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  • Print publication year: 2021
  • Online publication date: January 2021

2 - Limits of All-Under-Heaven: Ideology and Praxis of “Great Unity” in Early Chinese Empire


This chapter traces the formation of the first imperial polities on Chinese soil — the Qin and Han dynasties. It starts with the exploration of how the disintegration of the Zhou dynasty (c.1046–255 BCE) triggered the quest for political unity of “All-under-Heaven” as the only means of stemming the ongoing bloodshed and turmoil. This common quest legitimated the unified empire with universalistic pretensions generations before the real unification occurred (in 221 BCE). The first imperial polity, Qin, was highly centralized and committed to territorial expansion. It turned out, however, that this model was unsustainable in the long term. The subsequent Han dynasty experimented with various degrees of expansion and retrenchment, in the process of which a new modus vivendi was reached: the universal superiority of China’s emperor had to be maintained primarily on a symbolic level, whereas in practice, the “inner” and “outer” realm became fully delineated.

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