化干戈为玉帛 (Turning weapons of war into jade and silk)
The Chinese people have a deep-rooted belief in peace, as evidenced by historical texts and cultural values. Scholars generally agree that the idea of “peace” (和平, hépíng) is derived from the word he (和, hé). Research shows that he was first seen in bronze inscriptions. Some scholars believe that he in bronze inscriptions means peace, harmony, and softness in the field of music. Judging from the relevant explanations in history, the concept of he originated from the theory of yin and yang, which mainly refers to the balance and harmony of yin and yang.
Originally used to describe the peace, harmony, and softness of music, he, or ideas of harmony, gradually extended to be used to describe the harmonious relationship between people and people, people and nature, and people and society. In China’s vast historical records, incisive discourses against war and the pursuit of peace can be seen everywhere and at any given time. Throughout the ages, the cultural elements of “peace” are manifested in politics, economy, society, culture, religion, and aspects of daily life. By taking a look at China’s history, it is not difficult to see that Chinese people have been believing in peace, pursuing peace, and creating peace.
Chinese people believe in peace
Ideas and concepts of peace that Chinese people deeply believe in are seen across China’s history. For instance, The Book of Documents is one of the Five Classics of the Confucian canon that greatly influenced Chinese history and culture. Every article from The Book of Documents is the essence of Chinese culture. As early as the Tang Yao period more than 4,000 years ago, The Book of Documents (尚书, Shangshu) tells a story about Emperor Yao, which is one of the earliest stories showing China’s belief in peace.
In particular, “Emperor Yao is respectful and dignified, prudent and frugal, sensible, discerning right and wrong, elegant in appearance, generous and gentle, and good at governance. He respects his duties, promotes the virtuous, and upholds the good. His holiness shines everywhere, and graciousness spreads widely. He is able to know people well and use their abilities, so that the people within a clan can be close and harmonious. When the clansmen became close and harmonious, they also discerned and commended the officials and clans who had good deeds, coordinated people across countries, so that they also became friendly and harmonious”.
Ideas calling for peace were also seen in the Spring and Autumn (770-476 BCE) and Warring States (475-221 BCE) periods. The Analects of Confucius has the concept of“peace is precious” (和为贵, heweigui) from Youzi’ statement of “make harmony a top priority in the application of li (礼, propriety). However, if a person insists on pursuing harmony just for the sake of harmony instead of qualifying it with li, then there would be no hope of success. Indeed, conflicts of interest between people happen sometimes. If everyone is selfish, society will never be peaceful. The function of li is to adjust the relationship between oneself and others, to reduce the cruelty and intensity of competition, and to enhance the warmth and harmony of society. Sometimes, a “sorry” can resolve a tense conflict; an “it doesn't matter” can send a warm spring breeze to people.
However, too much emphasis on harmony, cautiousness, and submissiveness, even if one is right, makes one dare not argue. This is due to fears of offending others. This is harmony for the sake of harmony. In the balance of self and others, such people are too biased towards others, which is overcorrection. The function of li is to maintain a balance between self and others. People should be moderate, neither arrogant nor cowardly, neither humble nor overbearing. Therefore, this idea calls for mutual respect, and this helps maintain harmony.
As the Zhou Dynasty entered the Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods, there were frequent wars, the land was barren, the dead were everywhere, and the people were in dire straits. Mozi, who was the Chinese philosopher that founded Mohism, understood the sentiments of the people. He spoke on behalf of the people, and put forward the idea of ”non-aggression” (非攻, feigong). From ancient times to the present, no matter what form of war, the people are the ones who suffer the most. He calls for peace and rejects war by saying that war is a “great harm” to the world, and it will cause great damage to both the victorious and the defeated countries.
In fact, in China’s earliest military book, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, the author repeatedly emphasized that “soldiers are important matters for the country, the place of death and life, the way of survival, and must be investigated; no military operations should be mounted if it brings no benefits to the whole country. No troops should be deployed if the odds of winning victory are not high. No war should be fought unless you are in a dangerous situation”. This shows Sun Tzu’s anti-war and war-cautious thinking.
The 5,000-year Chinese civilization has been passed down from generation to generation, and the “non-war” thought has been passed down and persisted to this day. The thought of “harmony” in Chinese civilization has been continuously solidified, strengthened, and deepened.
Chinese people pursue peace
Peace culture is the essence of Chinese traditional culture and the eternal pursuit of the Chinese nation. As early as the ancient dynasties, China had formed peaceful ideas as early as 2,000 years ago. For instance, in Si Ma Fa (司马法, The Marshal's Art of War), it was written, “A warlike state, however big it may be, will eventually perish” (国虽大，好战必亡). This idea reflects China’s love for peace.
In The Analects: Yan Yuan (论语·颜渊), there is a writing that “within the bounds of the four seas, all men are brothers” (四海之内皆兄弟). Ancient Chinese believed that the sky was round and the land was square, and China was located in the middle of the land, which was surrounded by the four seas. “Within the four seas” is the entire living space that people at that time knew, which means the whole country or the whole world. It shows the Chinese people’s humanistic spirit of benevolence and friendliness.
A sentence in Zuo Zhuan (左传·僖公十五年) expresses the idea of turning conflict into peace is expressed. Specifically, “Eliminate animosity in order to turn war into peace and turn conflicts into amity” (化干戈为玉帛). Gan and ge (干, 戈) are two weapons of war that were used for defense and attack respectively. Yu and bo (玉帛) are jades and silks which were gifts exchanged between feudal lords and tribute paid to monarchs. This sentence means to eliminate enmity, turn war into peace, and change conflict into friendship.
Although the Chinese people have been bullied by Western powers, the war has brought great suffering to the Chinese nation, and left an unforgettable painful memory, the value of peace pursued by the descendants of Yan and Huang has never changed, and they still adhere to the pursuit of peace articulated by principles of “peace is precious” (和为贵), “the world is united” (天下大同), “all people belong to one family” (四海一家).
Chinese people make peace
From the history of peaceful exchanges such as Zhang Qian (张骞) ’s mission to the Western Regions in the Western Han Dynasty, Xuanzang (玄奘)’s adventures to learn Buddhist scriptures in the Tang Dynasty and the subsequent Journey to the West (西游记), Monk Jianzhen (鉴真)’s journey eastward to Japan, the prosperity of the Maritime Silk Road in the Song Dynasty, and Zheng He (郑和)’s seven voyages to the West in the Ming Dynasty, it is clear that the Chinese nation has not only believed in peace and pursued peace since ancient times, but also created peace with practical actions.
Zhang Qian, an official and a diplomat of the Western Han Dynasty (around 202 BC-AD 25), was appointed to travel to the Western Regions by the emperor. Zhang Qian and his envoys began their journey to the Western regions in Xi’an, the capital of today’s Shaanxi Province. Founded about 3,100 years ago, Xi’an served as the capital for 13 dynasties in Chinese history. According to Records of the Grand Historian (史记) written by Sima Qian, Zhang Qian visited many countries during his travels to the West. Zhang Qian was the first official diplomat to bring back reliable information about Central Asia. He played a key role in opening China to the world of commercial trade. Zhang Qian’s expedition eventually led to the opening of the Silk Road.
In 115 B.C., Emperor Wu of Han organized another team of 300 men, also headed by Zhang Qian, to visit the country of Wusun (乌孙, 今新疆阿克苏地区), trying to persuade its ruler to be for a joint campaign. On his journey, Zhang Qian sent his assistants to the countries of Dawan (大宛), Kangju (康居), Daxia (大夏), and the Yuezhi. After a year or so, these countries sent their envoys to Chang’an along with Han assistants.
Since then, the Han Dynasty established official relations with the countries in the Western Regions. The exchanges and communication with the Western Regions became increasingly frequent. During that time, Wusun even allowed intermarriage with the Han people. Among the travelers to Western Regions, there were many businessmen who followed the steps of Zhang Qian.
Zhang Qian traveled to the Western Regions several times over 30 years. He devoted all his life to the establishment and development of friendly relations between the Han Dynasty and the countries in the Western Regions. His health was significantly damaged due to the hardship he endured during his long years of traveling. One year after his last diplomatic mission, he died of poor health.
His journeys promoted a great variety of economic and cultural exchanges between the Han Dynasty and the Western Regions. Since silk became the main product traded from China, this great trade route later became known as the Silk Road (丝绸之路 ). The frequent economic and cultural exchanges between the East and the West promoted the development of societies in the region and the spread of civilizations along this east-west corridor.
Jianzhen, an eminent Buddhist monk of the Tang Dynasty, was determined to cross the sea eastward and go to Japan to propagate Buddhism after being invited by an emissary from Japan. Though the crossing was fraught with hazards, he finally reached Japan on his sixth attempt. In particular, during the fifth attempt, powerful northerly winds blew his ship off course and sent it south to today’s Hainan Island in the South China Sea. During the harrowing journey back to Yangzhou by land, Yoei, the Japanese monk who had accompanied him, died. Jianzhen himself suffered an eye injury and later, a serious eye infection. By the time he returned to Yangzhou, the master was blind.
His stay in Japan promoted Sino-Japan cultural communication and exchange. Jianzhen and the other 23 monks who traveled with him brought a lot of Chinese religious scriptures and valuable cultural objects to Japan. Jianzhen not only propagated Buddhism, but also taught Chinese medicine, architecture, the Chinese language, calligraphy, painting, etc. in Japan. He also introduced Japan to the Chinese culture of the Tang Dynasty.
Ideas of peace have persisted despite historical challenges and conflicts, reflecting the enduring commitment to peace in Chinese society.