On the other hand, when disunity was great, China faced times of shrinking control and their leaders were more frequently branded as morally corrupt and unnecessary. These links between unity and the opinions of the people and the power of China certainly form partially from a self-reinforcing cycle in which the actual and perceived power lead to unity and vice-versa.
However Chinese literature puts a strong focus on the unity side of this cycle, probably due to the particular difficulties of unifying such a vast region including many ethnic and cultural groups. Unity continues to be important today, not only in China but also in many parts of life that humans engage in. Companies and governments strive to achieve it, and so do smaller units such as families.
The main focus that this article will follow, however, is the way the Church is expected to seek and maintain unity.
Briefly jumping back, family units hold an expectation of unity. In China this unit was one of the most important for society. Family bonds provided the basis for rites and rituals and drove many political decisions as clans and dynasties vied for power.
Confucian scholars even interpreted the appropriate methods of rulership and societal structure in terms of filial piety. Many of the Chinese scholars and rulers viewed family as the most unified of groups. However, families were not without their problems and they often failed to produce unity.
The legalist scholar Han Feizi (died 233 B.C.) argued that rulers could not trust their family members, even those as close as a wife or child because they will put their ambitions for power above their duty to their family and resort to fighting or subversion, even against their own kin. Families also caused problems during the Han Empire. Powerful land owning families effectively divided the empire between themselves, hoarding wealth and even controlling their own militaries while greater China struggled to maintain its borders and look after their interior.
Despite these failings, family is also clearly important for our biblical understanding of unity. In Jesus Christ, God calls us to be adopted as his children by faith (Galatians 3 verse 26). For Christians, this is not just fanciful writing but a real expectation of that kind of relationship with God, a relationship that is bound by God's love for us.
1 Peter 1 verse 22 also uses the term for family-style love in the way Christians should treat other Christians, which is sensible given that they are all God's adopted children. This style of love is meant to be characterised by humility gentleness and patience (Ephesians 4 verse 2), and thus should not suffer from the ambition and brutality that marked the failings of family described above.
The body is another unit in which unity is expected. The Chinese scholar and philosopher Dong Zhongshu (died 104 B.C.) viewed the human body as the highest link between heaven and earth "With their bodies of flesh and bones, humans match the fullness of the earth. Above, the brightness of their ears and eyes correspond to the sun and moon... their hearts feel grief, joy, and anger, much like divine entities." (Translation by Patricia Ebrey)
Taking many of the Daoist ideals, the human body was viewed as a balance between yin and yang, unifying two forces. However, the human bodies we have now fade away, breaking down with age. The muscles and bones weaken and deteriorate and the brightness of the eyes and acuteness of the ears both become dull. Christians make a different claim of how the body shows unity.
Christians believe that Jesus' body is perfect because God raised him from the dead. As part of this perfection his body does not decay. Christians also claim that we are members of the body of Christ, that we are bound to Jesus in such a way that we are described as "in him" (see particularly Romans 6 verses 3-8).
In this way we are to be unified, acting to support and encourage one-another under the headship and authority of Jesus Christ. "... we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself in love." (Ephesians 4 verses 15b-16 ESV).
This passage speaks of the Church and how Christians are to teach, equip, encourage and admonish, to build up each other in love. The body does not unify two forces in this view as Dong Zhongshu's does, but rather unifies Christians into one people with Jesus.
This is only part of the discussion of unity in the Bible, there are other units which could be examined to look further into this matter, but a brief summary can be seen in Ephesians 4 verses 4-6 "There is one body and one spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."
Clearly, Christians make great claims about the importance and role of unity, even beyond the expectations and value that is placed on it in the records of history.
Alex Gillespie is an undergraduate student from Wollongong now based in Sydney.
Alex Gillespie's previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/alex-gillespie.html