When Xi Jinping, now in an unprecedented third term, first came to power back in 2012, he indicated his intention to replace the Western international order with a “Community of Common Destiny.” Backed by China’s tremendous economic growth and political stability, Xi has sought to reorder “chaos” like the Chinese philosopher Confucius attempted more than two thousand years ago. Xi himself frequently alludes to Chinese classical thought in his aim to construct what he believes would be a more “inclusive” and “just” order.
In order to understand Xi’s grand ambition and vision for a Chinese international order, it is necessary to better understand its philosophical underpinnings—especially both Xi’s and the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) fixation with Confucian thought. This, in turn, also requires understanding the context through which such came about, necessitating a dive into Chinese history.
The Early Dynasties and the Emergence of Confucius
In ancient times, before the rise of China’s famous dynasties, the central plain of China was inhabited by several tribes who did not share a common leader. According to tradition, even though there was fighting between them, a mechanism called shanrang ensured succession based on moral virtue and behavior rather than blood lineage. Via this, King Yu the Great succeeded Emperor Shun by earning the respect of other tribes. His son Qi established the first dynasty, the Xia. But there was no centralized power during the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties. Instead, these periods were marked by disorder and chaos, due to the multitude of states and their relative autonomy.
It was around this time period that Confucius, whose teachings would mold Chinese civilization and political thinking for millennia, emerged.
Key to understanding Confucian philosophy is its understanding of “heaven”—the source for all humans and the origin of all social values. Chinese heaven is paternalistic, but rather than creating or destroying its purpose is to guarantee order and harmony. Likewise, Confucius did not see humans as isolated, but rather inserted in a hierarchical system that begins with the family, part of a tribe, and was the first step towards the state. The supremacy of the collective interest over the individual is the fundamental characteristic of social order, and what Chinese thought considers its moral superiority.
Confucian society is thus composed of individuals who respect and obey a clear line of authority. Because traditional Chinese society saw the family as the basic unit, Confucius argued that good government should be based on a bond with the family. According to this idea, if the principles that govern a family are applied to the relations between members of society, then the result is a harmonious society.
Before the unification of China, the Shang dynasty had managed to form an alliance of states that lasted for several centuries. But this alliance was unstable and there was much infighting. Later, the Zhou dynasty initially relied on military power, but it realized that this would not create and maintain order between the other states. The Zhou were not the largest state, leading them to realize that coercive force alone would not be sufficient to become the central power. This is what drove the Zhou, drawing from Confucius, to establish tianxia (“all under heaven”), creating an effective system where many independent states recognized the mandate of the “son of heaven.”
In this system, the “son of heaven” grants lords rights over territory, the collection of taxes therein, and the authority to establish their own legal systems in exchange for their obligation to pay tribute and obey him during times of war. The lords recognized the “son of heaven” as the representation of the morality of heaven, therefore superseding the personal connection of feudalism in Europe. The Chinese “mandate of heaven” is thus not divine right, as the European kings enjoyed, but rather the acceptance of the legitimacy of the government for as long as governance is moral and just, and it fulfills its obligations to them.
However, during the second part of the Zhou dynasty, known as the Eastern Zhou dynasty, powerful lords kept the tribute meant for the “son of heaven” and abandoned their titles, effectively regaining independence, and leading to the dynasty’s eventual overthrow by King Zhaoxiang of the Qin. His descendant, Qin Shi Huang, conquered the other six states through military means and legalism, establishing the first dynasty to rule over a united China: the Qin.
The Qin dynasty’s preference to obtain the mandate of the “son of heaven” through badao (the way of the hegemon) rather than wangdao (the kingly way to govern), as advised by Mencius, created a struggle between both philosophies in tianxia. Later on, the Han dynasty formally adopted Confucian doctrine and promoted it as the moral foundation for all human conduct, even though there was a great diffusion of Buddhism and Taoism. But it was only until the Song dynasty at the turn of the millennium that Confucian doctrine came to regulate all social, political, and philosophical systems in China.
The Evolution of Tianxia
The fact that tianxia is not based on “nature” but on “relationship” means that one is subjected to another and this relationship is what defines them. The objective of tianxia is the transformation of the “Other.” Historically, all that was alien to Chinese culture was considered yi, or barbarian, and had to undergo a process of sinicization, hua. In fact, China’s ability to adapt itself has allowed it to maintain its identity in the most adverse of circumstances.
It is difficult to ascertain whether the claim of China as an immutable entity from ancient times until today has ever existed. But what is clear is that Confucian doctrine was able to assimilate the dynasties of ethnic minorities which completed their conquests after becoming “Chinese”—the later Chinese dynasties, established by non-Han peoples invading from Mongolia or Manchuria, exemplify this. This point is most significant, as it signals that Confucian doctrine is not merely a system for ethics, but also an essential issue of political legitimacy. Moreover, it can be extended outward. The submission of a state to tianxia allows China to become the center of this structure, transferring over characteristics of its civilization to the rest of the system.
Under tianxia, this Confucian method of thinking about relationships and obligations is applied to the international system, to reflect the idea of a broader family. Tianxia, therefore, places China above any other political, cultural, or military group. This system prioritizes Chinese order, rule, and governance by elites—over Western notions of liberty, freedom, human rights, and democracy, which would arrive later.
As such, the international system of East Asia, based on tianxia, was forged during the long period of the unification of China, through which diverse tribes fused into a broader power structure, and which eventually came under the mandate of the emperor personified as the “son of heaven.” But rather than being a divine mandate superior to the human condition, the mandate of the “son of heaven” possessed a civil responsibility in maintaining harmony between its subjects, including those who later came under its mantle. From the Ming dynasty until the First Opium War, the Chinese tributary system created political stability in the region.
During the Ming dynasty, Confucianism spread to Korea and Vietnam. In Japan, Confucian classical literature became a fundamental part of the education of the nobility and the elite. These countries thus became part of the tributary system which came to constitute the international system of the region.
The tributary system was not labeled as such by the Chinese; rather, the name comes from the Europeans who discovered China and its neighbor’s relationship and originally reflected Western ideas about the obligations of tributary states. But the payment of tribute, rather than being one of primarily coercive obligation as in the West’s popular conception of the system, was more a symbol of the cultural superiority of the Chinese emperor, and the exchange of gifts and favors maintained a balance in the East Asian regional system. The Chinese emperor would always give more than what he would receive and this loss was meant to guarantee the functioning of the regional order.
China, as such, became the hegemon of East Asia during the tributary system, and its hegemony via tianxia was not so different from hegemony in the West’s own conception, as in both cases the question of power, both cultural and material, remains crucial. However, Chinese hegemony was distinct in that it possessed a higher degree of a moral character than Western hegemony. China was a peaceful hegemon for nearly six centuries before the Opium Wars, primarily due to Confucian ideas of obligation and responsibility, based on the relationship between a father and son, and which were applied to the regional system. This helped to create a positive image of the Chinese emperor, both inside and outside China.
China regulated the regional system and assured the functioning of all commercial activities by allocating privileges to its actors according to the degree of cultural assimilation that they demonstrated. Korea, Vietnam, and the Ryukyu kingdom were the tributary states that showed the highest degree of cultural assimilation and were therefore given more privileges, including more tributary missions. This was a system meant to differentiate between the “barbarian” and the “civilized” according to the assimilation of Chinese culture.