The Chinese Concept of Empire: All-Under-Heaven

14 Feb

Tianxia (天下): the Chinese concept of ‘all under heaven’. In the West our perception of empire is based on our own historical experience and is generally synonymous with imperialism. Historically speaking China possessed an empire for three thousand years – yet the Chinese concept of empire and governance is distinctly different from our own.

All-under-heaven represents an ideal of a perfect empire that is legitimate in the eyes of the people and wholly harmonious. More accurately it should be considered as a ‘world institution’. It is an all-inclusive concept; in Western political theory the nation-state is the biggest unit. In all-under-heaven the greatest unit is the world as a whole.

Political legitimacy and harmony walk hand in hand. The Chinese concept of ‘harmony’ is associated with that of the ‘family’. The family represents the virtue of love, harmony and obligation – which are considered vital to successful human relationships. The family provides the universal framework for these values and, therefore, provides the framework for these virtues within the concept of all-under-heaven. The ideal world society, therefore, should function in a way not dissimilar to that of the family. It should be noted that the family places an emphasis on the whole unit as opposed to the individual. In the West the individual is championed above all – that, after all, is the essence of liberalism. To understand the importance of ‘family’ (and all it entails) we can liken it to the Western importance of the ‘individual’ and how we use this as the basis for our politics.

In all-under-heaven the world institution has legitimacy. In some ways we can consider it the utopia of a harmonious society and therefore legitimate in and of itself, for all-under-heaven represents a world that is ‘home for the people’; it represents what belongs to (and is best for) the people (or ‘society’). Those that govern the world institution, on the other hand, are not automatically granted legitimacy. Following the Confucian argument of ‘p is p if p does what p is conceptually meant to do’, the governing power is only legitimately the governing power if they conform to what we conceive of a harmonious governing power to be. Under this definition the governance of the world institution is open to any and all who know best how to realise the utopia of all-under-heaven. Interestingly enough, revolution is justified in the concept of all-under-heaven if it aims to replace one governing body with a more suitable candidate.

Although China has had many dynasties, none have achieved a perfect incarnation of all-under-heaven. As with any ideology or theory it is faced with practical implications that obstruct the acquisition of utopian society. However, it does provide an insight into the philosophical foundations of an empire which lasted (albeit with different dynasties of rule) for a staggering period of time. I finish this article with a closing thought: is it possible that all-under-heaven can contribute to the debate concerning the emergence of a global society?

Reference: Tingyang, Z. (2011) ‘Rethinking Empire from the Chinese Concept “All-under-Heaven” (Tianxia, 天下)’, in Callahan, W. and Barabantseva, E. (ed.) China Orders the World, Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press.


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