Understanding Chinese IR

Understanding Chinese IR Theories: The “Tianxia” world view and the tributary system

Yaqing Qin

Confucianism has an important concept about the universe or the Tianxia worldview, by which the tributary system was rationalized and explained. Literally, Tianxia means “space under the heaven”. But this concept in the traditional Chinese mind was much more than the natural world and a geographically defined area. It was a combination of nature, god and morality. Thus, it was no a mere material thing out there. It was more a cultural concept containing the system of morality, or the way of heaven.

The tributary system, based on the Tianxia philosophy, is a system of inequality. This is the part that goes against human desire for equal recognition. However, there are some other important ideas and practices in this system as well as in the philosophy that may be highly positive…in the Chinese mind, there could be something far away in time and space, but there was never something that was opposite, intolerant and needed conquering…this holist world view is different from the Western dualistic view of the two opposites, where an inevitable conflict is implied.

The second idea is the highest ideal of the Tianxia philosophy- Datong (great harmony). In a dualistic philosophy, great harmony is impossible. In a holist worldview, however, it is not only possible, but also inevitable, for the seemingly opposite elements always complement each other. Tianxia is a concept that takes care of the whole world, believing in and aiming at a harmonious whole. It was a the space where human and nature met, where the ideal and the reality met and where the moral and the material met. Thus, Tianxia is both a physical and a cultural concept, able to extend Datong to the natural world and to realize the ideal of “unity of the nature and the human”, which is an important idea in the Chinese intellectual tradition. In an increasingly globalized world, such a holist worldview many help shape new theory as well as new perspectives.

The third idea is order. For the Confucian philosophy, order is the most important principle in society. The tributary system starts with the idea of unequal social relationships, but this unequal relationships, in the eye of the Confucian scholar, was not that between the animals in the Hobbesian jungle, equal and hostile; not that between the humans in the Lockean society, equal and competitive; not even that between the states in the Kantian culture, equal and friendly. Rather, it was that between the father and sons in the Confucian family, unequal but benign.

Thus, the Tianxia philosophy and the tributary system contain something conspicuously different from the Western international philosophy, unable to be explained or understood I the Western IR discourse. While it is necessary to abandon the assumption of inequality therein, it is also necessary to explore the valuable components, such as the holist approach and institutional order, or, put it simply, the Tianxia worldview and the Datong ideal.

(Source: Yaqing Qin, “Why is there no Chinese international relations theory?”, in Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan (eds. Pp.26-50) Non-Western International Relations Theory. London & New York: Routledge.)

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