CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 26, June 2011


Rethinking Tianxia | China Heritage Quarterly

Rethinking Tianxia 天下

Xie Fang 解芳
Stanford University

China Heritage Quarterly is grateful to Ban Wang 王斑 of Stanford University for his support in organizing and Xie Fang for her work in composing this workshop report.

Xie Fang is currently a PhD scholar in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Stanford University. Her research interests are concerned with the dialectics of revolution, and its artistic and literary manifestations.—The Editor

What is Tianxia?

As China is becoming an economic and political power, thinkers and writers are debating the theoretical implications of the traditional Chinese vision of world order. The notion of tianxia embodies a worldwide public perspective rooted in Confucian moral and political thinking. This vision anchors a universal authority in the moral, ritualistic, and aesthetic framework of a secular high culture. Varied discourses indebted to tianxia have resurfaced in modern China in quest of moral and cultural ways of relating to and articulating an international society. These attempts to be part of the international community and to enter world history ran counter to the Western temperament steeped in the conflict of nation-states, in geopolitical rivalry, and in economic theory based on possessive individualism and imperialist expansion. These elements of capitalist modernity have fostered a divisive sense of mystified cultural difference and geographical inequality.

Fig 1. A session at the conference

In this workshop, we will examine the classical theories and practices around the notion of tianxia. We will consider the ways thinkers envision China's place in and as world history in the encounter with the capitalist world system. In the twentieth century, China's worldview was manifest in its diplomatic stances in non-aligned movements in the socialist period, in its regional economic and social alliances with other nations, in its insistence on independence and sovereignty, and its campaigns for international recognition. The aspiration for a world public finds expression in cross-national exchange and in the eagerness to absorb Western learning. The Chinese Revolution, the socialist experiments, cultural transformations, persistent communitarian ethics, Marxist internationalism, anti-hegemonic struggles and the self-reliant agenda to find its own modern path constitute China's drive to be part of world history.

We will also explore the questions of nationalism and national culture in relation to imperialism, of Marxist internationalism in relation to capitalist transnational movements, the role of religion and the negotiations between religious and national/secular notions of transcendence. We will also look into the nation-state as a unit of resistance as well as entry to the world. We will approach these questions through the perspectives of intellectual and social history, political economy, anthropology, and literary and aesthetic studies.

from the original workshop proposal

Workshop Report

China's economic and political ascendance in recent decades has drawn new attention to its ability to shape the world order. The world vision from the erstwhile empire has taken many forms. Scholars are revitalizing ancient Chinese thought as fresh resources. A collective rethinking of the traditional Chinese vision of world order, or tianxia, was the goal of a workshop, 'Culture, International Relations, and World History: Rethinking Chinese Perceptions of World Order'. Co-sponsored by the Confucius Institute, the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures, the Center for East Asian Studies and the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford, the workshop was held from 6-11 May 2011. Fourteen early career and established scholars from Asia and North America participated in the gathering.

Participants sought to reconsider the concept of tianxia, trace its historical mutations, critique its abuses, articulate worldviews based on it, and explore modern, socialist manifestations of tianxia thinking in consideration of China's place into the world. The papers provided a framework for imagining a productive, alternative worldview to those more current in IR, Strategic Studies and media discussions. While tracing the origin and history of the concept of tianxia was part of this endeavor, the focus of the workshop concentrated on the idea of tianxia as providing an intellectual resource that developed in traditional Chinese culture and to trace the deployment of the concept in the modern and contemporary eras. Challenging questions raised during the workshop included: the contradictory discourses of nationalism and cosmopolitanism; the dialectics of the universal and the particular; ideology and Realpolitik; the use and abuse of the term tianxia; critical examinations of global capitalism in world history, various kinds of universalisms; and the search for new narratives to replace teleological conventions.

Any discussion of the concept of tianxia raises the question of how viable this traditional Chinese vision of the world order is today. In its most basic sense in early China tianxia describes a space wherein peoples of varied cultural and regional backgrounds were brought together under the authority of a singer ruler or ruling house. This transcultural, trans-ethnic vision, as analyzed in Mark Lewis and Hsieh Mei-yu's 謝美裕 paper, evolved over time, from the Zhou dynasty through Spring-and-Autumn 春秋 period and the Warring States 戰國, and reached its culmination when the Han state became a multi-ethnic and trans-regional polity. In his presentation, Daniel Bell reexamined the concept of tianxia and its revival in the contemporary era. He questioned attempts by Mainland Chinese scholars to revitalize tianxia and use it to offer a blueprint for a world government that would proffer universe order. According to Bell, the idea of tianxia is itself not consistent with Confucian values. The Confucian idea aims to bring order to the state and to spread peace throughout the world, but it also teaches filiality, that is, one should love one's father more than strangers. The intensity of ties diminishes as we move beyond the circle of intimates to others. Hence, as a concept in international relations tianxia would appear powerless in a world that favors familial, local or national allegiances.

Fig 2. Participants in the conference: Prasenjit Duara (foreground); Wang Hui (with laptop)

The ideal of a world government also echoes the thinking of the early twentieth-century thinker Kang Youwei 康有為 whose political ideal was the creation of global peace. Wang Ban addressed the issue of 'contradictions between this traditional universal worldview and the new power struggle between nation-states in the modern world'. Through a reading of Kang Youwei's Book of the Great Community (Datong Shu 大同書) Wang argued that a revised Confucian universalism could provide a non-Western path to save the world from the vicissitudes of Western modernization. Wang situated Kang Youwei in a dialogue with Kant, Hegel, Rousseau, and Rancière, and pointed out that Kang reinvented the Confucian idea of ren 仁 by putting an emphasis on the role of aesthetic experience in cultivating the moral agent and rebuilding the political community. For Kang, the aesthetic cultivation of international ethics was analogous to reading historical but a-temporal classical works of art. As Wang suggested, Kang not simply delineated an ideal political order but also provided a way to validate its feasibility. Focusing on transcultural notions of virtue and character, Lee Yearley sought to bridge barriers in cultural understanding. The Chinese practice of self-cultivation as a way to transcendence and universalism is articulated as way to a harmonious, ethically conditioned world.

Lin Chun 林春 also emphasized the possibilities of establishing a better world, but cautioned against following conventional views of the question of how China can catch up with global capitalism. She argued that the relationship between China and global capitalism, convergence and divergence, could not be explained simply by 'either the economic power of market standardization or the cultural power of civilization identities'. She opined that what matters in particular is politics. For China, the victory of the Communist Party came at the price of enormous sacrifices; under its rule the path to development has been forged on the basis of failures and setbacks. But Lin called attention to the value of China's socialist resources and argued for the continued relevance of Mao-era socialism, as well as the significance of such projects as 'new-age small farming' and new ruralism in China today. She addressed the value of searching for a genuine alternative to other (she called discredited) approaches to industrialism and urbanism, aimed at ultimately overcoming capitalism rather than competing with the West. Viren Murthy located in post-War Japanese Sinology an understanding of tianxia that offers an alternative explaination to the anti-hegemonic worldview of the Chinese Revolution. In her presentation Lisa Rofel traced a whole trajectory of China's cultural exchanges with the world, emphasizing socialist internationalist solidarity with the Third World.

The search for alternative universality, according to Prasenjit Duara, may be reduced to mechanic multiculturalism, practical ideology, and an instrumentalization of universal doctrines. In his paper Duara examined Kant and the Western philosophical tradition, and concluded that the underpinning structure of the modern universal involves concepts such as faith and transcendence, which require a form of sacred authority. This is something that endows nationalism with great power. Environmental degradation is a prime example of the mismatch of the nation-state with the world, which derived from this limited understanding of transcendence unclear. In order to rescue universalism from the sacred authority, Duara suggests going beyond the Western tradition to look into the Confucian conceptualization of tian 天 as being a transcendent source of power. In contrast to modern universalism, he noted, the transcendent authority of heaven in the Confucian vision represents a universalism that develops from ground up where mundane experiences of the good are related to the universal. With this, a cosmopolitan community would be able to share sovereignty and 'make sovereignty decisions in some (mutually agreed upon) areas of political society.' Following the same logic, Lee Haiyan 李海燕 also reflected on the China's defense of national sovereignty and its global cultural ambition by examining a soap opera, Soldiers Sortie (Shibing tuji 士兵突擊), which was a major hit in the domestic Chinese market but attracted scant attention overseas. According to Lee, forms of popular culture are an important medium for China's engagement with the global conversation and a platform suited to the cultivation of a new kind of universalism.

Both Dai Jinhua 戴錦華 and Chen Kuan-hsing 陳光興 offered critiques of the concept of tianxia. Chen questioned the legitimacy of the term as being one that was being adopted instrumentally to expand the range of political imagination. He suggested that it was necessary to locate definitions tianxia within a more nuanced context, one that varies with its application. Dai Jinhua focused on popular culture. Analyzing Zhang Yimou's 張藝謀 film Hero (Yingxiong 英雄), she argued that the term tianxia has been 'Macguffin-ized', by which she implied that the meaning of tianxia was no longer important. According to Dai, popular culture was unable to project a post war order. The promise of a peaceful world order projected in the film of Hero could only be actualized in terms of violence and power.

The tianxia workshop ended with closing remarks by Pheng Cheah. Pheng Cheah saw the tianxia discursive formation as a displaced repetition of Hegelian world history. He suggested scholars reconsider capitalism and issues related to alienation before thinking up a new, non-Western world order, be it aimed at being either a transcendent ideal or as an attempt to negate the present world order. He also suggested that scholars should consider cosmopolitanism or universalism in terms of a cosmo-political field, one wherein forces that produce humanity with all its capacities such as dignity and freedom are at play.

Participants (in alphabetical order):

Daniel A. Bell is professor of ethics and political philosophy and director of the Center for International and Comparative Political Philosophy at Tsinghua University (Beijing). He is the author of China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society (Princeton University Press, rev. ed., 2010.

Chishen Chang 張其賢 is a postdoctoral research fellow in Research Center for Humanities and Social Sciences (RCHSS), Academia Sinica, Taiwan. He teaches at National Taiwan University and is now working on modern Chinese political thought.

Pheng Cheah is Professor in the Department of Rhetoric, University of California at Berkeley. He has published extensively on the theory and practice of cosmopolitanism.

Kuan-Hsing Chen is Professor in the Graduate Institute for Social Research and Cultural Studies, and also the coordinator of Center for Asia-Pacific/ Cultural Studies, National Chiao Tung University. Founding chair of Taiwan's Cultural Studies Association, founding member of the Inter-Asia Cultural Studies Society and a core member of the Taiwan: A Radical Quarterly in Social Studies, he is a co-executive editor of the journal, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies: Movements. His most recent publication is Asia as Method—Towards Deimperialization (Duke University Press, 2010).

Lin Chun teaches comparative politics at the London School of Economics and writes in historical sociology and political economy. Her new book Reorienting Socialism is forthcoming.

Dai Jinhua is a professor at the Center for Comparative Literature and Culture and Director of the Center for Film and Cultural Studies at Peking University.

Prasenjit Duara is Director of Research in Humanities and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore where he is also the Raffles Professor of Humanities. His most recent work is The Global and the Regional in China's Nation-Formation (Routledge 2009).

Meiyu Hsieh is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Stanford University. Her dissertation project, 'Viewing the Han Empire from the Edge, Second Century BCE—Second Century CE', uses the northwest frontier of the Han Empire as a case study to re-evaluate the establishment and maintenance of early mega-states in East Eurasia.

Haiyan Lee is assistant professor of Chinese literature at Stanford University. She is the author of Revolution of the Heart: A Genealogy of Love in China, 1900-1950 (Stanford University Press, 2007).

Mark Edward Lewis is the Li Kwoh-ting Professor of Chinese Culture at Stanford University. He is the author of Sanctioned Violence in Early China, among other works.

Viren Murthy is in the doctoral program in history at the University of Chicago. His book, The Political Philosophy of Zhang Taiyan: The Resistance of Consciousness will be published by Brill this year.

Lisa Rofel is Chair of the Department of Anthropology at University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of two books, Other Modernities: Gendered Yearnings in China after Socialism (University of California Press), and Desiring China: Experiments in Neo-liberalism, Sexuality and Public Culture (Duke University Press).

Ban Wang is the William Haas Professor in Chinese Studies at Stanford University and the Yangtze River Chair Professor at East China Normal University. His major publications include The Sublime Figure of History: Aesthetics and Politics in Twentieth Century China (Stanford, 1997), Illuminations from the Past (Stanford, 2004), and the edited volume Words and Their Stories: Essays on the Language of the Chinese Revolution (Brill, 2010).

Wang Hui 汪暉 is Professor of Chinese Thought at Tsinghua University in Beijing and the former editor of Dushu. In May of 2008, Foreign Policy named him one of the top 100 public intellectuals in the world.

Lee H. Yearley is the Walter Y. Evans-Wentz Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Stanford University.

Yiqun Zhou 周軼群 is an Assistant Professor in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at Stanford University. She is the author of Festivals, Feasts, and Gender Relations in Ancient China and Greece, Cambridge University Press, 2010.

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