China's Unique Universalism

Wang Hui’s The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought is a monumental contribution to the debate in China about how to respond to the civilizational challenge of the West. Wang’s great purpose in this book is to define a concept of the modern in terms of Chinese historical experience and to lay the foundations of a modern Chinese universalism, which he frames as a paradigm for global governance that is superior to the regnant Western version of modernism based on the sovereignty of the nation-state.

Wang’s book is clearly part of an emerging Chinese Weltanschauung that is shaping and being shaped by both academic institutions and organs of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and government. Both domestic and foreign policy are infused with broadly consistent versions of a modern Chinese universalism based on the history described in The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought, which, in Wang’s telling, culminates in the great Qing 清 dynasty (1644–1912) reformer Kang Youwei’s 康有爲 (1858–1927) concept of Grand Unity 大同, a key concept used by past philosophers and the present CCP to express China’s unique form of universalism.

In CCP and government circles, this universalism has taken the form of the ideology of a “moderately prosperous society,” (小康社會), conceived as a historical stage on the way to the Grand Unity, and the keystone of socialism with Chinese characteristics, advocated by all CCP leaders from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping. As China’s People’s Daily 人民日报 defines it, “a moderately prosperous society is precisely the temporary abode of the Grand Unity. In other words, the theoretical basis and buttress of a moderately prosperous society is the Grand Unity; and the enactment in reality and development of the Grand Unity is the moderately prosperous society.”

One of the book’s strengths is its sharp focus on the relationship between thought and history. Thought here means intellectual history and its relationship to statecraft. One gains a picture of how Chinese thought emerges from historical realities in a cycle of interaction, with historical reality presenting the problems for thinkers, and thinkers in their descriptions and critiques of the times acting as the agents of an evolving standard of moral evaluation. This leads inexorably to the idea, and gradual realization, of the Grand Unity. 

The book’s preface tells readers that the contemporary manifestation of modern Chinese universalism is what Wang calls “transsystemic society.” Writes Wang: “What the concept of transsystemic society provides is a mutually connected social and political form that arises through the interaction, transmission, and coexistence of different cultures, ethnic groups, and regions, which can provide a sense of commonality based on the social solidarity that serves as a basis for a process of continuous socialization.” This process of “continuous socialization” betrays a significant utopian aspect to Wang’s definition of transsystemic society that will become clear later in the course of this review.

Wang argues that this concept has long been the guiding paradigm of Chinese history. “China has never been a purely Han state, … different ethnic groups, religions, and cultures all played a role in the formation of the civilization we call China.” This includes the “so-called conquest dynasties established by Mongols, Manchus, and others,” which became culturally Chinese. Wang terms this vast historical process “sinification,” a process in which diverse “elements and orientations were often mutually interpreted and intricately intertwined, culminating in a predominant direction toward sinification and forming a transsystemic society and becoming an intrinsic part of a constantly emerging Chinese civilization.” Wang asserts that China is already a transsystemic society uniquely capable of assimilating diverse ethnicities and cultures under its umbrella, thereby making Chinese universalism a model paradigm for global governance.

The term “transsystemic society” is used only in the book’s preface. It is clearly meant to be a modern social scientific synonym for the traditional terms of Heavenly Principle 天理 developed in the Song dynasty (宋 960–1276 AD), and Kang Youwei’s Grand Unity. Taken together, they represent what Wang sees as three historical phases of the evolution, or “rise,” of modern Chinese universalism. 

Phase I: Heavenly Principle

The first phase occurred during the transition from the Tang dynasty (唐 618–907 AD) to the Song dynasty, a period of deep social, economic, and political change, much of which, scholars have argued, anticipated the social forces that brought about the European Renaissance in the fourteenth century. This historical process is fascinating and well described as a transition from a feudal government to a centralized bureaucratic state. Song thinkers, such as the Cheng brothers, Cheng Hao 程顥 (1032–85) and Cheng Yi 程頤 (1033–1108), and Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130–1200), imbued this new government with an ethical system based on the idea of Heavenly Principle. 

Heavenly Principle has two aspects, universal and particular. The universal is “eternal, neither existing and fluctuating in response to human knowledge and ignorance, … nor waxing and waning in response to changes in things or situations.” Within this Universal Principle, “each of the myriad things had its own principle, being that which each thing ought to do.” In other words, Universal Principle is manifest as all individual things of the universe. The nature and function of each thing, being, or institution is ultimately given by the single universal principle, unity in diversity and diversity in unity, in a universal divine order that subsumes the individuality of each particular principle, “singular principle and its differential expressions.” Heavenly Principle thus becomes the intellectual basis of a universal moral community, under the institution of the centralized bureaucratic state. 

Phase II: Grand Unity

The second phase stems from the intellectual and political ferment of the Qing dynasty and its conflict with Western powers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Unlike the Song, which was a native Chinese dynasty conquered by the invading Mongols in 1205, the Qing was a dynasty established by the invading Manchus. Over the course of its vast conquests of peoples and territories, the Qing absorbed Inner and Outer Mongolia, Tibet, East Turkestan (what is now Xinjiang Province) and central Asia as far west as Lake Balkhash in present-day Kazakhstan.

The pressing political problem was how to establish the legitimacy of an “empire built through unending conquest, expansion and interethnic segregation and integration, whose imperial system and social hierarchy were rooted in diverse ethnic privileges.” The Qing government’s solution to this problem was the Tribute System, conceived as a system of relations between cultures, not states; it was based on ritual relations, not legal norms. It involved “mutual considerations of relative power and cultural exchange” in one diverse ritual order under the ritual center of the Qing imperial court. 

China’s vision of world order is powerful and influential. Over one hundred and fifty countries across the Eurasian continent—Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean—have signed agreements with China as BRI members.

Establishing the legitimacy of the Qing empire was the intellectual project first of the New Text School of classical scholarship, and later of such major thinkers as Gong Zizhen 龔自珍 (1792–1841), Wei Yuan 魏源 (1794–1857) and Kang Youwei. Modern Chinese thought was developed as much on the model of Qing statecraft as it was forged as a moral and ethical critique of it, forming thereby a new foundation for a much more radical reformist ideology, revolutionary in its implications. The radical edge of Qing thought was the idea that the distinctions between inner and outer (Chinese and non-Chinese ethnicities) could and should be erased in a “multiethnic empire based on ritual.” 

This amounts to what Wang calls a redefinition of China, a vision fully articulated by Kang Youwei. Much of Kang’s thought was forged in opposition to that of the Western writers whose ideas assumed the universality of the Westphalian nation-state and all that implied for international relations. For example, Wang adduces Hugo Grotius’ On the Law of War and Peace (1625), which, he says, assumes the sovereignty of the nation-state and emphasizes military competition. Hard power conflict between states would be regulated over time with the accumulation of a body of international treaty law, consisting of the collection of individual agreements and precedents negotiated on an ad hoc basis in the course of both normal relations and conflicts between states. 

Kang, by contrast, argued for the transcendence of competition through the universalism of ritual relations between states under the authority of a benevolent central authority, a “Law-Giving-King,” whose institutions are broad enough to “encompass global truths and laws,” essentially an expansion of the Tribute System as a global political framework.

Kang’s Book of Grand Unity 大同書 (1901) is a sweeping vision of global government infused with a Buddhist notion of universal suffering and a Confucian zeal to eliminate that suffering in the service of a final, single utopian world, ruled by a centralized imperial state. His theory posited the emperor as the center but also acknowledged “Confucius as reformer, the Sage-King, and the sole source of authority. This was to be a Confucian constitutional monarchy.” In other words, the global imperial order would be subject to a system of ethics and moral evaluation outside itself, located in the institutions, rites, and rituals created by Confucius, whom Kang called the “uncrowned King.” Where in the tradition of Grotius we have the ideal of “the rule of law and not of men,” Kang envisions a “rule of ancient cultural institutions and not of men.” 

Yet, this was not to be a recreation of ancient China; the goal was a world redefined as a complete utopia built in thoroughly modern terms. In Kang’s view, a great “reprogramming” of global relations could be accomplished through the universal use of objective scientific knowledge, which would lead to the disbanding of all armies, and “the destruction of national boundaries and the uniting of the earth.” Citizenship would no longer be a matter of ethnic or national identity, but rather a geographical concept determined by one’s location on a global administrative grid divided into squares of ten arcminutes on a side. Each square would have an autonomous governing body, all to be integrated into one unity under the central imperial authority, with the ultimate purpose of protecting the people and putting an end to war. 

Yet, there appears to be an irreconcilable contradiction at the heart of Wang’s conception of modern Chinese thought, which is inherent in its culmination in Kang’s utopia. Yes, there is diversity within unity in an administrative sense. Yet, even this diversity was qualified. The overwhelming momentum of Kang’s Grand Unity was toward uniformity, not diversity. There were to be no competing political parties and no debates in parliaments and no class distinctions. All weights and measures would be completely standardized and all would speak one language; private property would be abolished in favor of the socialization of all production and distribution; racial amalgamation would eliminate racial and ethnic differences and inequalities; women were to be considered exactly the same as men, with the goal of eliminating all forms of sex discrimination, especially that inherent in the institutions of marriage and the family. “The reproduction of humanity” was to be socialized. 

Phase III: Transsystemic Society

This brings us full circle back to global governance and the idea of transsystemic society, which as noted at the outset of this review envisions a process of “continuous socialization,” a term now clearly understandable given Wang’s reliance on Kang Youwei as the main exemplar of modern Chinese thought. “The basis for transsystemic society,” Wang says, “is found in the interconnectedness of the world of everyday life, but it also relies on a continuously evolving political culture that integrates the elements of various systems within the shifting organic connections, without denying the uniqueness and agency of these elements.” Wang argues that modern China, as inheritor of the history of the universalist ideal and as a political entity whose expansion followed the heritage of the Qing assimilation of regional tribal cultures, is already a transsystemic society and a model for global governance that stands in opposition to the international liberal order advocated by Western powers, particularly the United States. 

The moderately prosperous society is a stage of historical development on the way to full socialism at home and a means to a realization of the Qing expansion into a multiethnic empire on a global scale. Or, to put it in Wang’s terms, it is moving towards the creation of a global transsystemic society based not on the Westphalian nation-state but rather on a utopian vision of a global Grand Unity of diverse civilizations, under a benevolent, unitary cultural and economic hegemon.

This is also the ideological basis of Beijing’s diplomatic initiatives all over the developing world, a “community of shared destiny.” In a clear echo of Kang Youwei, Beijing seeks to incorporate the entire developing world into a global moderately prosperous society via a full range of diplomatic initiatives. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the China-ASEAN Investment Cooperation Fund, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, and the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum all promote the Chinese model of development under Beijing’s benevolent political, economic, and technological leadership. Most important is Beijing’s One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI). In its promotion of a BRI community of nations, Beijing uses the same language the CCP uses to promote the moderately prosperous society at home.

China’s vision of world order is powerful and influential. Over one hundred and fifty countries across the Eurasian continent—Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and the Caribbean—have signed agreements with China as BRI members. These Memorandums of Understanding echo the ideology of Chinese universalism, thoroughly consistent with the history of the political thought of the Grand Unity, in their five “cooperation priorities:” policy coordination; facilities connectivity: unimpeded trade; financial integration; and people-to-people bonds, all “guided by the principles of wide consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits.”

The Rise of Modern Chinese Thought is a book written well within the history of the intellectual tradition it describes. Song and Qing thinkers developed new avenues of thought in new historical circumstances. But their work was always in the form of commentaries on the Chinese classics of antiquity. Wang, as well, bases his view of Chinese thought on an intellectual-historical investigation of the writings of past thinkers, thus continuing the heritage of dynamic scholarship that responds both to tradition and contemporary historical realities. And, just as in the case of his Song and Qing predecessors, there is a close relationship between official regime policy and intellectual history.