Wang Gungwu 王赓武 on Tianxia 天下

The following essay is an excerpt from the appendix to Professor Wang Gungwu’s most recent book, Renewal: The Chinese State and the New Global History (Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 2013). In this short volume, Professor Wang, a celebrated historian of China and Southeast Asia, discusses with extraordinary clarity some of the major issues and dilemmas of the Chinese nation-state and party-state today, as well as challenging his readers to ponder the significance these have for the globalised world.

Wang Gungwu is a professor at the National University of Singapore, he is also an emeritus professor of The Australian National University. His other work includes: Community and Nation: China, Southeast Asia and Australia (1992); The Chinese Way: China’s Position in International Relations (1995); The Chinese Overseas: From Earthbound China to the Quest for Autonomy (2000); Don’t Leave Home: Migration and the Chinese (2001); Anglo-Chinese Encounters since 1800: War, Trade, Science and Governance  (2003); Diasporic Chinese Ventures, edited by Gregor Benton and Liu Hong (2004). He also edited Global History and Migrations (1997); Nation-building: Five Southeast Asian Histories (2005) and (with Zheng Yongnian) China and the New International Order (2008).

In September 2012, Professor Wang presented the second annual oration of the Australian Centre on China in the World (for the transcript and YouTube recording of that lecture, see here.) The following material is reprinted with the kind permission of the author.—The Editors


For centuries the China seen from the outside was nothing like what the people within China saw. For those within, the early history of Zhongguo as tianxia gave a sacral quality to the dynasties from the Xia (second millennium BC) and Shang (the later half of the millennium), to the Zhou (most of the first millennium). This was followed by the unified empire of the Qin and Han. By that time, a large cluster of ‘proto-states’ were ruled by people culturally identified as zhuxia (‘Chinese’, 諸夏). But there was never one nation called ‘China’ until modern times. The idea that a state be constituted from one nation only emerged in eighteenth-century Europe.

In that broader context, the Chinese dynasties of the last millennium, the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing, were like feudal empires that showed no signs of evolving into a single identifiable nation. The Han Chinese under the Southern Song dynasty did develop a strong ethnic identity when they defended themselves against the Jurchen and Mongols, and the founding emperor of the Ming were able to revive Han and Tang institutions and emphasize a lineal continuity with the ancients. His success reconfirmed the role of history in shaping a distinct civilization, one that served as the basis of the dynastic state. It led to a sense that historical China was a unique civilization-state but there was nothing to suggest that the Chinese were about to follow the path of the nation-state formations developed in the European kingdoms.

Some of China’s rhetorical continuity came from the concept of tianxia, a vision of universality that was different from the idea of empire as exemplified in the Roman imperium. The word ‘empire’ used in recent years with reference to an imperial superpower like the United States has also been employed when speculating about newly rising China. Of particular interest is the mixture of triumph and anxiety found in the debates in the United States. There is triumph after having destroyed an older land empire like the Soviet Union, but there is also anxiety when considering the perceived rise of China to superpower or empire status, a China that is trying, paradoxically, to shake off its imperial heritage.

The latter efforts are of particular interest. There has been in China a revival of interest in ideas of tianxia and empire, how the terms were used in the past and how they may be used in the future. These studies remind me of earlier perspectives of China among some Chinese born outside who became deeply involved in Chinese affairs. The transition in views among those born during the second half of the nineteenth century who have left us their writings is interesting. These represent perspectives about China as tianxia and empire at the time when the idea of nation was also being introduced into China.

There have been various kinds of empires in different parts of the world and there have been many histories of their rise, fall, and reemergence. The optimistic view is that territorial empires have come to an end. But it is premature to think that smaller nations are now less vulnerable to the imperial ambitions of larger nation-states, or that larger states will always pass up chances to aggrandize themselves. In the context of China’s growing power, examining the idea of empire together with the ancient Chinese idea of tianxia might reveal the choices that powerful countries will face in the future.

Empires stand for conquest, dominance and control, although the degree of actual control may vary from one empire to the next. Tianxia, in contrast, depicts an enlightened realm that Confucian thinkers and mandarins raised to one of universal values that determined who was civilized and who was not. It is not easy to separate tianxia from the Chinese idea of empire because tianxia was also used to describe the foundation of the Qin-Han empire. By itself, tianxia was an abstract notion embodying the idea of a superior moral authority that guided behavior in a civilized world. The concept could be loosely applied to other universal systems of ideas, event those derived from secular philosophies or from various religions, for example Buddhism, Christianity or Islam. When secular, it could refer to recognized authority that has been legitimized to check and moderate state violence and political and military dominance. When applied to religion, it could highlight the underlying moral values behind acts of faith.

The modern word for empire, diguo in Chinese, comes from the Japanese teikoku (empire or emperor-state). It was adopted by the Qing in its final years and, after the dynasty’s fall, used to attack imperialism (diguozhuyi, 帝國主義). In the PRC, it was relegated to the history textbooks, except for the common warning against Meidi (American imperialism). As for the word ‘tianxia’ and other words associated with a superior culture or civilization, they were cast aside for being traditionalist and irrelevant. All were too closely related to the failed Confucian state.

Since the 1980s, however, there have been two remarkable developments. There has been an avalanche of new books and essays to renew enthusiasm about Chinese culture and civilization. Underlying this stress on civilization is also an interest in the idea of tianxia. This is occurring in the midst of calls for a new patriotism that can be seen in efforts to arouse nationalist fervour. Some such calls are linked with the commitment to reunification with Taiwan, an echo of tianxia yitong [天下一统] but they are actually appeals to the modern idea of national sovereignty. However, there is more to that. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Chinese scholars have been divided between those who have renewed their Marxist interest in the capitalist roots of empire and think that empire is now disguised as globalization, and those who reject narrow definitions of the nation-state and would like the Chinese multinational republic to re-discover the ideals of shared universal values in the idea of tianxia.

Wang Gungwu Book CoverThere is now more talk about empire, especially after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The juxtaposition of empire with some notion of universality has become more explicit. Americans are uncomfortable about having their country called any kind of empire, and they would much prefer to debate what kind of ‘soft power’ they should use to dispel such an imperial image. From China’s point of view, talk of a ‘peaceful rise’ suggests that a future rich and powerful China might seek to offer something like a modern vision of tianxia. This would not be linked to the ancient Chinese empire. Instead, China could be viewed as a large multinational state that accepts the framework of a modern tianxia based on rules of equality and sovereignty in the international system today.

In that context, the tianxia ideal in China pre-dated any idea of empire. Its emphasis on Heaven-blessed authority, however, led to the realization that this was ineffectual without power. The centralized bureaucratic empire was then consolidated and it used Confucian ideology to soften the harsh edges of empire, eventually creating the model of an emperor-state dressed in tianxia robes. That model was modified several times over: by the introduction of Buddhist ideals of kingship, and during long periods of division and several tribal invasions. For centuries. there was no single Chinese empire, only the rhetoric of Zhongguo as refined by the Neo-Confucian thinkers of the Song dynasty. Thereafter, the world-empire of the Mongols left its mark on the Ming dynasty, and the Manchu successors in the Qing strengthened the imperial system further in their own unique way.

Traditional Chinese emphasized the unbroken continuity of their history and modern Chinese republics deem it essential to their security that they align their new state with the latest imperial borders. The image of Chinese civilization can then serve as the unifying factor for all who live within China’s borders. But the assumption of a single imperial tradition is misleading. There are other inputs. Even though the concept of tianxia retains an inclusive meaning. This overarching Confucian faith in universal values was useful to give the Chinese their distinctiveness. As an ideal, it somehow survived the rise and fall of dozens of empires and provided generations of literati down to many modern intellectuals with a sense of cultural unity till this day.

In comparison, the institutions developed in other ancient empires, like the Egyptian, Babylonian, Roman and Hellenic empires, were quite diverse. Different gods were evoked to support their respective causes. It was only after Emperor Constantine that an imperial Church gave the empire a spiritual unity that overcame the narrow interests of the lords, princes, kings and emperors. From an external perspective, an imperial Catholic or Orthodox Church provided a tianxia-like ideal for Europe, though sometimes incoherent, corrupt and deeply divided. This reminds us that tianxia is where it exhorted its faithful to ‘Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s’, rather like the Confucian mandarins rendering unto their emperors no matter who they were and where they came from. Behind their quiescence, many of these mandarins retained their higher loyalty to Confucian ideals and, at the end of the nineteenth century, some even perceived that there was an alternate version of tianxia in Europe. That ideal was also projected across the Atlantic to become America’s ‘city upon the hill’. Today, as it combines a secular ‘city upon the hill’ with ‘religions of the book’, an American tianxia has a strong global presence. It has a missionary drive that is backed by unmatched military power and political influence. Compared to the Chinese concept, it is not passive and defensive; rather, unlike other universal ideals, it is supported by a greater capacity to expand.

Tianxia as an abstract concept did percolate down to popular levels through novels like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Water Margin (All Men are Brothers). At that level, ‘da tianxia’ [打天下] is equated with heroic efforts among rivals from within China to gain the Heavenly Mandate. Invasions from outside the Great Wall had to be heroically resisted in defence of tianxia. With the Manchu victory, however, the difference became blurred. Manchu aristocrats persuaded Confucian literati to recognize them as defenders of tianxia, although this was not universally accepted among ordinary Chinese who remembered how many had been killed during the Manchu conquest between 1644 and 1683. This difference was brought to the surface at the end of the nineteenth century when it was popularly perceived that the Confucian state was failing against the national empires of the West. An awareness of this failure first emerged among the literati in the coastal provinces, and among the Chinese overseas where the Western Powers had made them aware of the power of nationalist imaginations.