Nothing new under heaven
What philosophers thought when China was the world and how it can help China now
WHEN Henry Kissinger was paying his pioneering visits to China in the early 1970s, the country was in the grip of a campaign to criticise both Lin Biao, a recently dead and disgraced Communist leader, and Confucius. As was later remarked, it was as if the American press were vilifying Richard Nixon and Aristotle. But China’s own past—the 5,000 years of history of which its leaders often like to remind foreign interlocutors—is a constant presence in its domestic politics and its view of the world.
Yet China’s recent rise has taken place in a world organised along principles devised elsewhere, by foreign parvenus. Many Chinese chafe at the common Western notion that multiparty democracy is the form of government towards which all other systems evolve. But some scholars also resent another European invention: the nation-state, the basis of modern diplomacy. For years they have struggled to develop a distinctively Chinese theory of international relations. This is almost a matter of national pride, even chauvinism: “As a rapidly rising major power, it is unacceptable that China does not have its own theory,” wrote Qiu Yanping, a senior Communist Party man, in an article in 2009.
So attempts to apply precepts devised by ancient Chinese philosophers to the modern world are in vogue. One popular revival is the notion of tianxia, or “all under heaven”. This dates back to the golden age of classical Chinese philosophy—of Confucius, Mencius, Laozi and the rest—in the “warring states” period before China’s unification in 221BC under the first Qin emperor. Tianxia is widely understood as a unified world dominated by one country (call it the “middle kingdom”, perhaps), to which neighbours and those beyond look for guidance and pay tribute.