All Under Heaven

Pax Sinica: A glance at Tianxia, A New Chinese World Order

“The Son of Heaven [tianzi] leads all under Heaven and the ten-thousand countries [tianxia wanguo].”
— Proverb

For decades, pundits have painted the rise of China in economic, political and cultural terms. The ultimate assumption, however, has been that a powerful China would increase its share of the international cake – as currently constituted – rather than seek to reconfigure the venue, menu and recipe. 

At the heart of this assumption is the suspicion that China is an imitative nation. From its enthusiastic digestion of Marx to developments in technology, it has a habit of looking passive, if not derivative. The problem with this reading is, first, it’s restricted in scope (to the twentieth century). Second, China has played the unabashed plagiariser only to beat the West at its own game. It understands that nations are rarely afforded the privilege of subverting a status quo they can’t first dominate. And having mastered the West’s codes, it now wants to rewrite them. What follows, is a rough outline of one of China’s strongest visions for a world order based around itself: tianxia (All under Heaven).

Tianxia – which may be familiar to students of Chinese history as ‘tianming‘ the mandate of heaven from ‘Shangdi‘ the Lord on High – amounts to a total rejection of Western history and historiography. Christianity is disparaged as an intolerant creed dividing the world into believers and heretics (monotheism is given similarly short shrift, though Islam is rarely referenced despite an abundance of screeds lamenting western political correctness). The Westphalian system (1648) is scorned as a thieves’ charter that bestowed ‘sovereignty’ upon western nations but exported their conflicts to the rest of the world. ‘Progress’ is denigrated as a monolithic beast that employs words like ‘diversity’ and ‘plurality’ as fig-leaves for a new orthodoxy. According to the Chinese, this view disseminates the same (insular and intolerant) spiritual germ as its Christian forebear. In short, the whiggist march of ‘progress’ cannot help but express its civilizational DNA, which is imperialistic in nature and deploys NGOs as Palmerston used gunboats.

On paper, Tianxia offers a more generous future. Whereas the West divides knowledge into Linnaeus-esque branches, tianxia furthers interdisciplinary projects. While the West devotes itself to bare function, tianxia invests in the affective dimension of mankind. While the West started with the petty polis, tianxia began with a comprehensive world-state. While the West oscillates between a naïve hope for Kantian world-peace and the fear inherent in Huntingdon’s clash of civilisations (widely read in China as if it is an example of the West’s mask slipping), tianxia balances true internationalism with national interests.  

The key critique within the tianxia outlook is that the West is uniquely mired in egos, desires and imperialism, as well as an obsession with ‘being’. Like a toddler who’s gained access to the gun cupboard, it’s superficially powerful but, in the last analysis, governed by immature impulses. The West, according to this view, gestated in trivial units (poleis), emphasised alterity by drawing thick lines against barbarians, and dragged everybody into a dark, nasty Hobbesian worldview that refuses to depart. A picture that makes the Occident look both nasty and petty, like a vicious Chihuahua.

Tianxia, by contrast, is sold as a mature model for the adults in the room. It started with the Zhou dynasty and – idealistically at least – perceived the (known) world (the Chinese equivalent of the Oikoumene) as a holistic unit. This meant it should be governed according to the whole community’s interests – instead of a hegemon dominating peripheries according to its own – hatching a world unit with ontological significance. Part of the tianxia worldview is a perception of China as uniquely historicist (in what appears to be an odd nationalisation of Hegelianism) even though other cultures, not least the Hellenic world’s fifth-century BC Herodotus, produced excellent historians long before the second-century Sima Qian.

In place of the West’s decaying and exploitative global order, tianxia takes the world as a measure for defining political legitimacy. This cancels the negative values historically placed on ‘foreigners’. It removes war from the armoury of international relations (and politics being conceived of as war by other means). It tackles the environment on the world scale required. It reconciles the divisions that Mao Zedong outlined when he noted “The interests of [The West] and the interests of the remainder of the world are not coincident.” Finally, it dissolves clubs like the UN, which only fitfully arbitrate between nations rather than engage in true internationalism, heralding an age of global governance.

Some of these criticisms are strong. Chinese thought is often at its most refreshing when overturning western shibboleths, or delivering cavalier summaries of thinkers. Other points, however, are opportunistic (in the sense that because the West does one thing, China advocates the other). Or self-mythologizing in a way that appeals to an ancient image of China rather than contemporary reality. Moreover, they can be overly essentialist in a Victorian manner. Or easily agreed upon in principle but only because the devil lurks in the detail (support for the EU depends more on its structure and legal contents than its purpose for example). 

Overall, tianxia’s criticisms amount less to a formidable critique of the West than mankind in toto – a divisive species which, when not rising to love, is best controlled by fear. The reality is that China and the West have historically behaved much like each other (and the rest of mankind). Yet the most strident – and rarely articulated – note of tianxia is that a Chinese world-state would be different. But the exceptional historical patterns that China stakes these claims on are dubious at best and fantastical at worst.

According to the theory, the Zhou developed the tianxia system as a world-state/unit led by high standards of moral governance. In reality, claims like this are Disney history. It was a tributary system like many others. Contrary to the tianxia narrative, the Zhou did not fall from power because they had ingrates for subjects. The usual ebbs and flows of historical processes were to blame. The Chinese state didn’t expand because other peoples begged to be included in their selfless project but thanks to the conventional instruments of cajolery in statecraft’s toolbox (as the indigenous peoples of Tibet, Xinjiang and Mongolia can attest). The Chinese were also no more or less prejudiced than others when distinguishing between the civilised (hua) and the barbarian (yi). Even by Chinese reckoning, the tianxia system led to its elimination by the Qin (with unified governance, zhengyitong) three centuries before Christ. Finally, Chinese talk about diversity should be contrasted with its walk given its politburo contains zero non-Han members.

The truth is that tianxia’s political critiques cannot help but ring hollow when the Chinese leadership resembles anything but a benevolent pillar of pluralism. As long as dissidents of every rank and stripe continue to be imprisoned simply for not self-censoring enough, China cannot be seen as an agent of ‘harmony’ or other brain-numbing, happy-meal nouns on the menu. 

Both a strength and weakness of the Chinese policy outlook today is that it rarely ideologically coheres but resembles a magpie’s nest of critiques. This means options jostle awkwardly alongside one another. The most obvious contradiction between the tianxia vision and the Chinese state today is that the former frames China as a foetal world-state, but in reality the latter is the world’s most strident defender of national sovereignty (even going so far as to push the concept further with its notion of protecting its ‘digital sovereignty’). There’s also a naivety to some tianxia literature that is tactical. Concrete objections are wafted aside as irrelevant to future philosophies (the world-subject as part of the world-state will not understand issues as currently framed) as if logical incongruences were signs of minds trapped in old paradigms (I can’t be alone in detecting echoes of Communist self-criticism). 

Yet conflict doesn’t disappear in a world-state inhabited by world-citizens; it reconfigures itself as a civil war (stasis). What qualifies as falling within the domestic or foreign spheres of nations and international governments becomes contested, possibly violently, especially on sensitive issues such as migration, precise cultural hierarchies (which languages are privileged for example), especially types of sacredness (shinjingzing) given Chinese materialism and/or pantheism runs against the global grain of monotheism (it’s especially odd to find thinkers within a Communist society complaining that monotheists are creators of dogma, propaganda, enemies, psychological games and intercultural hostility, after all the Chinese couldn’t surmount their cultural hostility to Russia to realise their notional brotherhood). The centre of tianxia can hardly be taken for granted either. While Erlitou is hallowed by Chinese culture, Beijing is its political centre and both will suffer competition from Jerusalem (for Jews and Christians), Mecca (for Muslims), Bodh Gayar (Buddhists) and Mount Kailash (Hindus) as the true axis mundi.

Furthermore, people will not be slow to understand that the tianxia vision reduces the world to the status of a Chinese protectorate. The global commons, world currency, environment and other matters will doubtfully change much. Indeed, structural speculation is in many ways the sell, the advertising material, the bumpf, the mere detail. The new sticker, the fresh identity is the point. The world’s ship of state needs to swap its flag (US for China) and buzzwords (post-liberal for the virtuosic wordplay of cod-Confucianism or Taoism) if it is to avoid whatever hypothetical storms lie ahead. Instead of a half-effective American hegemony, direct rule from Beijing is best. Instead of “Just Do It,” “Holidays Are Coming,” or “Realise Your Potential” the new mantras are wordier:

“The Dao does not bother itself with the determinate essences of things. It is geared towards understanding the transformations of the myriad things conveyed in grand images. These images don’t express fixed essences but are always suggestive. They are the temporary shapes of an always transforming Dao.”

Tianxia’s tone is suitably paternalist. It argues democracy is too open-ended, too easily manipulated for global governance. It warns the current world order doesn’t have a handle on the globalising technological forces that threaten to undo it. Thankfully, its advocates argue, China will step into the breach and take charge like an adult apprehending the obnoxious toddler. This kind of talk has an empty quality, however, given the Japanese once used it on the Chinese in an attempt to craft a pan-Asian identity. Chinese elites revolted, protesting that the new pan-Asian identity contained internal hierarchies which privileged its founders no matter how much the rhetoric begged to differ.

Finally, the tianxia worldview is hardly glowing in its description of the human condition. Without a monotheistic faith as a guiding light, the Chinese weltanschauung constantly falls back on science, which means every justification is reduced to ‘bugman’ notions. To give a few examples, existence rather unglamorously seeks to persist (hardly distinguishing it from a virus), growth is adored for the sake of growth (the philosophy of cancer), and ethical behaviour is rational (because bad behaviour becomes a pattern that destroys the rewards of bad behaviour). It’s barely a stone’s throw away from exactly the sort of empty, technical and scholastic utilitarianism of the West the Confucian and Taoist philosophical soundbites are meant to refute. And it’s exactly what irks about so much tianxia theorising: beneath lots of oratory on peace, safety, coexistence and cooperation is a darker logic that seeks to mould society around whatever our Confucian-spewing overlords truly desire. Apparently, they see through the dark glass more clearly (1 Cor. 13:12), a gift we must accept on their authority.

Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian from London. He writes at

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