Following the Opium Wars, traditional notions of China as encompassing “all under heaven” (tianxia天下) and the “Sino-barbarian dichotomy” (huayi華夷) could no longer be sustained. Under the pressure and intimidation of the Great Powers’ advanced warships and fire power, the Qing government signed the unequal treaties and China was forced to adopt Western conceptual reasoning, discursive language, and rules of conduct. Western knowledge and lexicon was successively translated into Chinese, affecting transformations in local discourse and society. As part of this process, Japanese texts, which contained a great volume of Chinese characters, became an important medium for the transmission of Western epistemology. During the first Opium War between China and England, the cultural and political hegemony of the Great Powers were demonstrated through debates over interpretations of the Chinese character yi夷. During the Late Qing, Chinese intellectuals drew on their foundations in traditional Chinese lexicon to understand and adopt the foreign-derived words zhongzu種族 (race) and minzu民族 (nation). This process reflects both shifts in how Chinese people regarded collective identity and the various presumptions underlying state-building visions.
The concepts “Great Unification” (Dayitong大一統), “China” (Zhongguo中國), and “all-under-Heaven” (Tianxia天下) are all research topics which continue to attract the focus of the Chinese historical community. The three concepts are both related and different. This paper conducts a preliminary comparative analysis of the content of the three concepts and the role that they play in specific historical studies. It finds that the concept “China” emphasizes the origin of Huaxia華夏 civilization and its significance as a center for expansion and Sinicization of surrounding ethnic groups. The concept “all-under-Heaven,” meanwhile, places more stress on the overall political governance relationship between the center and the periphery. Finally, the concept “Great Unification” focuses on the process by which a dynasty establishes its legitimacy in terms of both ideology and practice. Only by examining the three concepts together can we fully grasp the overall direction and characteristics of Chinese history.
The inscription of “He Zun” 何尊 and the “Zicai” 梓材 in Shangshu尚書, both of which record events during the early Western Zhou dynasty, are historical texts containing the earliest appearance of the term zhongguo中國. The zhongguo in those texts was a concept which was extremely rich in meaning. It does not refer specifically to the Luoyang 洛陽 region, which was then considered the heart of the Chinese kingdom, but rather refers to the capital in a geographical sense as well as the state in a political sense. When zhongguo first appeared in writing, it did not refer to China and Chinese culture yet. It was neither a racial concept which referred specifically to the Chinese race, nor a cultural concept which referred to Chinese culture. When zhongguo first appeared in writing during the early Zhou dynasty, it was a written record of the concept of zhongguo which was already in wide circulation in society at that time. In fact, the concept of zhongguo probably originated even before the early Western Zhou dynasty. Noting the origins of concepts such as zhong中 and dizhong地中 (the center of the land), some archaeologists have concluded that zhongguo first appeared during the Taosi 陶寺 period, the Miaodigou 廟底溝 period, or the Erlitou 二里頭 period. Studying these archaeological findings in conjunction with recounts regarding zhongguo in historical texts, it is probably historically accurate to date the earliest appearance of the concept of zhongguo to the founding of the Xia dynasty.
Tianxia天下 has recently become a buzzword in Chinese academia. The word’s threefold connotation in relation to geographical, political, and international systems needs to be analyzed to illustrate its different meanings. These three meanings were centered around China in the self-sufficient traditional Chinese civilization; however, they all need reinterpretation in the current age of globalization. Reinterpreting tianxia requires an appropriate vehicle of language: weak and regressive language, early modern language that has undergone transformation, and pretentious usage cannot effectively reinterpret tianxia. A non-literati, nonpolitical approach to linguistic expression is necessary to avoid the corruption of language and reinterpret the word from a universal perspective. The principal matter to be addressed in reinterpreting tianxia is its notion in relationship to nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Merely reinterpreting the best intentions of tianxia is insufficiently convincing for the concept in the age of globalization. How tianxia is elucidated through the lens of the individual, state, and international world determines the reliability and credibility of the interpretation.
When using maps to study China’s historical concept of itself, we find that the research can be divided into two schools: the “Map of the Traces of Yu” (Yu ji tu禹跡圖) system and the “Unification Map” (yitong tu一統圖) system. There are also two major classifications for the type of map used: the “China Proper” type and the type that includes the outlying areas. These competing concepts of what constitutes China reflect the different modes of life that have existed alongside each other throughout China’s long history, namely the agrarian and the nomadic lifestyles. The relationship between these two economic modes has alternated between peaceful and hostile and this tumultuous relationship has influenced who are considered “real” Chinese and who are the outsiders. This paper explores the evolution of what is considered China’s territory and what is not.