain of China and its surrounding territories into a vortex, a whirlpool that was already taking shape more than four thousand years ago during the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties, and that then continues in protean form down to the the present day. In this book, Zhao is forwarding a novel and compelling thesis on not only how we should understand China, but also until recently, how China in all of its diversity, has understood itself.
Zhao Tingyang is a philosopher. In asking the question, “Whence China?” he begins from an ontological answer that he draws from the first among the Chinese philosophical classics, the Yijing orBook of Changes. The fundamental reason for existence itself is生生不已the unceasing process of procreation, of generation and regeneration. As the Book of Changes announces: 天地之大德曰生 “The greatest capacity of the cosmos is the production of life itself.”
Zhao appeals to the archaeological scholarship of Xu Hong 许宏whose notion of the “earliest China” (zuizai de Zhongguo 最早的中国) can serve as point of reference to establish the tentative trajectory of a universalizing, all-inclusive, and distinctively Chinese generative process of geopolitical order calledtianxia天下. The erstwhile beginnings and evolution of this conception of world order reaches back into the mists of history before the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties to what prominent archaeologist Su Bingqi苏秉琦has called a “sky full of constellations” (mantianxingdo 满天星斗)—a description of the many different, independent, and unique civilizations, each with its own narrative integrity, that were spread out across the central Chinese plain and the four surrounding areas. In this earliest period,tianxia references an emerging, holistic world politics that, as an inside without an outside, is at once diverse without being fragmented by the notion of determinate and bounded nation-states. Cosmologically and religiously too as a natural theology, tianxia is a process that in its evolution, establishes a cultural center for the earth, and in so doing, sets an axis that sanctifies the human world in its veneration of tian and the earth.
China in its original formulation is tianxia, an unbounded process of growth in world order. For Zhao, China is not a place, but a “taking place”—a world-making out of a centripetal whirlpool that over time has taken the mere “variety” of the constellations of many different cultures, and on the basis of their vital, ecological interdependence, has transformed them into a shared syncretic “diversity” in which the differences that obtain among the many different peoples have been activated to make a difference for each other. And here in Anyang, we stand at the beginning of the history of this hybridic process of tianxia, and are witness to its continuing influence in the contemporary world.