Let’s not talk down to China, but remember its past civilisation

May 1, 2023
Blue sky and white clouds, ancient Chinese architecture.

Tianxia, ‘under Heaven’, is a concept deriving from ancient China, but undergoing numerous interpretations over the ages. It refers to an idealised territorial/moral world order, equal but harmonious.

Tianxia should be associated with Tianming, “the mandate of Heaven”. A democratic notion, this asserts that once a ruler loses the mandate, he also loses legitimacy and should be branded a tyrant. The people have the right to remove any illegitimate ruler.

The concept of Tianxia died with the old Chinese world order at the end of the nineteenth century. However, it soon came back in slightly altered form with the founder of the Chinese Republic Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925). He gave official approval to the term Tianxia weigong, literally “under Heaven for all” to refer to an idealised world order.

And the idea has continued relevance to the present. ANU Professor Richard Rigby aptly notes that “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”.

My view is that it is essential to remember the vast sweep and significance of Chinese history in considering its present. Westerners, especially neocon Americans, have a tendency to “talk down” to, or look down on China, as if inferior because the civilisation has been absorbed into the initially Western notion of “the nation-state”, therefore making a “rising” China frightening and dangerous. We don’t have to agree with everything China does or thinks, but should most certainly be careful of springing to judgment. As a civilisation China is not inferior to the West.

In a splendid article in Pearls and Irritations on 26 April, Dennis Argall called on “aggressive media, officials and ministers” to remember that American models are not the only ones and to consider the different views of the world held in China, both past and present. I heartily endorse his view, including reference to the following article on “Tianxia: All under Heaven”.

For more on this topic, we recommend:

Tianxia: All Under Heaven

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