Dàtóng (大同) is a concept derived from the Confucian tradition that is usually translated in English as “great universality” (and sometimes “great harmony” or “great unity”). One of the earliest recorded usages of the term appears in The Book of Rites, a text on ceremonial practice that does not assume its present form until the Han Dynasty (206 BC to AD 220). Invocations of dàtóng echo across the long arc of Confucianism. They reappear in the work of the late Qing (1644–1912) reformers and can still be found in the thought of China’s great twentieth-century theorists, including Li Dazhao and Sun Yatsen. Though the term is never used directly by Confucius himself, the spirit of the concept signaled by the word is present everywhere in his work.
The best way to understand the place of dàtóng in the Confucian tradition is along the lines of the role played by the concept of the kallipolis (ideal city) in Plato: both are signs for an ideal configuration of persons and things—words, as it were, for true, ideal, or correct “political” order. This last term uses quotation marks to foreground its inadequacy: both traditions implicitly reject the notion of a domain intrinsic to the political (where people do properly “political” things like vote and pass legislation), merging politics with moral, aesthetic, and even ontological considerations. Dàtóng is the state of affairs in which humans become (actually) what they are (potentially). Dàtóng is, in other words, the collective practice that matches humans to their own lost essence and in so doing harmonizes them with the essence of things themselves. It may be that for Confucius this model was never more than a pragmatic ideal, a spur to moral effort rather than a fully imagined and achievable social model. Conceived of as such, dàtóng would function within the space of the political in the same way as the concept of the sage (聖) does in the purview of individual moral practice. The sage or sheng is the perfectly just individual, a figure that Confucius openly claims to have “no hope of [ever] meeting.” However, this understanding of dàtóng as no more than a moral spur is complicated by the fact that Confucianism—unlike Platonism, for example—locates its ideal future in an actually existing past: the question of whether or not utopia might exist was hereby offset by the fact it already had. Dàtóng had actually existed, and not in a murky, preternatural past—some vague Chinese Atlantis—but at a precise moment in history: the reign of the great Zhou emperors of the eleventh century.
For Confucius, social order is the direct consequence of virtue or ren (仁). Where rulers, families, and individuals have abandoned the dao of right practice, disorder, poverty, and suffering prevail. Chaos, on these terms, represents the domination of immediate desire over the time-tested patience of moral truth. In contrast to this state of chaos, dàtóng represents a social order in which whole and part are one; the interests of the individual come to be inseparable from those of the family, village, and state that nourish and protect them. Within dàtóng, good governance is not experienced as a limit to desire but as desire’s deepest fulfillment. For the practiced Confucian, doing what one wants is doing that which encourages the harmony and success—one might say the sustainability—of the community as a whole. This contrasts sharply with contemporary liberalism, which also makes a claim for the way in which private desire serves a broader public good. For classical liberals, self-interest is said to increase the efficiency and wealth of a society, but there is never any suggestion that it deepens spiritually the connection of an individual to his community, nor even that the latter as a whole is made more sustainable or just by virtue of unbridled selfishness. For Confucius, contemporary arguments about the incompatibility of individual freedom and happiness with strong ecological governance would have made little sense because both simultaneously extend and deepen the other. Life’s every gesture—from the correct way to dispose of a fish bone to the manner in which one addresses a visiting friend—would be mediated for Confucius by right ritual, or li (禮). This does not imply a condition of mere repetition or even totalitarian control; rather, it indicates a system of reverential attention in which relations with the self, others, and nature are saturated with self-reflection and care. In dàtóng, no action is free from the burden of mattering. People in the ideal Confucian society are productively occupied but never overtaxed because the ruler encourages economic activity as a means to shared prosperity rather than unlimited private enrichment (as is in contemporary capitalist societies). From this perspective, prosperity is not an obstacle to but proof of moral rectitude. At the instant the former is gained at the expense of moral (or cosmic) truth, it becomes odious and toxic. It is important to stress that the image of Confucius as a dour Kantian moralist is a misguided Western projection: virtue, as in the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza, engenders overflowing joy, not unfeeling obedience. The ideal Confucian life is one lived in a state of continuous joyous attachment to learning, friendship, and music. Dàtóng does not posit a whole that lives on the back of strangled pleasure but rather replaces one system of pleasures with another. Today’s most forward-thinking environmentalists—Vandana Shiva or Paul Bloom—imagine just such a project. The task is to rechannel pleasures in new directions rather than simply truncating them with a paternalistic “thou shalt not.”
In the light of Confucian utopia, late capitalism—the world we inhabit today—looks strangely empty. Precarious employment, shocking levels of inequality, a popular culture indistinguishable from advertising, widespread depression and anxiety, the emergence of violent xenophobic populisms, and the prospect of imminent ecological collapse all mark our era as a time of slow-motion ruination. Decay, rot, ruin: these terms would be the kind used by Confucius to understand our moment. Of course, these concepts presume an objective norm by which to measure the gap separating health from sickness. This is a way of thinking foreign to our own time, which tends to view such claims from within a common-sensical relativism that sees the individual as the highest arbiter of the true. So rich, however, is the image cast by dàtóng that it might be strategically necessary to suspend our usual poststructuralist suspicions and to pretend to believe (for an instant or two) in good old-fashioned social fullness. In place of a self-regulating liberal subject, dàtóng substitutes a social being rich in bonds as well as debt. Life, it suggests, requires ancestors, the grace of good harvests, and the continuous labor of farmers and mothers to exist. Even today, these seemingly outdated (or even folksy-cliché) elements hold true as the basic conditions of our collective being. With Aristotle (and against competitive individualists such as Thomas Hobbes), Confucius affirms a picture of existence as intrinsically obliged: society and its duties are not imposed onto the self; nor are they produced as an effect of a contract it can later choose to abjure or flee. The direct consequence of ignoring this indebtedness—of choosing the route of what Confucius calls the xiaoren (small man, 小人)—is a life without joy, peace of mind, and knowledge. This point is particularly valuable for the way it sets up the possibility of an immanent critique of capitalism—a critique that comes from within rather than from without. Society is not simply opposed to self-interest. Rather, it is an extremely narrow (liberal) conception of the latter in which the good life is equated with freely chosen pleasure, consistent rule of law, and the sovereign right to be left alone. The xiaoren thrives in cliques and gangs, forming a sense of right on the basis of local interest; the junzi (gentleman, 君子) takes the universal as the unshakeable foundation of moral judgment and strives to live a life compatible with the ideals of dàtóng. It would not occur to Confucius to provide a proof for the existence of others. Where Descartes establishes reality from the inside out, with certainty starting at the self and moving tentatively outward (toward the existence of others, society, nature, and so on), Confucius presumes from the beginning that there is a preexisting and structured reality of which humans constitute a limited yet significant part. Confucius, like Spinoza, sees in other people not barriers to the realization of the self—enemies on a territory of scarce pleasures—but as neighbors whose health, happiness, and justness makes possible a richer experience of selfhood.
Furthermore, in contrast to an era in which profit seeking is the highest form of activity—and in which money is imbued by governments and entrepreneurs with godlike capacities to redeem humankind via the cliché of market innovation—the strictures introduced by Confucius make it impossible to transform living human labor into dead (and exploitative) economic capital. Wealth that takes the form of collectively shared abundance is celebrated by dàtóng, but it cannot be produced at the expense of the bodies of the poor; it is more equally distributed among those who produce it; and it cannot be allowed to distract from the far more important values of study, virtue, truth, and culture. Though Confucius does not outright reject accumulated individual wealth (or economic inequality)—a position he shares with Aristotle—he tends to celebrate the kind of frugality we more commonly associate with Plato’s Socrates.
Most importantly, as an ideal, dàtóng constructs a specific form of political time, one that never permits the present to confuse itself with the end of history. Because liberal societies imagine themselves as constructed around unchangeable primary units—desiring individuals who in the last instance are necessarily selfish and whose tastes or pleasures are basically axiomatic—they tend to resist framing the future as the product of a collective intention. Liberal theory posits private vice as public virtue and does not see the individual as in need of a fundamental formation (or Bildung) beyond the basic technical training it needs to enter the economy. Though Confucianism measures the distance between here and utopia with an absolute standard—a dao with only one door—its belief in the perfectibility of people is a remarkable counterweight to the unrelenting realism of capitalism, a system that is forever confusing what is with all that has been or could be. In this sense, dàtóng occupies the same position within Confucian practice that communism does in the history of Marxism. It points to the possibility of collectively constructing something better.
We are no more capable of returning to the future dreamed of by Confucius than Confucius himself was his ancient Zhou utopia. Indeed, such a return is as undesirable as it is historically impossible. Dàtóng envisions a society in which parts are arranged in sets of relations—father and son, ruler and ruled—that are themselves fixed eternally by nature. It is this rigidity on the level of social infrastructure that creates the conditions for the emergence of a strong sense of moral, political, and aesthetic purpose. Moral plenitude is the other side of societal closure, a system the core logic of which is immutable and modeled on the fixed quality of the cosmos itself. In other words, moral truth of the kind proposed by Confucius presupposes a closed cosmos that it then aspires to imitate. Certainly the Western conception of Confucianism as a system of unthinking vertical enslavement or authoritarianism is exaggerated. Though a father should, in the last instance, be obeyed by a son, the ruler himself is held in check both by the tacit consent of the population (expressed in its willingness to be ruled) and transcendental moral norms. In contrast with the position of Hobbes, to overthrow an unjust king is to overthrow a common criminal or thug rather than a sovereign proper—which makes the death of a bad king an act of just punishment rather than open regicide.
There are genuinely egalitarian aspects to the Confucian position. In the world envisioned by dàtóng, government would not be in the hands of a hereditary economic elite but would rather be run by a moral aristocracy of competent scholar-bureaucrats drawn (theoretically at least) from any class. This porousness, however, ends at the division separating male from female subjects: the latter are ascribed a set of ideal tasks and functions on the basis of their sex and barred without exception from participating in the Confucian bureaucracy. (In dàtóng, we are told, “men had their tasks, and women their hearths.”) The general form of government is likewise beyond critique: in dàtóng, the “will of the people” is restricted to affirming or denying the right to rule of a specific individual, but not the system that divides humans into rulers and ruled. All human behavior falls under the governance of norms of right practice that are universal. Harmony reigns in dàtóng because individual desire has been cultivated to delight entirely in the true unity of custom. Implicitly excluded are the alternative (and perhaps less orderly) delights of (for example) critical science, goalless wandering, or enticing, socially “useless” sex. The universality implied by dàtóng, its claim to safeguard the whole, is such that it cannot comprehend cultural difference except in the form of a deviation from right practice. Though it is theoretically open to others—Confucius claims that “barbarians” too can be improved by study—these can be included in the universality of dàtóng only on the condition that they shed their specificity and history. Dàtóng in this sense can be expanded to include the rest of the world, but only on the condition that the latter enter into universal (cultural) Chineseness.
Crucially absent from the concept of dàtóng is any real consideration of the relationship between humans and nature. Though Confucius sees in the ideal political order a reflection of cosmic or natural necessity (it should echo the dao of nature), he, like Socrates, is far more interested in humans and their ethical dilemmas than he is in either physical or metaphysical accounts of nature. Traditional Confucians are too busy looking at humans to notice the streams, mountains, and fields so beloved by Daoists and the great hermit painters and poets of the Chinese tradition. These issues come together in the Book of Rites, which frames the correct performance of ritual—be it the welcoming of a guest or the commemoration of a dead ancestor—as the line separating the human from the “merely” animal. After all, if the human does not separate itself from the animal via the attentive precision and self-consciousness of ritual, then what prevents mother and son, father and daughter from taking each other as mates? There is an undeniable speciesism at the heart of Confucius.
Dàtóng’s limits do not stand in need of a knowing European update. Instead, it is to the Chinese intellectual tradition itself that we can turn for the resources needed to expand and repurpose a properly dialectical and ecological great universality. On the issue of the humanism of Confucius—his tendency to focus on intrahuman relations rather than those between humans and other forms of life (or nonlife)—the Confucian tradition itself begins to generate new sets of questions and answers toward the end of the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907). In part as a response to the more metaphysically curious Buddhist and Daoist positions, neo-Confucianism (or daoxue) begins to attend with a higher degree of specificity to what it claims is the overarching metaphysical structure of reality. This turn toward metaphysics—one that might be expected to marginalize empirical material reality by turning attention to ideal or transcendental structures—in fact worked to expand the frame of traditional Confucianism to include a more subtle account of the relations between human and nonhuman entities. Eighteenth-century European commentators interpreted Confucius as a protoempiricist Enlightenment figure, as an atheist with little to no interest in metaphysics; however, it is paradoxically by shedding precisely these empiricist leanings that the Confucian tradition reorients itself toward totality and in so doing the political terrain of the particular itself (things, animals, etc). In turning toward a new thought of the whole, relations between particular things (and the way we experience or politicize them) are changed. In the concept of qi (氣), for example, the tradition begins to articulate the outlines of a material/psychical force or energy that flows through and binds the whole of human and nonhuman existence. Importantly, this gesture to deep ontology does not become the alibi for a repression of the particular but instead extends the reverential attention of ritual to include relations with individual nonhuman animals and objects.
Later Chinese thinkers, some of whom were non- or even anti-Confucian, would continue to expand and rearticulate the conceptual limits of dàtóng. In the late Qing period, conservative reformer Kang Youwei constructed a picture of dàtóng with explicitly liberal, socialist, and feminist elements. For Kang, dàtóng takes the form of a systematically envisioned utopia, a modern political future rather than an impressionistically idealized past. Though Kang was in practice a constitutional monarchist, advocating for reform within the terms of the existing imperial system, his theoretical work—published in full only after his death—called for a complete break with the logic of late Qing China. Where Confucius tethered dàtóng to the limits of the territorial imperial state, Kang called for the abolition of the war-prone system of nation-states and for its replacement by a single global order, one that would combine centralized political power with local forms of self-government. Where Confucius organized social functions according to the boundaries of sexual difference, Kang called for the abolition of inequality between men and women as well as all sex-based occupational divisions. Where Confucius remained a humanist, Kang saw the domination of animal life by human beings as an arbitrary limit to the reach of human ren (virtue); Confucius, he claimed, reduced love to a lazy (and destructive) “love-of-kind”: it is precisely “because we only love one creature [ourselves],” he wrote, that we are not “averse to slaying all other creatures.”
One last point needs to be made here with respect the extremely important relationship between ideas and social reality. It is really not until the time of Mao Zedong that dàtóng ceased to be the name for a merely possible future and instead became the political objective of an organized mass politics. Without Mao’s insistence on the need for a politics of struggle—on the existence of a future separated from its potential by actively entrenched forces and interests—dàtóng remains consigned to the saddest of fates: that of being a beautiful (but largely toothless) idea. This point is important because it separates an ethics of environmentalist care (for human and nonhuman life) from the difficult process of transforming this ethics into an effective institutional reality. To achieve the kind of universality aimed at by dàtóng, means and ends may not always entirely overlap. For example, such a struggle would almost certainly imply not granting equal pertinence or value to all opinions. Those with long-entrenched interests in the maintenance of ecodestructive capitalism could very well experience the universality of a green, politically organized dàtóng as dispossession, aggression, or exclusion. This is as it should be. Though Mao remains for many an unusably controversial political figure, it nevertheless remains the case that he knew well the difference between the avowal of an idea and the process by which it becomes a new form of practice. This is precisely the point of his famous quip about the difference between a revolution and a dinner party.
Provided we remain careful to acknowledge its own inherited limitations, the concept of dàtóng allows us to imagine a relationship to nonhuman life free of the reductive, humanist presuppositions of classical liberalism. Framed within an avowedly ecosocialist politics, it has the capacity to help displace contemporary associations of communism with the worst kind of extractivist industrialism. Mao’s extremely important point, however, is that a concept (or a loanword, for that matter) is never de facto a politics. This is a point we must now still reckon with, recognizing that the domain of thought is a conflictual field, that new ideas immediately generate enemies, and that these enemies must be engaged politically if reality is to be changed for the better. The future is not a lost city, something infinitely behind (or beneath) us. It is not the purview of antiquarians and scholars (as Confucius himself thought). However, the future is also never simply something wholly new, a dream that has never been had before (a point made often by Hegel). Justice achieved, life collectively affirmed and effectively protected—this is at once the oldest, craziest, and most modern of dreams, and it is one we should never be too mature or informed to stop having.
1. Confucius, The Analects (London: Penguin Books, 2014), 7.26.
2. See Vandana Shiva, “The End of Consumerism Is the Beginning of the Joy of Living,” Ecowatch, December 21, 2012, https://www.ecowatch.com/; and Paul Bloom, “Natural Happiness,” New York Times Magazine, April 15, 2009, https://www.nytimes.com/.
3. Confucius, Analects, 4.25.
4. William Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom, Sources of Chinese Tradition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), 1:343.
5. K’ang Yu-wei, Ta T’ung Shu: The One-World Philosophy of K’ang Yu-wei (New York: Psychology Press, 2005), 265.