Chinese vision of tianxia: a model for global peace and governance

Wan Lixin
It follows naturally that when discordance or disharmony occur, the impulse is not to lay blame on others, but to find fault in ourselves.
Wan Lixin

CHINESE philosopher Zhao Tingyang, in an article titled “Can this ancient Chinese philosophy save us from global chaos?”, suggested the Chinese concept of tianxia as a way to achieve global governance.

Tianxia (the whole world under heaven) is a concept rooted in Chinese beliefs, and is almost as old as Chinese civilization. It’s meaning, at once self-evident and all-encompassing, defies formal definition.

Apparently, from the very beginning the early Chinese sages, rather than focused on constructing esoteric concepts or theories, insisted on the importance of speaking to the common people and the human heart. Thus the principles they have come up with are not meant for the gratification of the select few, but designed to profit the greatest multitudes.

Thus the most cardinal tenets of Chinese attitudes and outlook are set out at the very beginning of the four books of Confucian canon, which had been basic textbooks since the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

Reduced to the barest essentials these books discuss virtues like mildness, kindness, respect, frugality, and humility — none of which would be seriously considered by an academic journal editor as a good topic for a learned paper today. But as Zhao pointed out in his article, a strategy is irrational if it leads to self-defeating consequences when universally imitated.

A rational strategy — where the first consideration is coexistence — continues to produce positive rewards when copied by other players.

It is the only strategy not to incur any retaliation and thus successfully to withstand the challenge of others imitating it.

Judged against this criterion, the notion of propriety, righteousness, integrity and justice as advocated by Confucianism is more rational than the ceaseless quest for advantages and one-upmanship intrinsic in modern Western political practice.

There is clearly no winners in this race to out-smart your neighbor, or stockpile more destructive weapons, because there is always the possibility that your neighbors turn out to be as smart or as destructive as you.

In a world full of conflict, hostility and continuing clashes among civilizations, the proliferation of modern political theories and philosophies fail to prevent the world from descending into chaos.

It is only natural that in light of this outlook, li (propriety) should come into the fore in the Chinese vision.

Xun Zi (313-238 BC), one of the greatest Confucian scholars, in making a case for li, reasoned this way: “Human beings are born with many desires, and when the desires go unsatisfied, it leads to the ceaseless quest which, if unchecked, results in struggle, then chaos.”

In other words, the solution is to regulate our desires by rules of conduct, rather than attempting total satisfaction, which is impossible and destructive.

Last century alone we saw two world wars, followed by a cold war when some superpowers vied with each in building up an arsenal of killing weapons as deterrents. These weapons have evolved to be so deadly that they never had any chance to be used, but this in no way discouraged some countries from hoarding more weapons of mass destruction. In time this irrational buildup of capacity to deliver a deadly first strike becomes a hallmark of national strength and pride, as it engages more and more resources and human ingenuity.

Destructive competition

When this spirit of competition and one-upmanship is directed to other spheres, it is not less destructive, as it is sustained by crude self-enrichment and the thirst for more, which cannot but result in the depletion of natural resources and pollution.

Hence the need for a wholly new outlook that would leads to harmonious co-existence, and this is where the Chinese concept of tianxia comes in.

In Confucianism we have a very down-to-earth concept of tianxia, or every other concept.

In “The Doctrine of the Mean,” one of the Four Books, it is observed that “The way of the superior man may be found, in its simple elements, in the intercourse of common men and women; but in its utmost reaches, it shines brightly through heaven and earth”.

In Confucianism li is first of all directed to three fundamental aspect of the world: the heaven and the earth as the root of life, ancestors as the root of a clan, and sovereigns and teachers are the root of governance.

This simple fact provides for our reverence for the heaven and the earth, our ancestors, the sovereigns, and the teachers. The heaven is viewed with awe, as life-giving and inscrutable.

When I was young, if I ever complained about the weather, my mother would give me a severe warning for being sacrilegious.

The concept of tianxia was embraced for hundreds of years from around 1046 to 256 BC during the Zhou Dynasty, when the sovereign of this dynasty was termed Tianzi, or the Son of the Heaven, who ruled over a host of smaller states which, while nominally in liege to the son of heaven, enjoyed considerable autonomy.

The administration of these smaller states for nearly 800 years under the Son of Heaven gave rise to wisdom about proper rules of conduct that could lead to peaceful coexistence.

Unlike in Western notions, our perception of this Son of Heaven is not divine, but very down-to-earth.

When a son of the Heaven is no longer in possession of some qualities and virtues commensurate with that honorable status, he forfeited his right to rule.

A good ruler need not attend an academy to be armed with the expertise of good governance. But he needs to reflect on his conduct several times in the course of a day. At the beginning of the Great Learning, illustrating illustrious virtue is the beginning of three cardinal principles (to illustrate illustrious virtue, to renovate the people, and to rest in the highest excellence), while achieving peace in tianxia is the last of eight principles (“The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the kingdom (tianxia), first ordered well their own states”).

And this is then traced to the regulation of their families, cultivation of the people, rectification of the hearts, sincerity of thought, and extension to the utmost of their knowledge.

“The Great Learning” was originally found in the Book of Rites, and set out as an independent treatise by Zhu Xi in the Song Dynasty as the first of the Four Books of Confucian canon.

Here there are different layers of concerns, befitting people in different situations. For one in prosperity, the concerns extend to the governance of country and heaven, and for one in obscurity, one can focus on cultivation of person and regulation of the family.

Thus Confucian principles are firmly rooted in life, manifested first of all in our attitudes towards our family.

Just as Traditional Chinese Medicine views human health holistically, Confucius examined human life in its totality, quite in contrast to the Western outlook where a single-minded pursuit can be sought to the exclusion of everything else, as in the studies of politics or philosophy independently of the reality.

This outlook dictates that everything, from a political proposal to a business venture, should be viewed and scrutinized in the broader context of one’s fundamental duties that extend from cultivation of personal virtues to indebtedness to the heaven and earth.

It follows naturally that when discordance or disharmony occur, the impulse is not to lay blame on others, but to find fault in ourselves.

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