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June 25, 2024

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Tianxia: a grand hope rooted in China’s cultural genes

Tianxia (天下), ​​or a grand hope, is deep in China’s cultural genes.

But first, what is the concept of “cultural genes?” According to British biologist Richard Dawkins, it is akin to a “meme,” and people inherit biological and cultural genes. Civilization and culture, like genes, have shaped human behavior. It may be invisible, but circumstances reveal it. People form groups and communities because of their cultural genes.

As China’s cultural gene, tianxia represents an ideal world where “all things flourish together without harming one another, and principles coexist without conflict.” In ancient China, tianxia was an idealistic civil order and worldview, notably an ideal vision for the world’s future.

Tianxia, ​​or the concept of “harmonious states” and “universal peace,” is reflected in many schools of thought.

One passage of the ancient Chinese classic book of documents, “The Canon of Yao,” describes an ideal type of governance: “When all ethnic groups live in harmony, the rights and wrongs of government officials can be judged and manifested. People, countries, city-states and nation-states can coexist peacefully.”

These concepts date back to the origin of Chinese civilization when there were “countless stars in the sky” and “numerous states and territories.”

In the chapter “Lilou” in “Mencius,” it is said that “there is no enemy under heaven to the one who is benevolent.” Chapter “Liyun” in “The Book of Rites” states that “all under heaven belong to all.”

Zhang Zai (1020-1077), a Chinese philosopher and politician from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), wrote in the chapter “Expanding One’s Heart” in “Correcting Ignorance” that “all under heaven are closely connected with me.”

Wang Yangming (1472-1529), a Chinese philosopher from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), wrote in “Questions on Great Learning” that “Unite with the universe and all things.”

These views are based on cultural identity in human nature and hearts. “The Doctrine of the Mean,” a Confucian classic, says everyone has the potential to follow the same rules and standards.

Wherever carts and boats can reach, where man’s strength can penetrate, under the covering of heaven and on the surface of the Earth, under the shining of sun and moon, and wherever frost and dew fall, all living things, with blood and breath, unfeignedly honor and love the same.

According to Lu Jiuyuan (1139-1193), a Chinese philosopher who founded the school of mind during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), “If saints emerge from the Eastern Sea, they will embrace the same ideals. If saints arose from the Western Sea, they would uphold the same values. Saints from the Southern or Northern Sea will share the same beliefs. The saints of the past shared the same values. The saints of the future will uphold the same values. They all have similar minds and hearts.”

Since all people recognize the same principles and have the same human essence, the tianxia system may be built on a firm, universal basis. Confucianism emphasizes “attracting distant people by benevolence,” “delighting the near to attract the distant,” and “benefiting China to pacify the surroundings.”

Aside from Confucianism, theoretical versions of the tianxia concept may be found in the works of Chuang-tzu, Hui Shi and Mo Di, philosophers from the late Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

In the chapter “On the Equalization of Things” by Chuang-tzu, a conversation took place between Yao and Shun (emperors of ancient China). Yao told Shun, “I wish to go on a punitive expedition to the Zong, Kuai and Xu’ao states. I was uneasy about this decision. Why?”

Shun replied, “The leaders of the three states are insignificant. Why would you be concerned about carrying out a punitive expedition against them? Previously, 10 suns flew in the sky at the same time. Suns shine in every corner, and your noble spirit shines even brighter than the sun.”

This debate highlights Chuang-tzu’s claim that even when confronted with the poorest and most barbarous nations, moral rulers and states will never invade or harm them, but will instead illuminate everyone like the Sun.

Zhang Taiyan (1869-1936), a Chinese philosopher and revolutionary, described this passage as “reaching the equality between civilization and barbarism is the ultimate end” in the “Exegesis on the Equalization of Things.” Zhang observed that this story challenged the binary judgment of civilization and savagery, underscoring the importance of equality. As a result, Chuang-tzu made significant contribution to the tianxia doctrine.

The main value of Hui Shi’s philosophy is stated in his book “The Ten Theses on Things:” Broadly love all things; heaven and Earth are integrated (from Chuang-tzu’s chapter “Tianxia”).

“The center of China lies in the north of Yan and the south of Yue,” wrote Hui. “Regardless of the past or present, Yan is in China’s north and Yue in the south; therefore, the north of Yan and the south of Yue are never the geographical centers of China.”

Hui uses this odd word to describe an ideal concept of tianxia space devoid of a fixed “center.”

Great thinker Mozi used the concept of “universal love” to represent his tianxia ideal. Mozi’s chapter “On the Necessity of Standards” declares, “All states, regardless of size, are cities equal under heaven.” Mozi’s “Universal Love” chapter states, “View others’ country as one’s own country, others’ family as one’s own family, and others’ body as one’s own body.”

All people love one another; the strong do not abuse the weak, the majority do not coerce the minority, the rich do not hate the poor, the noble do not insult the humble, and the wise do not fool the naive. The affection of people, praised by the beneficent, can prevent all tragedies, usurpations and resentments under heaven.

Currently, the concept of tianxia remains embedded in China’s cultural genes and manifests itself in a variety of ways. This rich and inclusive culture is profoundly ingrained in modern China, and it holds significance for the country’s future.

Regions such as Shanghai’s Pudong New Area, the Great Bay Area and free trade zones, as well as international relations initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Organization, all lay the groundwork for the realization of an ideal order while embracing diversity.

These institutional configurations represent China’s cultural heritage. Shi Bo, a Chinese thinker during the Western Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-770 BC), is supposed to have argued that “things flourish in harmony; however, they cannot develop if they remain the same.”

It’s as if humans can’t subsist on just one type of food, and a single tone can’t make up a tune. Diversity is fundamental to richness since it provides vigor for human survival and development.

The notion of tianxia will continue to have a tremendous impact on China, even providing cultural DNA and philosophical seeds for mutual respect and harmonious cohabitation among states, thus shaping a better world.

(The author is a PhD student at the Department of Philosophy at Peking University.)


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