Tianxia in Comparative Perspective: Alternative Models of Geopolitical Order

Humanity in the 21st century faces a range of difficult problems, any one of which could lead to catastrophe: from climate change, collapsing biodiversity, and potential food and water shortages, to pandemics, refugee crises, nuclear proliferation, gross economic inequality, and more. To respond effectively to these human-exacerbated predicaments, humanity as a species will require a radical change in values, intentions, and practices. At the same time, with the precipitous rise of China over the span of just one generation, we are experiencing the effects of a dramatic and accelerating reconfiguration of economic and political power in the world.

The rise of Asia, and China in particular, has ushered in a new geopolitical order, but what about the prevailing cultural order long dominated by a powerful liberalism? And what impact will Confucianism — a philosophy based on the primacy of vital relationality — have on an evolving world culture in the decades to come? How will its values play into the ongoing transformation of the geopolitical order?

The idea of “tianxia” (天下) — conventionally translated as “all under-Heaven” — is a familiar term in everyday Chinese parlance that simply means “the world.” But tianxia is also a geopolitical term found throughout the canonical literature that has a deeper philosophical and historical meaning. Over the past few decades, the meaning of this technical term — sometimes referred to as “All-under-the-Heaven System” (tianxia tixi 天下体系) — has been much debated, primarily but not only in Chinese literature, as a possible Chinese framework for thinking about a new and evolving world order and a new model of world governance.

In response to this growing and lively debate both within and beyond academia, the Berggruen Research Center at Peking University held a conference entitled “Tianxia in Comparative Perspectives: Alternative Models of Geopolitical Order” over two weekends in April 2021. At the conference, a group of international scholars representing different cultural traditions and researching alternative models of geopolitical order discussed the following questions:

1. What comparable ideas/ideals to tianxia exist within other major cultural traditions?

2. What are the alternative visions of global justice inspired by the Western, Indian, Islamic, Buddhist, and African cultural traditions?

3. Is tianxia one Chinese model of cosmopolitanism among many?

Session 1: Saturday, 17 April 2021 (Beijing Time)

The first session of  the conference drew a large online crowd. Attendees were quick to claim the limited capacity of 100 seats in the Zoom meeting room. Professor Karl-Heinz Pohl from Universität Trier, the Session Chair, kicked off the session by introducing the presenters and the distinguished session panelist Professor Zhao Tingyang (赵汀阳).

The first presenter, Professor Wang Ban from Stanford University, argued that tianxia needs a nation-state, referring to Liang Qichao’s vision of “the cosmopolitan state” (世界主义的国家). Liang’s projection of the nation-state is a dream that would reconcile cosmopolitanism with nationalism. Wang observed that the Chinese conception of the nation-state has often been merely a stage for realizing the ideals of tianxia. He proposed that the tianxia state begins with the intimate ties of family and kinship but reaches beyond them to the broad moral and social horizons of nation and world.

Taking a different approach, Dr. Peter Hershock from the East-West Center in Honolulu, the session’s second presenter, advanced the idea that the Buddhist approach of the Middle Way (中道) is not compromising because it moves oblique to any given spectrum of conflict-generating polarization. The “middle path” of “international relational therapy” consists of maximizing opportunities for mutual contribution to sustainably-shared flourishing. This is achieved through consolidating commitments to relinquishing the horizons of relevance, responsibility, and readiness within which international relations are currently being conducted. Hershock brought our attention to the Buddhist idea that there is a possibility of a truly ecological world order realized by centering harmonically (中和) on valuing diversity and equity—an order committed to both creatively and ethically expanding the compass of relational freedom and virtuosity.

Following this, Professor Jun-Hyeok Kwak from Sun Yat-sen University highlighted that Chinese-style cosmopolitanism encounters two major problems: 1) Justification of a hierarchical order; 2) Not enough attention to the problem of domination. In contrast, Hong Daeyong’s reappraisal of tianxia proposes equality against hierarchy. Using the concepts of “no-centrism” and “ethics of difference”, Hong Daeyong suggests the coexistence of different things rather than the affirmation of all theories of things.

As the final presenter of the first session, Professor Rajeev Bhargava from the Center for the Study of Developing Societies contributed a South Asian perspective by introducing Asoka’s idea that rulership should be based on and guided by a new political morality for which he used the Indic term “dhamma.” Asoka envisaged a new, sustainable global moral order grounded largely in non-violence and non-injury towards others. This political ethic offers a new paradigm for kingship specifying how power is to be ethically wielded. This new paradigm specifies that a proper king should lead by example and do everything within his power to provide ethical education to his subjects.

The discussion among session panelists began with Zhao Tingyang’s response to each presenter. In particular, Zhao raised his concern with the label “tianxia thinkers” and reminded us that we must always be mindful of the nuances among different types of thinkers on the topic of tianxia. Zhao envisioned a future world in which the tianxia system itself, instead of any particular nation-state, would be the ruler. After a lively back-and-forth discussion with each presenter and other attendees, Zhao emphasized that the tianxia system is one that must be truly evolved beyond the current hierarchical world order, into a network system of peaceful co-existence.

Session 2: Sunday, 18 April 2021 (Beijing Time)

The Berggruen Research Center’s 2021 tianxia conference continued on the following day with the second session chaired by Professor Peter Hershock from the East-West Center at Honolulu. This session continued to draw a sizeable number of members of the public.

Qin Yaqing, Professor at Shandong University and China Foreign Affairs University, kicked off the second session by presenting his interpretation of tianxia as a temporal-spatial process of relations based on a processual/relational ontology. He argued that it is important to recognize that all relationships, represented by the yin-yang meta-relations, are fundamentally harmonious. This tells us that relations are governable and our common global home therefore does have a future. This relational ontology also means the most significant unit of analysis in the social sciences is relations rather than individual actors. From this perspective, global governance, whose purpose is to manage the global commons for public good, is thus governing of, by, and for relations.

Next, Professor Kong Xinfeng from Shandong University attempted to fill two theoretical gaps in the current academic discussions of tianxia: 1) The identity and qualification of the tianxia system’s governor; 2) The expansionist view of tianxia, i.e. its relation with other key concepts such as heaven (天), virtue (德), and great people (君子/大人). According to Kong, “China” is not merely a concept of spatial geography, but also a highly civilized concept of subjectivity and people’s self-awareness of living in such space. All who live in this space, who share the idea of “China” and Chineseness, who identify themselves with a minimum set of civilizational-political order, could be identified as Chinese. By the same logic, the modern world as a community with shared future for humankind (人类命运共同体) could also be understood as a historical subject that has been shaped through the unity of pluralism developed in history and the pluralism under the unity of globally shared virtues and values that transcend the boundaries of race and bloodline.

The third presenter, Professor Wang Qingxin from Tsinghua University, compared the tianxia order and the UN-centric postwar order along the following three lines: 1) Both international orders are hierarchical with a nominal power center at the top of the hierarchy; 2) Both international orders rely on a body of ethical rules and norms for the maintenance of the two international orders; 3) Due to the weak nature of the nominal power center at the top of the hierarchies, both international orders have relied on dominant (or hegemonic) states to assemble a multi-state military coalition in their maintenance on behalf of the power center at the top of the hierarchies. Wang’s unique comparison offered the conference a valuable perspective from a political scientist.

Last but not least, Professor Nakajima from the University of Tokyo offered us an understanding of tianxia not as a specific concept that presupposes the Hua-Yi (华夷) distinction or Chinese civilization, which had been a pervasive influence in premodern East Asia, but rather as a concept that embraces infinity instead of a totality. Nakajima proposed that this is the concept that opens toward radical plurality, reflecting the status of plural “worlds” existing in parallel. According to Nakajima, the concept of tianxia is meaningless unless it is a praxis; and that praxis is “questioning” itself. He concluded by asking: Will then tianxia eventually reach the boundary?

Session 3: Saturday, 24 April 2021 (Beijing Time)

After a one-week break, the conference continued during the last weekend of April. The second half of the conference showcased both established and rising scholars who are connected by their common academic interest in the topic of tianxia. The third session was hosted by the lively and engaging Professor Qian Chengdan from Peking University.

Professor Tan Sor-hoon from Singapore Management University was the first presenter during this session. She posited that Zhao’s tianxia theory is incompatible with Confucian emphasis on primacy of the ethical. Tan argued that the Confucian tianxia is an ideal realm that might not be realizable and need not be realized in concrete details but that guides the construction and operation of institutions at all levels with Confucian universal values such as ren (仁). Instead of “who gets what” – principles of distribution – Confucians ask how to improve problematic relationships. Following this line of thought, everyone, not just governments, has responsibility for global justice to enable all human beings to live a decent life both materially and ethically.

As the second presenter and also the leading organizer for the tianxia conference, Professor Roger Ames from Peking University highlighted John Dewey’s argument that democracy is the meaning of community itself and the meaning of association. In this “idea” of democracy, Dewey rejects the familiar values of individual autonomy and simple equality as fiction, arguing instead for relational equity and an achieved diversity. Ames observed that Dewey, while philosophically revolutionary in many ways, is still representative of a philosophical tradition that has not regarded family with its partial relationships as a relevant model for its regulative institutions or as a source of social and political order. As a concluding remark, Ames invited all participants to ponder this question: In a changing cultural world order, will the Confucian values of equity and diversity grounded in the institution of family be a challenge to dominant liberal values as a source for real democracy and for the quality of internationalism needed to respond to our shared human predicament?

Departing from the focus on the Confucian interpretation of tianxia, Professor Liam Kelley from Universiti Brunei Darussalam lent us his perspective as a historian. He observed that, while not claiming the historical existence of tianxia system, Zhao nonetheless relies on historical information to support his proposal for such a future system. Focusing on 19th century Vietnam, Kelley argued that Zhao’s effort to promote the tianxia system as a new philosophy for world governance is based on the idea that a tianxia view of the world would be different from, and superior to, the current Western-established global order. However, the tianxia world of late imperial Vietnam was also divisive and oppressive towards others, and as a result, we cannot find the intellectual resources in the historical record from that time period to make the claim for an alternative approach to world governance.

The final presenter of the third session, Professor Mustapha Kamal Pasha from Aberystwyth University, offered an interesting comparative perspective: drawn from alternative cosmological principles, tianxia and Islam display essential differences, not only in their contrasting metaphysics, but also in the shape of the political order imagined in the shadows of opposing cosmologies. Islam and tianxia may not supply common horizons, but both seek answers to perennial questions produced by a failure to acknowledge human finitude. Common to both tianxia and Islam is a notion of moral community based on human cultivation.

Session 4: Sunday, 25 April 2021 (Beijing Time)

Despite being held shortly after midnight Beijing time, the final session of the Berggruen Research Center’s tianxia conference built on the strong showings of the previous three sessions and brought the program to new heights. Professor Ames took on the duty of Session Chair and hosted a final discussion involving a wide range of perspectives.

Viren Murthy, Associate Professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, began the final session by presenting his observation that most scholarship around tianxia has revolved around whether Chinese visions of new world order are imperialist but have failed to engage seriously with Marxism. Even when they do mention Marxism, they read it as mere economic determinism. Consequently, they miss the opportunity for a more fruitful synthesis. Referencing the ideas of Hegel and Marx, Murthy suggested that we could assert that capitalism repeatedly affects the transition from quality to quantity (use-value into exchange-value) and institutionalizes a regime that privileges quantity. The problem of indifference to quality is expressed in politics at the level of the nation-state. The tianxia system does posit a world beyond capitalism, even though it does not always understand itself this way. Murthy warned that if tianxia does not tackle the problem of capitalism, it could merely legitimize global capitalist hegemony with Chinese characteristics and create a world where China has replaced the United States as the world hegemon.

As a junior scholar, Wang Binfan stepped up and delivered an impressive presentation, reminiscent of Michael Walzer’s critique that Rawlsian justice lacks cultural diversity. Against this background, Wang cautioned against the overwhelming influence of liberalism which may narrow thinking of global justice. The tianxia theory shows the possibility to reconsider equality as an unchallengeable principle of global justice. The famous Hua-Yi (华夷) distinction as just hierarchy not only sets the basic standard to join the tianxia system, but also strengthens the sense of unity for all members. Just like a couple of other scholars at the conference, Wang concluded by quoting Fei Xiaotong’s famous motto about global justice: “各美其美,美人之美,美美与共,天下大同”, which translates to: “Appreciate the unique beauty of one’s own, and cherish other’s beauty with openness; when beauties integrate with each other, great unity shines on the world.”

In the next presentation, Professor Christian Uhl from Ghent University posed a fundamental question: How in the first place do we understand and conceptualize the established world order, which would become old in the wake of its replacement by another one, and against which we could perceive this other one as new? Surveying competing theories, Uhl commented that in contrast to Zhao’s concept of “world-ness,” the notion of a “world-like world” (sekaiteki sekai, 世界的世界) embraced by Nishida and his school has an obvious Hegelian spin and is explicitly set to rotate in the opposite direction to Kant’s idea and the “formalism” of Kantian ethics. Where Zhao Tingyang promotes under the name of tianxia the idea of a new form of global governance and a new world order, or where Qin Yaqing promotes an Asian form of international politics centered on a notion of “guanxi,” or “relationality,” and rooted in the experience of a genuinely Chinese social structure of interconnected “concentric circles of ripples in a lake,” one may feel compelled by Suzuki’s warning against a Sinocentric, Nishida-like preoccupation with the dichotomy of East and West, the nation-state and the question of who will occupy the center of such an only allegedly new concentric order in place of the United States. Uhl concluded with a probing question: Does the utopian potential of China really lie with its invented traditions and Confucian heritage, or rather with the fact that China still maintains a formal commitment to the idea of socialism?

Aptly titled “‘We Choose the Moon’ for Truth, Justice and Peace: a Dialogue Between ubuntu and pu jen”, the final presentation of the tianxia conference was powerfully delivered by Professor Mogobe B. Ramose from Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University. Ramose proposed the novel and noble idea of “planetary reasoning” and called for all of us to exercise our cognitive faculties as one human race. To begin this process, the idea of ubuntu, an African philopraxical concept, can guide us by posting a challenge against dogmatism. Joining ubuntu in this dialogue is pu jen (不忍), “an unbearing heart.” The dialogue between ubuntu and pu jen is done in the quest for a socioeconomic model consistent with the need for truth, justice, and peace in human relations. The quest for such a model is based on the recognition that the injustice at the root of capitalism renders it an ethically indefensible socioeconomic model responsive to the need for truth, justice, and peace on Earth.

The program ended on a high note, when Professor Ramose “chose the moon” and used this metaphor to share his interpretation of “truth,” “justice,” and “peace” with all under heaven (天下). The plethora of innovative ideas discussed during this conference testifies to the Berggruen Institute’s vision to develop foundational ideas about how to reshape political and social institutions in the face of the great transformations of our contemporary world.

The ongoing global crisis of COVID-19 has put the role of government into the spotlight of our social consciousness. During this time of misery and melancholy, the task has fallen to all of us to find new rays of hope. More than ever, our world needs novel ideas to reimagine, with a renewed sense of optimism, how we can construct a governance system that brings all of us together and leads us onto a common path of peace and plenty. In response to the urgency of this task, the Berggruen Research Center’s tianxia conference has been a humble attempt to tap into not just the rich trove of political ideas in the context of ancient China but also into the wider world of ideas beyond the Western tradition.