Cross Cultural Dialogue on China’s Traditional Universalism

Dr Thomas Bartlett of Australia’s La Trobe University wrote a pointed and compelling response to Xiong Peiyun’s (熊培云) article “China’s Nationalism, and How Not to Deal with It,” posted yesterday on CDT. With Dr. Barlett’s permission, we publish his comments here:

The Southern Breeze article aims to reduce emotionally driven rhetoric within China and abroad. It warns that Olympic boycotts will be self-defeating, and dissents from comparison between China’s rise and Germany’s a century ago. The author invokes China’s traditional universalist outlook, through the grotesquely worded locution “tianxia zhuyi” 天下主义, the literal meaning of which comes through in the accurately awkward translation, “world-ism”. Resort to this rhetoric is a recent trend in pronouncements from apparently semi-authoritative sources in China. Thus, China’s deeply rooted indigenous culture is said to transcend disputatious nationalism, which is criticized as a modern European concept inadequate to comprehend China’s historical and cultural circumstances. “Worldism” is said to emphasize “inclusiveness”, within a unified concept of “one world”. But, we may ask, who is included in what?

That “one world” is, of course, fundamentally sinocentric, with China dominant. Thus, the Southern Breeze article cites two other classical Chinese terms, “universal heaven (普天)” and “four seas (四海)”, which define natural boundaries of human existence and of Chinese universalist thought. The original phrases in which these two terms occur are so widely recognized, even by many modestly literate Chinese, that mere mention of the four characters can be plausibly expected to stimulate readers’ gratifying recollection of the fuller context. “Universal heaven” comes from the Classic of Odes (Xiaoya, Beishan 小雅, 北山), “Under universal heaven, all lands are the King’s lands; within the farthest limits of the land, all are the King’s subjects”.

“Four seas” is here used as shorthand for “within the four seas”, i.e. all inhabited lands. In the pre-imperial era, Confucius used it in Analects with an immediately personal sense, that morally upright individuals will find “brothers” wherever they may travel, and later poetry and novels also continue that sense. This original notion of quasi-kinship in purely personal relations is extended in official historical writings of the imperial era, to describe the emperor’s relations with the human “family”. Thus, writing late in the first century of the Han dynasty, Sima Qian apparently implies criticism of his contemporary ruler, the vainglorious and despotic Emperor Wu, by recalling favourably the charismatic dynastic founder, Gaozu, whose magnanimity is described in the words, “the Son of Heaven treated [all those within] the four seas as family” 天子以四海为家. Sima’s insight and courage were outstanding among historians, and earned him a bitter reward. So it’s perhaps not surprising that this trope shows a contrary, more peremptory tone by early in the second millennium of imperial rule, when the strenuously contested Confucian revival undertook to support heightened autocracy in the Northern Song dynasty. Then the eccentric scholar Chen Bo 陈搏 provocatively addressed the Song emperor as “ruler of the world” 四海之主, and remonstratively urged him to devote his attention to extending effective governance [against the rival Liao dynasty]. Emperor Taizong later awarded Chen the honorific epithet “Teacher of Slaying Barbarians” 杀夷先生.

Underlying these concepts is the traditional worship of Heaven in China, according to which, just as there is but one sun in the sky, so there can be only one “son of Heaven” ruling on earth.

The “tianxia” doctrine is now said to be key to comprehending why Tibet has allegedly been part of China since the 13th century, when Khubilai Khan appointed his Tibetan teacher Phagspa as head of the office for regulation of Buddhism throughout the Yuan dynasty’s realm, including China proper. According to this view, only people who anachronistically apply divisive nationalist concepts to pre-modern Chinese inter-ethnic and inter-state relations could ignorantly claim that Tibet was an independent nation during the Yuan and Ming dynasties.

Nevertheless, it seems interesting that one generation ago, at the start of the “opening and reform” period, the Chinese-English Dictionary (Beijing: Shangwu, 1979), which largely represents maoist rhetorical usage, defined the scope of “putian” and “sihai” more ambiguously. Thus, “putian tongqing” 普天同庆 is translated as “the whole world or nation joins in the jubilation” (complete with poetic metre and rhyme!), and “sihai” is variously defined as “the whole country; the whole world”. But that was before China’s rise.

Opposed to the newly reasserted “tianxia” worldview is the judgment, articulated in a televised interview with a Tokyo University scholar of international relations, that recent Chinese foreign policy toward its neighbors has shown traditional “hierarchical” attitudes. The Tang dynasty, when China was part of a broad pan-Asian Buddhist world, is usually considered pre-modern China’s most cosmopolitan age, when Japanese energetically absorbed the cultural riches of Chinese and Indian civilizations. But from the start of that process, the Japanese contested the Chinese emperor’s claim to a unique relationship with Heaven. Japanese identified their own mythical ancestor as the Sun Goddess, and asserted that the world was big enough for two emperors. Thus, in a blatantly competitive riposte to the Chinese title “Son of Heaven”, the Japanese utilized a latecomer’s advantage to claim genealogical priority, calling their emperor “Tenno”, literally “Heavenly August (Emperor)”.

Wang Zhenping (Princeton PhD, now at Nanyang University of Technology) wrote a very interesting study of China-Japan relations in the Han-Tang period (“Ambassadors from the Islands of the Immortals”; Hawaii, 2005), in which he analyzes the ambiguously couched classical Chinese diplomatic language used by Japanese rulers in their correspondence with Tang period emperors. Wang found that, when read according to Chinese custom, this language fit the protocols required by the Tang court, but when read according to Japanese custom, it yielded a much less submissive meaning. Contemporary Japanese sensitivity toward China’s rise is not a modern nationalist import from the West.


Subscribe to CDT


Browsers Unbounded by Lantern

Now, you can combat internet censorship in a new way: by toggling the switch below while browsing China Digital Times, you can provide a secure "bridge" for people who want to freely access information. This open-source project is powered by Lantern, know more about this project.

Google Ads 1

Giving Assistant

Google Ads 2

Anti-censorship Tools

Life Without Walls

Click on the image to download Firefly for circumvention

Open popup

Welcome back!

CDT is a non-profit media site, and we need your support. Your contribution will help us provide more translations, breaking news, and other content you love.