Tianxia versus Plato

Tianxia is the newest fashionable word. If you don’t know it, you’re out of the loop. If you do, you’re evidently up to date with the latest trends in international political science, even more so if you use the original Chinese ideogram 天下, which literally means ‘all under heaven’. Yet as Ban Wang, editor of an important volume on the subject, admits: ‘despite its popular revival, tianxia has rarely been defined with rigour’. First deployed under the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC), ‘all under heaven’ initially denoted the entire world, which in theory was subject to the sovereign, or ‘son of heaven’ (天, tian, being the ideogram for heaven). In practice, it was used to indicate the part of the world over which the Chinese sovereign – and subsequently Emperor – exercised supremacy.

One of tianxia’s most authoritative modern advocates, Zhao Tingyang, defines it as follows:

1. It is a monarchical system, including certain aristocratic elements. 2. It is an open network, consisting of a general world government and sub-states. The number of sub-states depends on the diversity of cultures, nations or geographical conditions. The sub-states pertain to a general political system, in the same way that subsets pertain to a greater set. Designed for the whole world, the all-under-heaven system is open to all nations. Any nation can participate, or be associated, if it is at peace with the nations included in the system. 3. The world government is in charge of universal institutions, laws and world order; it is responsible for the common wellbeing of the world, upholding world justice and peace; it arbitrates international conflicts among sub-states […] 4. The sub-states are independent in their domestic economy, culture, social norms and values; that is, independent in almost all forms of life except their political legitimacy and obligations. The sub-states are legitimated when politically recognized by the world government, and obliged to make certain contributions…

In recent decades, Chinese political commentators have used the concept to explain how China avoided the fragmentation into various national states that occurred in Europe after antiquity and escaped the fratricidal wars that marked the first age of intra-European competition (which subsequently embroiled the entire Western world). After all, at the time of the Han and Antonine dynasties (c. 150 AD), the Roman and Chinese Empires were of comparable size in terms of territory and population, and both were unitary entities. The explanation hinges on the distinction between tianxia and the Latin imperium (root of the modern term ‘empire’).

As Salvatore Babones explains, ‘Whereas the Roman imperium connoted an expressly delegated political authority to command obedience, the Chinese tianxia encompassed a moral authority that entitled the state to the obedience of its subjects and suzerains alike. Those suzerains included three classes of external sovereigns’. The first class was formed by states that had adopted Confucianism and the Chinese script (or its variants): Korea, Japan, Vietnam and the Ryukyu Islands. These incorporated polities that were an active element of tianxia. The second comprised those parts of Southeast Asia that recognized – at least formally – Chinese authority and appealed to the Emperor to resolve conflicts: Sulu (modern-day Philippines), the Khmer Empire, Siam (Thailand), Java, and, during the Ming era, the maritime Islamic Sultanates. The third and final class involved the nomadic populations to the north and west: Jurchen, Mongolian, Turkic and Tibetan groups that China sought to neutralize by educating in the customs of Chinese civilization.

The concept of tianxia is therefore invoked to affirm the moral superiority of a Confucian view of geopolitics over the so-called ‘Westphalian’ tradition, which upholds the sovereignty of national states, considered equal juridical entities. According to this perspective, the Chinese were forced to temporarily renounce tianxia to manage incursion by the West and its nation states, but with the failure of the Westphalian dis-order the time has come to revive it. Tingyang repeatedly refers to the West in terms of ‘failed states’ in his Redefining a Philosophy for World Governance (2019).

What’s curious about this Chinese account is that, at least in the texts available to Western audiences, it completely elides the other great pillar of Chinese imperial politics: the principle of ru biao fa li: varyingly translated as ‘decoratively Confucian, substantively Legalist’ or ‘Confucian outside, Legalist inside’, or more freely still: ‘iron fist in velvet glove’. ‘In fact’, as Po-Keung Ip notes, ‘Confucianism as state ideology has been officially endorsed and followed, while Legalism covertly dominated much of the actual practice, thus forming the two-tiered politics characteristic of dynastic China’. Legalists had appeared as early as the Zhou dynasty, with Guan Zhong (720-645 BC) and Hanfeizi (281-233 BC), the latter systematizing the formulations which ‘directly opposed the Confucian ideals, and suggested using the law to impose order, subdue populations to strict discipline, and if necessary, use manipulation to stay in power’. In other words, there appears to be a Machiavellian streak in classical Chinese political theory overlooked by the partisans of tianxia.

And that’s not all: the paradox is that, by claiming the superiority of China over the rest of the world, the recovery of tianxia promotes a nationalist program through critiquing the Western idea of the nation state. Yet these two incongruences – the omission of ru biao fa li and the use of an antinationalist nationalism – have not prevented tianxia from gaining currency in the West, so much so that thinkers such as Bam Wang have begun to introduce the concept of an ‘American tianxia’. Beyond their respective exceptionalisms, a common feature of China and the United States is that territorial conquest does not necessarily form part of their exercise of supremacy.

The concept of American tianxia has been further elaborated by Babones, who believes we live in a post-Westphalian world, where

degrees of sovereignty can be gauged by proximity to American power. Only the United States can be said to exercise full state sovereignty, since only the United States is, practically speaking, immune to all external ‘controlling’ or ‘overriding’ voices originating in other states. Outside this American centre, three broad, hierarchical circles of more or less limited sovereignty exist in the post-Westphalian state system. These might reasonably be called shared sovereignty, partial sovereignty, and compromised sovereignty.

The first circle is constituted by the remaining members of the ‘Five Eyes’ alliance; the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, all of which not only share surveillance, but more generally a common language and culture (it’s no coincidence that these are the only white states of the old Commonwealth). ‘The citizens, companies, non-governmental organizations, and governments of America’s four Anglo-Saxon allies’, Babones continues,

participate directly in American global governance through their participation in a common cultural space of opinion formation, their close integration into the American economy (especially Canada and the UK), and their deep cooperation with the American security services. While these four countries are clearly ‘outside’ the United States itself they are to some extent ‘inside’ the institutions of American global governance.

The second circle includes the states of continental Europe, from NATO members to the developed countries of East Asia. These ‘allies’ of the United States

enjoy varying degrees of partial sovereignty in domestic affairs (subject to currency, investment, and trade openness) while ceding nearly all decision-making over foreign affairs […] They have voluntarily ceded to the United States the authority to make many of the decisions usually associated with sovereign authority – and could in principle seize it back. The fact that the states that govern every single developed country in the world today have chosen to align themselves, formally or (in a few cases) informally, with the American military alliance structure and the broader mechanisms of American global governance suggests that there may not be much sovereign freedom of choice in this decision after all.

‘The remaining states of the world’, on the other hand,

are subjected to compromised sovereignty: they (often loudly) proclaim the right of full legal sovereignty but are often unable to make this right effective. Those states that accept compromised sovereignty suffer peripheralization and economic colonialism. Those that do not accept compromised sovereignty face strong external push-back and internal pressure for regime change.

As we can see, Babones traces a homology between the three concentric circles of classical tianxia and American global hegemony, in a curious ode to the American empire which he even forecasts to last a millennium. Whilst he is at it, Babones might also do well to study the American variation of ru bia fa li, which it seems to pursue with far greater precision.

In all these discussions, however, lies an anomaly that is seldom grasped: Lindsay Cunningham-Cross and William Callaghan observe that, when writing one of the other key volumes to revive the concept of tianxiaAncient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (2011) – the aim of author Yan Xuetong

was to learn from the experience of ancient China and its political philosophers in order to enrich and improve current understandings of international politics. Yan believes that texts originating from the period prior to China’s unification under the Qin dynasty (221 BC) are particularly useful to scholars today, because interstate relations during that era share many similarities with contemporary international politics. In addition, this period is often viewed as the apex of Chinese philosophy; pre-Qin texts are thus significant because of the sustained influence they have had on politics in the Chinese empire over the past two millennia.

No Westerner would ever think to exhume a concept from the epoch of Homer, or even Heraclitus, and apply it to the governance of the globalized world. When we call the Athens of Pericles a democracy, we do so firmly in the knowledge that this word didn’t carry the same meaning as it does today, twenty-five centuries later. For Chinese political philosophers, however, the contemporary rehabilitation of tianxia (and the quiet omission of ru biao fa li) seems quite straightforward.

This discrepancy leads us to a reflection on the different relationships of China and the West to their respective pasts. The West is currently subjecting its antiquity to a radical critique, a sort of damnatio memoriae due to the slavery, racism and misogyny of our ancestors: classical texts are metaphorically burned, and departments of classical studies are quite literally closing in many American universities (Europe usually follows suit after a couple of decades). The paradox is that this dismantling of our cultural past is made possible precisely thanks to the conceptual tools bequeathed by antiquity to the Renaissance and early modernity, tools which led to the Enlightenment (French and Scottish), and to modern political thought, out of which anti-slavery, antiracism and feminism emerge.

For the Chinese, this voluntary self-destruction of one’s cultural heritage is totally incomprehensible: in fact, it only reinforces the idea of something amiss in Western cultural development. A civilization which lacks respect for its ancestors must be somewhat off course. A curious phenomenon thus arises: the classics of Western thought are today studied more extensively in China than in the West, for it is in these very texts – Plato, Aristotle – that China looks for ways of interpreting Western politics. That is to say, they apply the tianxia recipe to the West (and by ‘the West’, China primarily means the United States).

In this hall of mirrors – what the French call an abîme, an abyss in which we lose ourselves – the great classicist Shadi Bartsch, after studying Mandarin for nearly a decade, has examined how the Chinese view the classics of Western antiquity. In 2019 she published an essay, ‘Plato’s Republic in the People’s Republic of China’, and will release a book next spring entitled Plato Goes to China.

This study of the Western classics is related to the revival of tianxia, for both converge in their demonstration of the inferiority of the Western political tradition. Chinese scholars, Bartch argues in a recent interview,

focus on Thucydides’s writings about classical Athens because Thucydides said what happened to Athens was, at first it was a great democracy. Then demagogues started getting into power, and the demagogues told the people what they wanted to hear as opposed to what they needed to hear. After Pericles’s death, they just catered to the Athenian democracy, with the result that bad decisions were made because they were selfish decisions, and eventually, the Athenian democracy collapsed.

The same will occur to the US, considered (wrongful) heirs to Athenian democracy:

The United States’ democracy is, in fact, very, very young. In fact, it really only dates back to the Voting Act of 1964 if you want to be inclusive. The full democracy is 50 years old, and the Chinese Dynasty has been around for 2,000 years.

It won’t take much for American democracy to go over a cliff. Chinese theorists though aren’t free from contradictions; just as they pass negative judgements on Athens,

they think of themselves as Athens, and they see the US as Sparta. Sparta is getting anxious because Athens is getting stronger. What does Sparta want to do? Sparta wants to squash Athens. They think that the West is very much invested in making sure that China does not become a global power on a par with the West, which I think is inevitable.

But perhaps this reciprocal suspicion, or incomprehension, is never as clear – as in the final example given by Bartsch:

There is a Chinese scholar whose name is He Xin, who argues that there was no Greco-Roman antiquity, that in the Renaissance, the Westerners were so embarrassed about the fact that China had this glorious dynastic past. It was the Middle Kingdom. It had all sorts of innovations in technology and civilization that the West didn’t have at that time, so the West decided to invent classical antiquity so they’d have something to boast about to China. All those texts by Plato and Virgil and Ovid that we’ve been talking about: somebody wrote them in the Middle Ages and then stuck a date on them – 12BC, 400AD – which is a very interesting way of dealing with the Western tradition.

The idea of antiquity never existing – that it is merely a late medieval invention – seems to be the most ingenious solution the problems that continue to torment our past and present.

Translated by Francesco Anselmetti.

Read on: Susan Watkins, ‘America vs China’, NLR 115.