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All under heaven: classical Chinese world outlook embodies China’s cultural confidence

ZHANG LIJUAN | 2018-02-01 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


A sculpture of the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom (JIANG HONG/CSST)


Tianxia, meaning “all under heaven,” is a term for an ancient Chinese cultural concept of the world order. With the concept of “all under heaven” at its core, Tianxiaism is a system of thought concerning the world order, norms and ideal personality that is universal and open in nature. The Confucian idea of “benevolence,” the Mohist concept of “impartial care,” and Kang Youwei’s idea of “the world of the Great Unity” were all reflections of the ancient Chinese ideal of Tianxiaism, which is to say the pursuit of an order and system characterized by unity, rationality, openness and tolerance.

In the context of globalization today, the “Belt and Road” initiative proposed by China not only involves political and economic exchanges but also interaction between the humanities. The initiative is rooted in the self-awareness and confidence of China’s cultural concepts and strategy, representing the core spirit of Tianxiaism.


More inclusive worldview
Cultural confidence is, first of all, confidence in one’s world outlook, i.e. “judging the world by your world.” It is said in Tao Te Ching that “Cultivated in the world, it is universal. So judge another man by yourself, another family by your family, another country by your country, another state by your state, and the world by your world.” As a scale of thinking exclusive to Chinese culture, “all under heaven” is the largest and most complete unit for analysis with the greatest accommodating capacity. Any issue, including culture, can be fitted in it for reflection. Any particular culture is the result of human activities, which in essence reflects a particular group’s experience in their lives and of life in general. Therefore, those who are in the same cultural system are “cultural friends,” while those who are outside the cultural world are “cultural strangers,” and there is inherent tension between the two.

When approaching multicultural patterns with diversity, Western culture takes the nation-state as the basic unit in most cases. The cultural perspective is limited within a nation and a state without the dimension of “all under heaven.” Conflicts and chaos in the world order frequently occur among nation-states. For instance, Samuel Huntington argued that conflicts in the contemporary world are in essence civilizational rifts in the world order, and that different civilizations are not compatible.

Of course, this is not to say there is no reflection on the world in Western culture. The Stoic cosmopolitanism and Immanuel Kant’s idea of the “world citizen” are examples. However, the West tends to “judge the world by your nation,” while China’s Tianxiaism highlights “judging the world by your world.” The two differ in point of view and scale.

As a worldview that has broken down particularity, Tianxiaism adopts a universal or holistic vision that is broader than the Western perspective, endowing Chinese culture with a unifying power. The power is rational in that it is the unity of ideal and reality. For one thing, “all under heaven” has the implication of “a world without an exterior,” that is, it is a concept of the internal without the external. The history and culture of every nation coexist equally in the internal world.

The world is not an arena in which different national cultures compete but a cultural community of common prosperity that needs to be built by different nations together. Furthermore, traditional Chinese culture follows the trajectory of “cultivating the people, regulating the families, rightly governing the states and bringing peace to the world.” From people to families then to states, the ultimate goal is to achieve “the Great Unity under heaven.” As such, the “all under heaven” worldview is more open and inclusive compared with that of Western culture.


Extending family ethics
Essential to cultural confidence is the confidence in values of “treating all under heaven as a family.” The core of any culture is a set of values and norms. Chinese culture is a culture of ethics represented by Confucianism, while Western culture is religious, with Christianity at its core. With lineage and clan as its starting point, a culture of ethics aims to achieve unity of emotion and reason as well as the association of benevolence and propriety in society. 

Chinese scholar Liang Shuming wrote in The Essence of Chinese Culture that “Ethics in China start with the family but do not stop there.” On the one hand, Chinese culture values family life. In the five traditional types of relationships, the father-son relationship, husband-wife relationship and relationship of brothers are all relationships in a family. On the other hand, the relationships in a family are extended into society at large. We can say that the family is logically the starting point for “all under heaven,” and all the issues ultimately return to the family again. The family is a unit of ethics, and the nation is the basic unit of politics. “All under heaven,” consisting of the family and nation, is a cultural entity integrating ethics and politics.  

“Treating all under heaven as a family” is in fact a kind of ethical formula for relationships that views the “self” and “others” as a symbiotic relationship, which is a unique feature of Chinese culture. The idea of “all under heaven” does not deny the values of “others.” Instead, it integrates “others” with the “self” as an indispensable part, which indicates the idea of “integration of all under heaven.” “All under heaven” is the biggest family, within which the members are not enemies, and there are only varying degrees of closeness among them. The maximum benefits of the family mean the maximum benefits for its members, too. Common good and individual good are unified.


Advocating superior man
The ultimate representation of cultural confidence is confidence of personality. Carriers of culture are citizens. Whether it be “judging the world by your world” or “treating all under heaven as a family,” the worldview and values will ultimately shape the character and personalities of individuals. “Cultivating people” means that culture develops personalities and is ultimately reflected in the form of individual life. On the other hand, development of personalities facilitates cultural prosperity and development, too. Chinese scholar Yu Qiuyu once said “Culture is an ecological community that contains spiritual values and lifestyle. It creates a collective personality through accumulation and guidance. When culture becomes the collective personality, namely the national character, it is then condensed into the national spirit.”

The ideal personality Chinese culture advocates and respects is that of a “superior man,” which is determined by the unique spirit and temperament of the Chinese people. Traditional Confucian culture has not given an exact definition of a superior man, but offered various descriptions of one. We can say that a superior man is mainly characterized by benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and integrity. With the promotion of the core socialist values, the individual values of patriotism, dedication, integrity and friendship are compatible with the personal characteristics of the superior man, indicating the continuing vitality of the concept.

The concept of the superior man has rich implications. With benevolence as its essential personality, a superior man accomplishes self-completion and also perfects all things. In the view of “all under heaven,” the superior man is a dynamic image that is autonomous and self-sufficient. Following the trajectory of “people-families-states-world,” a superior man continuously exceeds and improves the personality, before finally reaching “harmony between man and nature.”  This process of expansion is powered by benevolence, a universal requirement for human nature. To be benevolent, one needs to turn inwards and examine oneself, restrict the unreasonable desires and be responsible for oneself. On the other hand, one needs to turn outwards, be responsible for others and the world in the process of building the relationships between families, states and the world.

A superior man should follow the course of zhongyong, or “the Mean,” maintaining moderation and abiding by the constant. A superior man is affable but not adulatory. The course of the Mean is a methodological principle and ethical standard of great importance in Chinese culture. Chinese philosopher Cheng Yi once said: “The Mean (zhong) is the right way of all under heaven; the unchangeable (yong) is the principle of all under heaven.” As a methodological principle, the course of the Mean is a holistic way of thinking that has two implications. First, it advocates looking at a problem comprehensively, and opposes extreme thinking. Second, it actively seeks harmony and unity in diversity on the basis of moderation. When represented in human behavior, the course of the Mean requires a balance between reason and desire, and harmony between man and nature. People should be true to the principles of their nature and exercise them benevolently to others, and show tolerance toward each other. Compared with the Western idea of “survival of the fittest,” the course of the Mean is a wiser approach to current cultural conflicts. Seeking common ground while reserving differences, the course of the Mean acknowledges the legitimacy of various cultures, and on this basis tries to build a world where different cultures interact with and complete each other.
Tianxiaism has inspired us to build a civilized path from a new perspective. Progressing from worldview to values and then to personality, it encourages us to integrate the three, creating the Chinese style and enhancing cultural confidence. To have such cultural confidence does not mean we are narcissistic or adrift. Rather, it aims to construct an inclusive cultural community in which members seek harmony but not uniformity.



Zhang Lijuan is from the School of Philosophy at Renmin University of China.


(edited by JIANG HONG)