Reforging Tianxia:

Chinese Visions of a New World Order

Eli J. Patton



It has been said that in the course of history,

long periods of division give way to unity, and

long periods of unity give way to division.

In the 1990s, Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history” — the West had won. But, Samuel Huntington, saw that what had begun was a “clash of civilizations” — the Western core ossified, the rest on the periphery, yoking. More recently, Graham Allison has broached whether or not the world is facing a “Thucydides trap” where a rising power (China) is destined to war with the established power (the United States). John Ikenberry has written that even though the United States and the West are perceived to be in relative decline, the Liberal Leviathan has self-sustaining mechanisms that will outlive the nation-states of its founders. But what if there were another option for the world? What if there were another order? Or international system? History tells us that there have been many civilizational empires and when they meet, they set off earthquakes — the outcomes of which are extraordinarily difficult to predict. One of the most successful systems of world order has been the Chinese order of Tianxia, which was traditionally a harmonious hierarchy with one unipolar power at the center that is upheld by tradition and shared interests.


All Under Heaven (Tianxia 天下) is a whole-of-society spirituality that seeped into ancient China’s form of governance. It is a different ontological outlook of the world. In Europe, centuries of push and pull between the monarchs and the church resulted in sovereign and secular Westphalian states. The Chinese order, on the other hand, sees a universal, inclusive world where all are one family (tianxia yijia 天下一家); there is one sun in the sky, one emperor on the throne, and one father in the family.

Although a growing trend in elite circles, Tianxia does not resonate only from the Communist Party of China, the academics within China’s top universities, or the media. It is also bottom up and middle out, reinforced through strict social ritual and Confucian morality.

Naturally, there are numerous social theorists, political scientists, and IR scholars in China, but it was a philosopher, Zhao Tingyang, who is remembered for bringing Tianxia to international relations theory in the modern era.

The very first mythological Chinese nation-state, and nearly every successive dynasty since, has existed in the mold of one polity, under heaven, hierarchical, with peace and harmony for all who abide their role. The Son of Heaven in the center stands as the august steward and intercessor between humankind and heaven.

The government operated under strict Confucian-Legalist rituals that ensured conformity and acted as habit-forming institutions for regime longevity. But it is the Daoist spiritualism of unity, harmony, and benevolent authority that creates the whirlpool drawing in the smaller satellite states.

The “tribute system” was the international institution underpinning the Chinese order. Small states symbolically accepted China as the hegemon, and in return received investiture and authority at home. As a result, China became entrenched as the core of the system.

There have been numerous instances of order construction and dynastic decline in the 5000 years since the origin story of Chinese civilization. There exists historical records of an international system in East Asia that includes, at times, both Westphalian and Tianxia order. Notably, there are instances where Tianxia gives way to Westphalian anarchy and there are also times when Tianxia absorbs the entire interstate system.

This research project started as a simple question: what is the Chinese concept of Tianxia and its implications for today? This seemed like a small task given my recent dive into Qin Yaqing’s work on rational relationalism. However, out of this question sprung several more, such as: what is the nature of order? And how are empires made or unmade? What has been the world history of empire and hierarchy? How has spirituality impacted governance? I quickly realized this project was an enormous task requiring herculean efforts; thus while this is just the beginning, I fully intend to continue pursuing this line of research as a Phd student.

First of all, a word about language. Language changes. We all have our own systems of meanings and web of thought patterns. Ideas are particularly amorphous when discussing meta-theoretical concepts such as world order. Tianxia is the romanization of the Mandarin Chinese “天下” which consists of two rebus glyphs. The left character roughly means “heaven” — in a transcendent spiritual sense. The right character equates to “below” and together they are often translated as “all under heaven.” All Under Heaven, taken as the name for Chinese (world) order, is the discussion topic for this essay. I may use several names for this interchangeably throughout, knowing that they are not entirely the same concepts, but that they all represent an ideal of Tianxia.

The Pendulum Of World Order

For most people, thinking about “how the world works” may simply be an act done in passing at a young age and never pondered again. For some, it may be philosophical, for others spiritual, many think it is all about economics. But, there also exists a type of person who, when thinking about the entirety of the human experience, thinks about international relations theory — and for these people, my people, the world order is literally being turned upside down.

If history tells us anything about order, it is that it never lasts forever. The Western system of equal sovereign states may seem as natural as rain for some, but the Peace of Westphalia was a mere 400 years ago — 1000 years after the fall of the Roman Empire; and before the Romans, my own ancestors, the Celts, had a world order that was neither empire nor nation. All around the world several empires, or systems of order, have risen and fallen in the many years in between the birth of civilization, the Peace of Westphalia, and today.

Each system of order possesses its own characteristics, such as: equality or hierarchy, secular or sacred, institutional basis or historical basis, homogenous or cosmopolitan, etc. Some orders may be more preferable to others, on a culture by culture basis. If one state is rising in power, its neighbors must decide how to react: throw in with the “revisionist” state or hold out with the “status quo” power. And when there is a change in order, it is often the populare and plebeians who suffer under the conditions of war and famine and utter chaos.

Famed professor, John Ikenberry, in his work, The Liberal Leviathan, states that there are “three major logics or mechanisms by which order is established and maintained: balance, command, and consent.” Balance relates to who holds the actual power. Command is the ability to wield authority. Consent assumes the people assent to their government, or system of order.

Today, a large swath of scholars, or the new school(s), in the field of international relations see the United States in a relative slump when compared to the developing world. In material power, and perhaps even moral authority and spread of ideas, the West has peaked — so, what about the rest? If statistics are anything to base an argument on, then most IR scholars believe East Asia is the region of the world that holds the most importance strategically; yet paradoxically, fewer than 10 percent of American IR scholars are focused on East Asia.

For billions of people, the West sun is setting, and the East moon is rising. It behooves us to ask what that entails. John Ikenberry argues that the idea of a Liberal International order will outlast American supremacy, but what if he is wrong?

Research Structure

The following paper is divided into six sections:

  • In the first section, I discuss the recent historical narrative of China as having fallen from a state of former glory and how this has influenced the international relations scholars within China.

  • In the second section, I discuss the origin and characteristics of Tianxia as told by extant documents.

  • In the third section, I describe the modern rendition of Tianxia as proposed by its primary exponents, and introduce the major academic dialogue surrounding it.

  • In the fourth section, I examine historical eras of Chinese order and discuss the “tribute system” as a mechanism for enacting and renewing Tianxia.

  • In the fifth section, I compare some features of the Tianxia model with those of the Westphalian system of world order.

  • In the sixth section, I close the paper with my thoughts on the implications of this research and opportunity for future study.

Contact for full draft.