In its essence, Tianxia 天下, or ‘All-Under-Heaven’, can be taken as a concise way of speaking of the traditional Chinese vision of the world order. It is traditional in that its roots go back to philosophical texts as early as the Zhou period (1046–221 BCE). The world view summoned by Tianxia developed dynamically as the nature of the Chinese polity, sometimes represented by a grouping of rival states and other times a single mega-state, evolved. Confucian norms of hierarchy and morality deeply inform the concept of Tianxia, which remained a powerful influence through China’s dynastic history.

It continued to exert its influence in the Republican era (1912–1949) as well. It is encapsulated in Sun Yat-sen’s slogan Tianxia wei gong 天下为公 — ‘The World is For All’, and was also the name of an important English-language journal of that period, T’ien Hsia Monthly. The contributors to that journal interpreted Tianxia as encompassing both patriotic aspirations and a generous spirit of cosmopolitanism. Many members of the Republican elite, who closely observed and commented on European and American cultural affairs as well as Chinese political and cultural trends, aspired to be equal members of the global community.

The concept of Tianxia reappeared in the outpouring of sentiment critical of the Communist Party and its policies in 1956–1957 during the ‘Hundred Flowers’ period: the celebrated journalist and editor Chu Anping warned that China had become a ‘Party Empire’ (dang tianxia 党天下). The term largely disappeared from public discussion thereafter (along with Chu, who was labelled an ‘anti-Party, anti-people, anti-socialism bourgeois rightist’). It has now re-emerged as mainland scholars attempt to develop a uniquely Chinese approach to the theory and practice of international relations. We may situate this within the wider narrative of Chinese exceptionalism, the discussion of ‘Chinese characteristics’ and China’s search for ‘discursive authority’ (huayuquan 话语权) — that is, definitive ways of speaking about reality.

A series of articles and books by Zhao Tingyang of the Philosophy Department of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences explicates the contemporary, utilitarian form of Tian-xia. Zhao argues that the world we know is still a ‘non-world’, inasmuch as it has not yet become a single entity, remaining in a Hobbesian state of chaos. The key problem is not failed states, but a failed world. The world needs ‘an institutionalized system to promote universal wellbeing, not simply the interests of some dominating nations’. By maintaining the interests of nation states, globalisation exacerbates international conflict rather than promoting universal wellbeing. The United Nations, too, fails as a truly global institution by performing only as an organisation in which nations negotiate and bargain in their own interests; moreover, it lacks the power to resist domination by any superpower.

‘The World is For All’. Calligraphy by Sun Yat-sen, 1924. Source: Wikimedia Commons
‘The World is For All’.
Calligraphy by Sun Yat-sen, 1924.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Enter the concept of Tianxia, first developed by the Zhou to govern the many culturally and ethnically diverse tribes and kingdoms under their rule. Zhao Tingyang acknowledges that this system eventually failed. He believes that it still provides the basis for the creation of a system the world sorely needs. His Tianxia is inclusive of all people and all lands; it understands the world as being physical (territory), psychological (national sentiment) and institutional (a world institution). It would rebuild the world on the model of the family, making it a home for all peoples, somewhat in line with Sun Yat-sen’s Tianxia wei gong). The ‘world institution’, as the highest political authority with global reach, is crucial to this model, which envisages a world characterised by harmony, co-operation, and without hegemony in any form. Zhao’s work has elicited both positive and critical responses within and beyond the borders of the People’s Republic. Reviewing Zhao’s two major books, Feng Zhang, an associate professor in the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University, writes that Zhao’s work has ‘made him a star in China’s intellectual circles, helping to extend his influence beyond the confines of philosophy into the realm of international relations’. Feng Zhuang also credits Zhao’s Tianxia theory as having had a ‘huge impact’ on China’s international relations scholars. Internationally, Zhao’s theory is of sufficient importance to have warranted a major workshop at Stanford University in May 2011, with fourteen scholars from Asia and North America in attendance.

Zhiqun Zhu claims that the Tianxia theory, together with the radical thinking and reform movements of China’s nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the traditional concept of the tributary system form the ‘three milestones of China’s ideational and practical development and therefore could provide rich nutrition for a Chinese international relations theory’. Zhang Yimou’s blockbuster film Hero (Yingxiong 英雄), which celebrates the ancient Qin dynasty quest for unity despite the cost: the obliteration of difference and opposition, offers a somewhat disconcerting, if subliminal vision of Tianxia to global and Chinese audiences alike.

Zhao Tingyang’s book The Tianxia System: World Order in a Chinese Utopia. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Zhao Tingyang’s book The Tianxia System:
World Order in a Chinese Utopia.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yet even some of Zhao’s Chinese supporters acknowledge his concept as interesting, even beautiful, but criticise it as ultimately utopian and lacking any practical pathway to realisation. Others argue that it is based on a flawed understanding of the Zhou dynasty example. Still others have warned that the idea attempts to revive a China-centred hierarchical world order. Professor William A. Callahan of the London School of Economics reaches an identical conclusion: ‘rather than guide us toward a post-hegemonic world order, Tianxia presents a new hegemony where imperial China’s hierarchical governance is updated for the twenty-first century’. The international relations scholar Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University, who himself draws deeply on Chinese traditions of statecraft and international relations in his work, declares that in no way should Zhao be regarded as an international relations thinker: ‘his books are about philosophy, rather than about the real world… . In fact I find it quite strange that Western scholars consider his work as part of the China IR schools.’

Yan’s views notwithstanding, the concept of Tianxia now plays a significant part in debates within China about the role a ‘risen’ China should play in the world — a role that many Chinese thinkers agree should neither be defined nor guided by purely Western norms.