> topics > International Studies

‘Li shang wanglai’ essential to Chinese diplomatic philosophy

CHEN KANGLING | 2021-12-30 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

FILE PHOTO: This painting is part of renowned Italian artist Giuseppe Castiglione’s handscroll that portrays the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) receiving tribute horses from Kazakh envoys. The tributary act was soon followed by intensive trade between Qing China and the Kazakh polity. 

Classical Chinese concepts of international relations have distinctively Chinese characteristics, reflecting the Chinese people’s strategic thinking pattern. Still demonstrating vitality today, they can offer important guidance to make sense of contemporary international politics and China’s foreign policy. To some extent, they also can compensate for gaps in existing Western theories on international relations. This article discusses and analyzes the traditional concept “li shang wanglai,” which literally means courtesy demands reciprocity. 

Theory and practice in ancient China
China is a well-known, time-honored nation of etiquette. The culture of rites and music had a major influence on ancient Chinese civilization. As it’s said in the “Record of Music” (“Yue Ji”) chapter of the Confucian classic Book of Rites (Li Ji), “Music is (an echo of) the harmony between heaven and earth; ceremonies reflect the orderly distinctions (in the operations) of heaven and earth.”
Also according to the “Summary of the Rules of Propriety Part 1” (“Qu Li I”) in the Book of Rites, “what the rules of propriety value is reciprocity [another translation of li shang wanglai]. If I give a gift and nothing comes in return, that is contrary to propriety; if the thing comes to me, and I give nothing in return, that also is contrary to propriety.” 
Li shang wanglai in the spirit and essence of ancient Chinese rites has implications on three layers. The first layer is balanced giving and receiving in return equitably and reasonably; the second layer of implication are the required interactions between oneself and others, on an equal footing; and the third is mutual respect between both sides of the exchange. The three layers of implications ultimately point to an ideal human order that is universal, enduring, and harmonious. 
As early as the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BCE–256 BCE), the value connotations of li shang wanglai had run through inter-state relations. Between states, emphasis was laid on reciprocity in exchanges of etiquette, currency, correspondence, and envoy. 
After the Qin (221 BCE–207 BCE) and Han (202 BCE–220 CE) dynasties, the central court’s common practice of showing great courtesy for modest presents from tributary states was partly a flexible application of the sophisticated Zhou Dynasty custom of betrothal gifts given by the bridegroom’s family to the bride’s. 
In ancient China, the use of “rituals toward guests” in diplomacy reflected increasingly specific and deep understandings of the “host nation—guest state” situation and “major country—lesser state” relationships. 
From the perspective of power, Chinese-foreign relations in ancient times were asymmetric and imbalanced. After the Qin Empire unified China, the nation was for many years at the center of international relations with neighboring regimes, playing a dominant role in maintaining regional stability and peace. 
Although states in East Asia had no clear idea of sovereign equality, and there was no diplomacy in the modern sense at that time, ancient China and its neighbors were in fact enjoying and exercising the right of equality-based interaction. 
Moreover, the central court would tailor its policies to states in different geographical regions, showing its respect to other polities. In other words, there was generally a baseline of informal equality-based interactions between states in the formal hierarchy of traditional international order in East Asia. Many international relations actors in ancient East Asia practiced the li shang wanglai philosophy with proper respect and modest concessions on the basis of mutual non-aggression, thus making greater advances in long-term trust and mutual benefits across fields. 
Diplomacy in new China
When exploring ways to adapt Marxism to the Chinese context, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has honored the classical meaning of li shang wanglai, while endowing the philosophy with diplomatic significance and new epochal connotations. Thus it played a positive role in laying the foundation for diplomacy of the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC) and paved the way to further innovate the country’s diplomatic practices after reform and opening up. 
During the period of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1931–45), Comrade Mao Zedong proposed the three principles to fight “on just grounds,” “to our advantage” and “with restraint,” which actually contained the idea of li shang wanglai. After the PRC was founded in 1949, Comrade Zhou Enlai designated li shang wanglai as one of the six guidelines for peaceful diplomacy. 
These are epistemological innovations, made on the basis of following the right path, which embody China’s diplomatic endeavors to strive for independence and peace. Through moderate leeway in time and space in exchange for more room for maneuver, China struck a balance and achieved parity in interactions with imperialist countries. 
Meanwhile, China deeply sympathized with, and bravely supported, those Asian and African countries that suffered from colonial oppression. As such, the genes of li shang wanglai in the Chinese civilization organically integrated with the CPC’s spirit of internationalism. China’s proposition that all nations, big or small, are equal was a subversion of the West-led international order in modern times. China was committed to defining reciprocity as a right and duty in international relations. 
In addition, jointly with neighboring countries, China put forward the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, breaking new ground in combining equality and reciprocity. Afterwards, these principles became key norms which represented the shared voice of emerging independent states on multilateral arenas as they developed their national economies. 
To countries respecting China, China treats them with courtesy. Otherwise, it would try peaceful means, and resort to force after. The newly founded PRC was fully braced for dealings with different countries and held a realistic and down-to-earth attitude in diplomatic engagements. 
Although it heavily underlined the importance of maintaining friendly ties with other countries, China would take on states that provoked conflict, and continue to the end. The “returning good for good” thought and the stance that “we will treat those friendly to us with a friendlier attitude, but we will resist if any nation is hostile toward us” built a solid groundwork for the establishment of a broad international united front and the major-country prestige of the new China. 
New model of international relations
Since reform and opening up, particularly the 18th CPC National Congress, the vein of li shang wanglai in China’s diplomacy has become increasingly explicit. Amid inheritance and development, it has organically fused the thinking pattern, form of expression, and behavioral model of the nation for the pursuit of inclusiveness, openness, and progress. Manifested in Chinese foreign relations on the political, security, economic, cultural, and other fronts, li shang wanglai in the new era has the following three features.  
First, li shang wanglai is not about one’s own one-sided interests, nor acting in disregard of others’ opinions. Interactions between countries should be grounded in mutual respect and equality, while maintaining steady and close communication to meet each other’s needs and deepen mutual trust. The use of social factors and linking bonds in the international system like “relationship” and “process” can help foster international codes, national sentiments, and a collective identity. 
Second, li shang wanglai is not an exchange of equal values or a win-and-lose struggle. In struggles, firm action and space are both needed. In cooperation, each side will take what it needs while offering active aid. Such forms of mutual help are not identical with “self-help” or the “scramble” common to a Western outlook on order, which stresses conflict. Instead, this concept is about helping each other, and treating others courteously, as upheld by the Chinese harmony-oriented concept of order. Expanding the horizons of international interactions increases resources for progress around the world and development of all countries involved, thereby better improving increments for mutually beneficial international engagements and global governance. 
Third, li shang wanglai does not seek similarity in disunity (as opposed to diversity in unity) nor is it about forming cliques and factions. Nations and civilizations should be open and inclusive to each other, focus on helping others prosper, instead of helping them harm one another. Major countries, in particular, should seek common ground while shelving differences and guide other nations to vigorously and justly defend shared human interests, and cope with common global challenges to jointly advance the building of a community of shared future for mankind. 
The philosophy of li shang wanglai can not only engage in dialogue with mainstream concepts in all international relations fields, but has also gone beyond the scope of these values, for it contains the unique wisdom of the Chinese civilization. Mutual learning between civilizations in the li shang wanglai fashion will promote the establishment of new models of international relations and inspire other countries to cultivate a broader world outlook, so it is a vital basis of thought for the building of the community of shared future for mankind. 
Chen Kangling is an assistant research fellow from the China Institute at Fudan University.