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Book Review — Chinese Visions of World Order: Tianxia, Culture, and World Politics edited by Ban Wang

Tianxia 天下! The word itself sounds more like the title of a movie or video game than of a political program. In fact it is a video game (now in its third edition), and the word played a key role in the 2002 film Hero, in which the hero (played by Jet Li) spares the life of the ruthless Emperor Qin for the sake of “tianxia,” controversially subtitled in the original American release as “our land.” The translation was controversial because it gave tianxia, usually rendered as “all under Heaven,” a poetically patriotic connotation. Perhaps critics should not be so critical. The title of the film is, after all, Hero.

Asked about the tianxia translation, the film’s director Zhang Yimou was quite frank. “We struggled for a long time with the translation because it’s difficult. There’s a Chinese proverb that goes, ‘to suffer yourself when all under Heaven suffer, to enjoy only when all under Heaven enjoy.’ In the Chinese tradition, the idea of ‘tianxia’ has a very profound significance, and a true hero can hold ‘all under Heaven’ in his heart. If you ask me if ‘our land’ is a good translation, I can’t tell you. All translations are handicapped. Every word has different meanings in different cultures.”

Zhang is surely correct. But few words are as distinctively Chinese as tianxia. And few Chinese words have captured the imagination of English-language writers on international affairs and world society so much as tianxia. Perhaps that’s precisely because tianxia, unlike words like ma 马 (horse), mifan 米饭 (rice), and even Zhongguo 中国 (central state or “middle kingdom”; as a proper noun the word for “China” itself), represents something that has never existed in the Western historical traditions on which the English language draws. For Zhang and his hero, it may indeed have meant something like “our land.”

For the rest of us, there is Ban Wang’s magnificently eclectic collection, Chinese Visions of World Order: Tianxia, Culture, and World Politics. Wang has brought together eleven contributions from thirteen authors (including himself, both as author of one chapter and translator of another) to create a fascinating volume devoted to the idea of tianxia. Fortunately, the book is not the unified volume on Chinese international relations ideology advertised on the back cover. It is something much more varied, much more interesting, and much more fun.

Chapter 1, by Mark Edward Lewis and Mei-yu Hsieh, traces the relationship between tianxia and concepts of empire. Empire is of course a Latin-derived word, which in its Latin original (imperium) simply means “that which is ruled over.” The word tianxia has also meant that (at times), but Lewis and Hsieh suggest that it started its career as a “politicized culture” (p. 16) that “possesses a single cultural elite who should share common values” (p. 17). As China evolved, so did the term. By the time of the Han dynasty, the notion of tianxia encompassed multiple cultures and regions, even including steppe nomads in the service of Han emperors.

In the other bookend chapter, Chishen Chang and Kuan-Hsing Chen offer a close textual analysis of ancient uses of tianxia and how they compare to the revived use of the term by the contemporary philosopher Zhao Tingyang 赵汀阳 in his wildly popular book, The Tianxia System (天下体系). Zhao is akin to the ghost of Hamlet’s father, a figure looming behind the whole book, and (given that he is still very much alive) it is unfortunate that he is not represented among its contributors. Chang and Chen use extensive historical documentation to “question the metaphysical fantasy in Zhao’s formulation” of the term (p. 184), and up to a point they are convincing. Zhao’s solidarist vision of a universal world order of the heart clearly strays far from any historical notion of tianxia. But as enlightening as Chang and Chen’s chapter is, it seems to miss the spirit of Zhao’s tianxia revival.

Zhao, “whose work is at the center of the tianxia debate,” according to Wang’s Introduction (p. 2), draws on the classical concept of tianxia to inspire movement toward a utopian future, not a return to an imagined Sinocentric past. Thus the “world politics” of the current book’s subtitle refers neither to the historical politics of the Sinocentric world-system of pre-modern East Asia nor to the shabby international diplomacy of today’s system of states, but to the politics of “worlding,” as contributor Lisa Rofel puts it in Chapter 9—the politics of how we perceive (or don’t perceive) ourselves as collective citizens of a unified world. Rofel herself somewhat unconvincingly attempts to connect tianxia to Maoist socialist internationalism (Mao would be rolling over in his grave, if he weren’t still pinned down in his mausoleum), but she is certainly right that Zhao’s tianxia is a solidarist concept, whatever the actual use of the term may have been in classical texts.

Haiyan Lee is similarly unconvincing in her utterly charming attempt to link Zhao’s tianxia worldism to the plot of the Chinese television drama Soldier’s Sortie (士兵突击). Lee’s chapter, which is subtitled “Why We Should Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the PLA [People’s Liberation Army],” interweaves the story of China’s seemingly doomed attempts to boost cultural exports in support of its “soft power” with the story of Xu Sanduo 许三多, the Forrest Gump-like fictional hero of Soldier’s Sortie. The creation of Lan Xiaolong 兰晓龙, a writer in the employ of the PLA, Xu Sanduo couldn’t be more different from the hero of Zhang Yimou’s Hero. And though Lee’s chapter is hands-down the people’s choice award winner of the book, its winning portrayal of Xu Sanduo as the embodiment of Chinese cultural power falls flat on the fact that Soldier’s Story has spectacularly failed to conquer international markets.

Readers who are interested in the late Qing and early Republican evolution of Chinese thinking about the place of China in the Western-dominated interstate system will especially appreciate Wang Hui’s chapter on Kang Youwei (translated by Ban Wang) and Ban Wang’s own chapter on Kang Youwei, as well as his Introduction to the volume as a whole. Yiqun Zhou’s chapter on Belle Époque Chinese philhellenism is also a fascinating digression. Other contributions include a Prasenjit Duara reprint on planetary sustainability, Daniel A. Bell’s sensible but somewhat plodding pitch for foreign policy Confucianism, Viren Murthy’s specialist account of arcane postwar Japanese Sinology, and Lin Chun’s ode to midcentury Third World socialist internationalism.

Put them all together, and the eleven chapters of this book (plus a substantive introduction) make much more than the sum of the parts. Chinese Visions of World Order is the best kind of edited volume; it gives the impression that its diverse array of contributions have been curated rather than commissioned. The seemingly odd juxtaposition of classical textual analysis with utopian philosophical universalism, of Bandung romanticization with why we should “learn to love the PLA” is more the stuff of contemporary art exhibitions than of edited academic volumes—the resulting exhibition must be declared an unqualified success.

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Sydney-based globalization expert Salvatore Babones is available to speak on the Chinese economy (demographics, growth, technology), the Belt & Road Initiative, global trade networks, and Australia-China relations. Contact: s@salvatorebabones.com