Translatio Imperii Sinici
In China Heritage Annual 2019, the theme of which is Translatio Imperii Sinici, we discuss aspects of the People’s Republic of China in the twenty-first century as both a nation-state 國 guó and as an all-inclusive global presence 天下 tiānxià.
While mindful of the yearnings, or at least the nostalgia, for empire redux in such diverse modern polities as Erdoğan’s Turkey, Putin’s Russia, Modi’s India and Abe’s Japan, as well as in the American Imperium, however one manages to characterise the United States under Donald Trump, we would posit that Translatio Imperii, is no recent fad in China; indeed, it has been unfolding since the Taiping Civil War (1850-1864) and the Tongzhi Restoration (同治中興, 1860-1874, also known as the Self-strengthening Movement). It reached a significant contemporary moment in 1997 when Party General Secretary Jiang Zemin used the old Qing dynastic-era expression — ‘restoration’ 中興 zhōng xīng — to describe the post-1978 and post-1989 restoration of his regime’s fortunes. Our concerns, therefore, are not merely with the incipient ‘Red Empire’ of the Xi Jinping era — something discussed at length by Tsinghua Professor Xu Zhangrun 許章潤 — but also with the ideas, habits, cultural expressions and aspirations of empire that have marked China’s modern history, and which still powerfully influence the Chinese world, and will continue to do so.
If we were to assay a Chinese translation of the Latin term Translatio Imperii, it would be 帝業之通變 dì yè zhī tōng biàn. This formulation combines the pre-Qin expression ‘the imperial enterprise’ 帝業 dì yè — the unified rule over a people and geopolitical territory, as well as the regulation of its customs, history and ideas, by a man of destiny and his successors, an ‘enterprise’ that reaches back well before the Common Era — with another hallowed term, 通變 tōng biàn, ‘the creative adaptation of familiar traditions’.
Below, we reproduce an 1952 essay by Joseph R. Levenson (1920-1969), an intellectual historian of modern China. We do so to extend the discussion of Empire in China Heritage Annual 2019 and as a continuation of a longer-term project to ‘re-read Joseph Levenson’. (For some details of the latter undertaking, see ‘The Practice of History and China Today’, The China Story Journal, 26 August 2015.)
As Levenson notes below: ‘The intellectual history of modern China has been the process of making guojia of tianxia.’ We would also note, from the vantage point of the second decade of the twenty-first century that the political and historical processes now coming into view of the post-1949 era, that is the first seventy years of the People’s Republic of China, we might also posit that a counter movement has also been in evidence: the possibility of making tianxia out of guo.
For all the rejection of Western ‘Universal Values’ and talk of a ‘China Model’ — a supposedly unique approach to modernity in which market capitalism is married to quasi-socialist authoritarianism (wasn’t this, in an earlier era, known as ‘National Socialism’?) — global aspirations were as much at the heart of Maoism as they were germane to a non-democratic form of post-revolutionary reform. With the promotion of a Chinese/ PRC-defined ‘Community of Shared Destiny’ 命運共同體, perhaps questions related to ‘Tianxia-ism’ are of pressing relevance once more?
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
24 May 2019
- Chinese terms given in Wade-Giles romanisation in the original text have been converted to Hanyu Pinyin.
— Joseph R. Levenson
Tianxia and Guo, and the ‘Transvaluation of Values’
Joseph R. Levenson
Confucian reformers found a great deal wrong with China in the seventeenth century. The trouble was this, they felt: men had strayed from the fixed ideals of Chinese civilization. In the early twentieth century, anti-Confucian reformers found a great deal wrong in the China of their day; they traced disaster, however, not to the flouting of fixed ideals but to blind and slavish respect for them, to the fixity itself. A seventeenth-century world, a tianxia 天下, in which traditional values claimed authority, had become a twentieth-century nation, a guo 國, in which traditional values were impugned as tyranny.
This changing fortune of a civilization, this vast and perplexing history, was caught in miniature in the changing relation between the concept tianxia and the concept guo. Tianxia signifies “the (Chinese) Empire”—alternatively, “the world”; as tianxia, China is the world. And guo is a local political unit, a part of “the Empire” in classical times, and in the modern world, “the nation.” But the respective meanings of tianxia and guo are not really revealed in these simple, self-sufficient English equivalents; for at either end of this history, the definition of either term implies a reference to the other, a comparison with the other. In the earlier time it was its contrast with guo, the regime of power, which defined the tianxia as the regime of value. But the claims of value are absolute, and if their justice comes to be doubted, respect for these claims will seem the mark of servility, not civilization. It was its contrast, then, with tianxia—preconception, dictation—which defined the guo, at the later date, as an area of untraditional free inquiry. Just as China persists but changes, the link between tianxia and guo persists while something changes their connotations and the degree of esteem accorded to each.
What works these changes is something unchanging itself: the Chinese need of a China which no defeat may compromise. In the seventeenth century, the Manchus had conquered the Chinese political power, so China as tianxia, unimpeachable, civilization in the abstract, was the China which the vanquished exalted. But China came, in time, to face a new kind of conquest while still subject to the old. To many Chinese, in the later nineteenth century, China seemed to be losing her title to tianxia, her dignity as a culture. Abandon a hopeless claim, they urged, strengthen political power by changing cultural values, and from a Chinese defeat as tianxia snatch a victory as guo.
1. The Tradition
The meaningless power of sheer egoism is braked by civilization, for every civilization has values, ends to be served. In traditional Chinese civilization the monarch, the Tianzi 天子, the Son of Heaven, had an end to serve, an ideal above him, and the anti-Manchu scholar Huang Zongxi (黃宗羲, 1610-1695), in his Mingyi Daifang Lu 明夷待訪錄 (1662), reminded him what it was:
At the beginning of life, each man acted for himself, each man planned for his own well-being. If there was public well-being in the empire (tianxia), he did not cry to extend it; if there was public injury, he did not try to expunge it. The princely man emerged, who did not consider his own personal well-being to be the only well-being there was but endowed the empire with its well-being, who did not consider his own personal injury to be the only injury there was but set the empire free of its injury ….
Those who later became monarchs were not like that. They considered that the power of bringing well-being or injury to the empire issued entirely from them. They coolly accepted the idea that well-being in the empire devolved wholly upon them and injury in the empire devolved wholly upon others. They kept the men of the empire from venturing in their own interests, from venturing for their own well-being, and they considered their own aggrandizement to be success for the empire. At first there was a sense of shame, but at length there was equanimity, and they looked on the empire as a vast business enterprise to be handed down to their sons and grandsons to receive and enjoy unlimitedly ….
The ancients had held that the empire came first and the monarch second. In general, a monarch’s occupations throughout his lifetime were for the empire. Now, it was held that the monarch came first and the empire second. It was because of the monarch that nowhere in the empire was there peace. While he had not yet attained it (the empire), he scattered the sons and daughters of the empire, in order to further his own individual enterprises. He was never sorry, and said that naturally he had undertaken his projects for his sons and grandsons.
When he had already attained it, he clubbed and flayed the bones and marrow of the empire, and he scattered the sons and daughters of the empire, in order to provide for his own individual sensual pleasure. He deemed it natural, and said that this was the profit from his own business. If it was so, then he who encompassed the great injury of the empire was the monarch, and, were there no monarch, men all could attain their own private ends, men all could attain their own well-being. Alas, can this really be the way to establish a monarch?
It could hardly be the way, not in a Confucian China; and Huang Zongxi, with such searing phrases, hurls the imperative of morality at the ruler of tianxia, “the empire,” under-Heaven, the Chinese world. For the gauge of the tianxia’s peace or chaos is the joy or sorrow of its myriad people, not the rise or fall of its ruling house.
Gu Yanwu (顧炎武, 1613-1682) concurred in these views and published similar ones in 1670. But he sounded a more deeply philosophical note. For morality, in Gu’s Rizhi Lu 日知錄, is more than an attribute of the ideal ruler of the tianxia; it is the distinguishing mark, the sine qua non, of tianxia itself.
Tianxia contrasts with guo (“country,” “nation”). The latter connotes not only land and people but protection by military force. But tianxia is a conception of civilized society; it means far more than just a political unit held by de facto power. “Let there be tianxia,” says Gu, “and it is desired to broaden the people’s lives and to straighten the people’s virtue.”
There is destruction of guo and destruction of tianxia. Between destruction of guo and destruction of tianxia what distinction should be made? “Change the surname, alter the style” (yi xing gai hao 易姓改號)—this is a description of the destruction of guo. The widespread dominion of benevolence and righteousness (ren 仁 and yi 義) decayed into the rule of beast-eat-man, men, leaders, eating each other—this is a description of the destruction of tianxia ….
Culture and morality, then, the whole world of values, belong to tianxia. lf men have a stake in guo at all, it is only a political stake—”Those who defend the guo are its monarch and its ministers; this is the design of the wealthy ….” But civilized man as man, by the very fibre of his human being, must be committed to tianxia—“but as for defending the tianxia, the mean common man shares responsibility.” The civilization, not the nation, has a moral claim on man’s allegiance.
This is good classical Chinese doctrine. A hundred generations have known, says Gu, that “no one without benevolence has ever attained the tianxia.” Mencius had said that first, and had said this before it: “There have been men without benevolence who have attained a guo.” This, from Mencius—however much it might seem just a counsel of prudence, a warning to covetous rulers of guo, ambitious of “the empire,” that tyranny would carry them only so far—could be more a statement of the ends of life than of the truths of political science. The implication was there, for later men to ponder, that men bent to power or men bent to standards. If they did the first, they were nondescripts living in a guo; if they did the second, they were Chinese living in a Chinese way, in their tianxia, which was the world.
Gu Yanwu understood this well when he echoed Mencius naturally, without acknowledgment, as he did in the phrase which has just been quoted, and when he wrote, himself, as follows:
When the superior man attains station, he desires to work out the dao 道, the Way; when the small man attains station, he desires to serve his own interests. The desire to work out the Way manifests itself in making tianxia of guojia 國家; the desire to serve one’s own interest manifests itself in wounding men and destroying things.
To “tianxia the guojia,” the passage says, to take a political power-unit and make it, with values, a civilization—or to take life, as the Confucian wishes who knows that tianxia and China are one, and make it ideally Chinese.
Political China is Zhongguo 中國, the central guo. But “central in what?” is the classical question. And the traditional answer—whether the world was narrow, as in classical times, or vaguely wide, as in Gu’s century—was tianxia. a world of standards, which the Chinese ideally upheld, to which barbarians ideally aspired. “The ancient sons of heaven commonly lived in Jizhou 冀州,” wrote Gu. “Later men for this reason came to give Jizhou the name of Zhongguo.” And he quotes statements of the ancients that Jizhou was central in the tianxia. The world that was tianxia then, the total China of all the guo, was Zhongguo now in a larger world. And tianxia ideally still existed, the larger China of all that world, as long as the people of “Zhongguo” deserved to be central, as faithful servants, not careless masters, of the ideals of civilization. Chinese in their guo were barbarians among barbarians unless they took the yoke of an ideal way, the Chinese way, and set the styles for others. Then the world could be tianxia, not a congeries of guo.
Huang Zongxi and Gu Yanwu could tell a Chinese emperor what he should do and a Chinese empire what it should be. The ideal was fixed, and Confucian reformism could go no farther than plead that it be adhered to. But the nineteenth century brought outside guo forcefully into China, and some Chinese minds began to stir. Perhaps the Chinese empire should be something other than what traditional standards ordained. Perhaps new criteria had a higher claim, those of western success and Chinese necessity. Should not, perhaps, the vision of tianxia fade away, so that China might survive its fading traditional culture?
2. The Transformation
The intellectual history of modern China has been the process of making guojia of tianxia. The idea of tianxia had indeed been identified with a Way, the Confucian way, the major indigenous Chinese tradition, and when, for one reason and another, modern Chinese turned to foreign ways for China, the exaltation of nation over culture, of guojia over tianxia was one of their maneuvers. Let an action be culturally unorthodox, they said, if only it be nationally useful. Such a criterion was intellectually and emotionally helpful. Using it, one could feel both justified in calling for a break with tradition and soothed while contemplating the tradition’s decay.
And so Liang Qichao 梁啟超, for one, in the early twentieth century, urged China to become new and to become a nation, to cease to be old and cease to pay homage exclusively to its culture. The literati had taken the culture as their preserve, and under their influence, said Liang, the Chinese had come to think of China as tianxia, the world, in which no other high culture existed, rather than as guojia, a nation, which had a great deal to learn. Nationalism, patriotism, had been destroyed. [See 梁啟超《新民說》in《飲冰室文集》, 1925, 12.51-51b.] China, in short, must deem itself not a world but a unit in the world. Unless it chose to come down from its pedestal, its view of itself as tianxia, and to stand as a guo among guo, it would be smashed. And as a guo, it had no standards thrust upon it. A given civilization adheres to certain values or it becomes something else; but a nation’s choice is free, if the choice but help it live. Nationalism invades the Chinese scene as culturalism hopelessly gives way.
Thus, if tianxia meant fixed standards, a traditionally accepted ideal of civilization, as, from Mencius to Gu and beyond him, Confucians had thought it did, then free choice and a pragmatic sanction, the denial of all that tianxia meant, came in with the guo to which tianxia had always been in contrast. And that is how the old order changed, with an old cloak for the new content, the antiquity of the alternatives covering the newness of the choice. Tianxia was challenged in the name of guo, Chinese tradition was challenged; but the logic of the battle was a rigorous logic in traditional Chinese terms. For the old Confucians and the new eclectics shared this one conviction—that culture stood with tianxia, and that culture changed in guo.
- Joseph R. Levenson, ‘T’ien-hsia and Kuo, and the “Transvaluation of Values” ’, The Far Eastern Quarterly, Vol.11, No.4 (August, 1952): 447-451. This material was later incorporated in volume one of Levenson’s trilogy Confucian China and Its Modern Fate: The Problem of Intellectual Continuity (1958)