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VOLUME 6, NUMBER 1 (Fall 2013)
Is Zhao’s Tianxia System Misunderstood?
By XU Bijun | Article | 6 Tsinghua China L. Rev. 95 (2013) | Download Full Article PDF


Zhao Tingyang’s Tianxia System has become a hot topic of discussion since he first introduced it during the 2005 Culture of Knowledge conference in Gao, India. Some commentators have spoken highly of this system as a worldview that can address problems in global development. Others have lodged criticisms against it. However, many critical commentators have an inaccurate understanding of Zhao’s theories. This paper aims to show the ways in which Zhao’s Tianxia System has been misunderstood and responds to misinterpretations of his theories. The author begins by briefly introducing the Chinese term Tianxia, the core points of Zhao’s Tianxia System, and the current debates surrounding it. The author then responds to the main misunderstandings of Zhao’s System. Finally, the author presents her own thoughts on Zhao’s Tianxia System and its potential impact on international law and relations.

I. Introduction

Although Zhao’s Tianxia theory is not equal to the ancient Chinese cultural concept of Tianxia (天下, literally All-under-Heaven), Zhao borrowed this ancient Chinese cultural concept and its core meanings as a basis for his own ideas. Therefore, one must understand the traditional concept of Tianxia before exploring Zhao’s theory.

Tianxia forms the basis for the worldview of the Chinese people not only in the past but also in the present. Although Chinese people are familiar with the concept of Tianxia, clearly defining it has been difficult. In 1981, this topic was discussed in a nation-wide conference organized by the Chinese Association of Sociology of Ethnicity and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Various scholars expressed their individual understandings, but in the end, the assembly could not reach a consensus on the definition.

While there is no universal definition, it is still possible to identify some key elements of Tianxia. Professor Luo Zhitian noted that in the past “the concept of Tianxia had both a broad and a narrow meaning in traditional China, corresponding respectively to ‘the world’ and China”. Professor Li Xiantang summarizes the core meanings of Tianxia in the following four ways:

1) The entire geographical world (round sky and square earth).

2) The universal principles of order between Tian (天, Heaven) and the people. Heaven denotes the lands or spaces of the Emperor and the Emperor represents the communication link between the people and Heaven. The hearts of the people (民心) are the will of Heaven. Therefore, there is a Chinese proverb which says, “He who gains the heart of the people has the right to rule Tianxia (得民心者得天下).”

3) There is a center in this world and it goes concentrically outward to other places and people.

4) Tianxia was associated with a certain civilization.

Mou Fasong holds the opinion that besides the geographic aspects, Tianxia also represents:

1) The heart of all people, a concept which can be found in major works of classical literature such as Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, The Book of Changes, Xun Tzu and Mencius.

2) Righteousness and civilization. Tianxia needs to have common rites, culture, language, and life style.

All in all, Tianxia is a traditional concept which denotes the entire geographical world, the metaphysical realm of mortals and also political sovereignty.

The understanding of Tianxia has changed over time. As Zhao explains:
The concept of Tianxia was a political concept in the Shang and Zhou Dynasties (B.C. 1600-B.C. 256). Then, in the Spring and Autumn Period (B.C. 770-B.C. 221), Confucianism began to emphasize its moral significance, though Tianxia still remained a political concept. From the Qin Dynasty onwards (B.C. 221), the morally-orientated concept began to divorce itself from its political origin, turning into a pure symbol and vision of morality.
And today, like many other scholars, Zhao has provided his own interpretation of Tianxia to establish and explain his own ideas.
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