An ancient empire with a recorded history of more than 2,000 years, imperial China began a steady decline and plunged into chaos — with war, famine, isolation, and revolution — in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After more than a century of struggle for national rejuvenation, China has resurged in the 21st century to regain the power it enjoyed two centuries ago. While the memory of the glorious empire has left the legacy of an ethnocentric world outlook, the century of humiliation at the hands of foreign imperialist powers has created a unique and strong sense of victimization, insecurity and righteousness in foreign affairs. These historical memories have been a powerful force that not only bind the Chinese people together and form their national identity, but they also motivate Chinese leaders to find what they regard as China’s rightful place in the world.
Chinese leaders have, however, selectively used these historical memories to serve their political and strategic objectives. For more than half a century after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Chinese leaders focused on commemorating the century of humiliation to help build regime legitimacy based on their nationalist credentials of driving imperialist powers out of China. Their attitude towards imperial China was ambivalent because the Chinese empire, like other empires in the world, expanded vast territories along its frontiers and left complicated historical legacies, including territorial disputes and cultural chauvinism that impacted its relations with its Asian neighbors.
China’s reemergence in the 21st century has led to a gradual change in the historical consciousness of Chinese leaders as they have become more willing to celebrate the glories of imperial China to boost national pride and redefine China’s position in the world. But what they have celebrated is an imperial China reconstructed as the benevolent center of East Asia, so as to advance the agenda of China’s rise as a return to the harmonious state and to reassure its neighbors, who have become worried about China’s rising threat, that a powerful China would be peaceful.
Reconstruction of the Chinese Empire
Starting with President Hu Jintao’s concept of the harmonious world derived from traditional Chinese philosophy, President Xi Jinping has become obsessed with citing Confucian classics and using Chinese history to present China’s domestic and external policies. He is famously known as to say that “the genes’ order” and “inherited national spirit” determine that “the Chinese nation is a peace-loving nation.” The pursuit of peace, concord and harmony has been deeply rooted in the spiritual world of the Chinese nation and the blood of the Chinese people. China’s unswerving pursuit of peaceful development represents the peace-loving cultural tradition the Chinese nation has inherited and carried forward over the past thousands of years.
To serve their political leaders, Chinese scholars have reconstructed a benevolent Chinese empire. A traditional Chinese term, tian xia (all-under-heaven), based on royal ethics (wang dao), has emerged as a popular term to convey the uniquely “Chinese normative principle of international relations in contrast with the principles of sovereignty and the structure of international anarchy which form the core of the contemporary international system.”1
Zhao Tingyang, a Chinese philosopher, made his name with his book, All-under-Heaven System and many articles on the subject. He describes tian xia as a universal system inherited from the Zhou dynasty about 3,000 years ago. Designed to create the compatibility of all peoples of all nations, tian xia presupposes the Oneness of the universe as the political principle of “inclusion of all” in the world. This is a world order with the emphasis on harmony defined as reciprocal dependence, reciprocal improvement, or the perfect fitting for different things. Guan xi (reciprocal relationship) thus became the organizational principle of the tian xia system.
To serve their political leaders, Chinese scholars have reconstructed a benevolent Chinese empire.
The tian xia system, maintained by cultural attraction and ruling by virtue, is embodied in the Chinese ideal of perpetual peace. Notably different from the aggressive empires that existed in other places, imperial China was more concerned with establishing itself as an everlasting power than with the plight of endless expansion because of the unaggressive and adaptable characteristics of Chinese culture. Qin Yaqing of the Beijing Foreign Affairs University also states that “the core of the notion of tian xia revolves around the idea of a ‘Chinese system.’ … Tian xia is where nature and humanity intersect, a space where political authority and social order interact.”
Tian xia is thus presented as a world system in contrast to the anarchic Westphalian system, which is regarded as conducive to discord and war. Royal ethics (wang dao) is used as a key factor to explain why the perpetual peace of tian xia was created and maintained. Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University led a project on China’s pre-Qin political thought. Their study determined that ancient Chinese thinkers advised rulers to rely on ethics, benevolence, and morality to win the world, and take a defensive posture using benevolent government to rule the world. Citing the ancient Chinese philosopher Xunzi, Yan distinguishes three types of ethics in ancient China: royal ethics, hegemonic ethics, and tyranny. Royal ethics focused on peaceful means to win the hearts and minds of the people at home and abroad. Tyranny — based on military force — inevitably created enemies. Hegemonic ethics lay in between: frequently indifferent to moral concerns, it often involved violence against non-allies but did not cheat the people at home or allies abroad. Royal ethics would win in any competition with hegemony or tyranny.
Xing Qi, Vice President of the Chinese Cultural Promotion Society, claimed that royal ethics played an invaluable role in the stabilization and prosperity of the Chinese cultural ring because the starting point of royal ethics was an internal holy process rather than an external imposition to reach a harmony between humans and nature. The highest level of royal ethics is to achieve external royalty, in which the emphasis is to avoid hegemony in handling relations and reach harmony among different peoples, nations, and civilizations. Harmony, in this case, is not uniformity but rather seeking common ground while preserving differences. Wei Zhijiang of Zhongshan University in Guangzhou even argues that the Chinese world order created an East Asian security system guided by royal ethics and etiquette, which was widely shared by the vassal states.
Many Chinese scholars share the similar argument that imperial China was a peaceful state because it worked within the premise of royal ethics. What sustained the political centripetal forces of the surrounding regions was morality, not coercion. The ancient Chinese rulers developed a very prudent and defensive strategic culture and tried hard to arrive at their objectives without using force. Rulers were very cautious to wage just wars based on moral rather than material interests. The clear difference between just and unjust wars was the motivation of the war and its effect on civilians. The people’s support was the most important standard to measure whether or not a war was just. The ultimate goal of just wars was not only to punish the war criminals but also to reestablish the universal moral ethics of “unity and harmony of heaven and human beings.”2 Two Chinese military scholars, therefore, generalize the following three paradigm differences between imperial Chinese and Western statecraft: “justice” vs “interests”, “human factors” vs “weapon factors”, and “stratagem” vs “strength.”3
In comparison with Western imperialist countries that used coercive power to build colonies, the Chinese world order was thus more civil because it caused the tributary states to admire China without using force. In the traditional Chinese world, the relations among countries were in harmony based on benevolent governance. East Asian countries shared the Chinese cultural ideals and values that emphasized “peace, harmony, and a middle way.” Quoting the Tang Emperor Li Shiming who said that “although China has been regarded superior and barbarians inferior since ancient time(s), I love them all the same”, one Chinese scholar even went so far as to claim that “Emperor Li emphasized equality among all nationalities more than one thousand years ago, showing the open-minded Tang ruler in foreign relations.”
With the emphasis on etiquette and trade, the tributary system “forged the common ground for Imperial China and its surrounding regions, and served as the foundation for exchange and coordination between the two sides.” Emphasizing benevolent governance, etiquette, peace, and denying imperialistic nature, imperial China and its relations with surrounding regions were far more advanced than the colonialism of western countries. Some Chinese scholars have gone so far as to argue that the root of all troubles in Chinese diplomacy today is China’s lost opportunities for expansion because of its being pedantic and caring too much about morality and principles. “The surrounding countries should be grateful for China’s benevolent governance, and that the imperial order should be re-established, yet they don’t like moderation and self-restraint as part of the imperial tradition.”4
1. Carlson, A. (2011). Moving beyond sovereignty? A brief consideration of recent changes in China’s approach to international order and the emergence of the tian xia concept. Journal of Contemporary China, 20(68), 89.
2. Liu, T. (2014). Chinese strategic culture and the use of force: Moral and political perspectives. Journal of Contemporary China, 23(87), 562.
3. Zhang, J. and Yao, Y. (1996). Traditional Chinese military thinking: A comparative perspective. Journal of Contemporary China, 5(12), 209-221.
4. Yu, H. (2014). Glorious memories of imperial China and the rise of Chinese populist nationalism. Journal of Contemporary China, 23(90), 1183.
This is the first of a two-part article. Part 2 can be found here.