Chinese Thought and Dialogical Universalism


TONG Shijun


(East China Normal University/Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences)

Europe and Asia Beyond East and West
Edited by Gerard Delanty,
Routledge, 2006

Many arguments have been made by European and Chinese thinkers against the current American foreign policy and its underlying political philosophy. This article explores the possibility of combining the argument based on the traditional Chinese idea of “tian xia” or “All under Heaven” with the argument for a dialogical universalism versus the subject-centered or monological universalism advanced by German philosopher Juergen Habermas.

1. The Chinese Idea of “Tian Xia” vs. the Western Idea of the “World”

Habermas’s criticism of the “imperialist claim” of the American neo-Conservative strategists (See Habermas 2001, Habermas 2003) may seem to some people to be a good case for making a distinction within “Western values” between “European values” and “American values”, and this distinction more or less amounts to that between a dialogical and de-centerized version of universalism a monological and self-centered version of universalism. In the view of a contemporary Chinese scholar named Zhao Tingyang, however, it is still limited by the same political tradition shared by Westerners across the Atlantic: Habermas’s “inter-subjectivity” is still an “inter-ness” between the subjects (or the nation-states in this context), but not a “transcendence” over the subjects. The real alternative to either the nation-states or the empire with one nation as its core is what the ancient Chinese imagined as “tian xia” or “All under the Heaven”.

“Tian xia” is one of the most frequently used words in ancient Chinese classics. Literally meaning “All under Heaven” or “All the land under Heaven”, it was used by ancient Chinese to refer to the whole world as they knew or imagined. It is different both from Heaven, which is above us, and from the smaller parts within it. As something different from Heaven, tian xia is actually the intersecting point of the “tian dao” or Heavenly Dao and “ren dao” or Human Dao. In other words, the principle regulating tian xia is the HeavenlyDao in the form of Human Dao. As something different from smaller parts within it, tian xia is the ideal towards which ordinary people approach and by which their everyday activities are judged. In a famous passage in the Confucian classics Great Learning, tian xia is at the top of a hierarchy of ideas: tian xia (the world), guo (states), jia (families), shen (individual persons), which is followed by a series of ideas with regards to the individual persons: xin (minds), yi (will), zhi (knowledge)….

Though the word “guo” or state is mentioned here, the ancient Chinese minds typically care more about tian xia or the world, which is supposed to be shared by everybody under tian or Heaven, than about guo, which is ruled by a jia (family) – the common Chinese equivalent of the English word “state”, guo jia, actually is composed of the two words respectively meaning state and family. The most famous contrast between “tian xia” and “guo” was made by Gu Yanwu (1613-1682), who said: “There is the perishing (wang) of guo, there’s also the perishing of tian xia. The changing of names and titles (of dynasties) is the former, while blocking of ren [humanity] and yi[righteousness] even to the degree of eating each other like beasts is the latter…. Therefore one knows to protect tian xia before he knows to protect his guo. Protecting guo is the obligations of guo’s emperors, ministers and officials, while protecting is the duty of everybody, including those in the lowest rank.” Here Gu seems to be making a distinction between “institutional obligations” and “natural duties” in John Rawls’s sense: what one owes to tian xia is a natural duty, which needs no justification, while what one owes to a guo or state is an institutional obligation, which needs justification on the basis of one’s natural duties.

This contrast between tian xia and guo/jia was noticed by many modern Chinese thinkers when they tried to understand the meaning of nation-states when people’s obligation to their guo/jia justified by their duty to the supposedly everybody’s tian xia was severely challenged by some nation-states who neither belonged to the Chinese guo/jia, nor accepted the claim that the Chinese guo/jia was the embodiment of the principle of tian xia. To many Chinese thinkers, the trouble is not only the fact that this claim was not recognized by Western “barbarous” powers, but also the fact that a nation that traditionally care more about tian xia than about guo/jia is extremely vulnerable to foreign invaders in the age dominated by a system of nation-states developed first in the West. Though few of them wanted to give up their claim for the moral superiority of this idea of tian xia, many of these Chinese thinkers warned that if we are going to survive as Chinese at all, we should have our own sense of national identity and national dignity defined according to the game rules of this world of nation-states, rather than defined according to our traditional understanding of tian xia.

While Modern Chinese thinkers like Liang Qichao (1873-1929) and Liang Shuming (1893-1988) referred to the traditional idea of tian xia in order to remind the Chinese people of the importance of developing something between tian xia and jia (family) while respecting their values, that is, the importance of cultivating the “group life” in Liang Shuming’s words, contemporary Chinese thinkers like Shen Hong and Zhao Tingyang referred to the idea of tian xia in order to claim that the traditional Chinese political culture contains important insights that might be helpful in solving the problems facing us at the global level.

The most important problem in our times of globalization, according to Zhao Tingyang, is the fact that the system of nation-states has become outdated: it is irrelevant when it comes to many problems at the global level. As a reaction to this situation, some alternative projects have been proposed, or even pursued, but none of them, in Zhao’s view, is satisfactory, because all of them are afflicted by the problem of failure to really go beyond the horizon of the model of nation-state. The United Nations is basically still a “world organization” rather than a “world institution”; the difference between the two is that while a “world institution” needs an idea of “the world” that transcends nations as its basis, a “world organization” is still an international arrangement. In theory, the UN has the problem of trying to integrate the two incompatible things, that is, pluralism and universalism, into a coherent unity; in practice, the UN has the problem of failure to do anything that any of the powers in the world does not agree upon. It is true that the United States is now the only superpower in the world, but then the UN seems to be even weaker compared with the USA in implementing its wills. Here comes the idea that the world is turned to be a new empire, an empire of the age of globalization. This “global empire”, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri described in their Empire, is to Zhao’s idea actually a model of American imperialism, in which America is not only the overwhelmingly powerful game player, but also the sole game rule maker. Thus “the United States managed to become the sole outlaw state in the world game.” (Zhao, p. 105) The fact that America is now behaving lawlessly, in Zhao’s view, is not only a result of the imperialist ambition of the USA, but also a result of the fact that the world does not yet have a “world idea”, neither does it have a world institution and the power to support it. “It is this”, Zhao said, “that is the severe problem posed in our times.” (Ibid)

The traditional Chinese idea of tian xia, thought Zhao, is a good candidate for this kind of world idea. Basically the idea tian xia has the following three levels of meaning:

Firstly it is its geographical sense, referring to “all the lands under heaven” in the geographical sense. It amounts to the “di” (earth) in the traditional Chinese triad of “tian (heaven), di (earth), ren (people)”, or the whole world that can be inhabited by human beings.

Secondly it is its psychological sense, referring to the mentality of all those who live upon the earth, or what Chinese calls “min xin” or “popular sentiments”. In traditional Chinese political culture, having supreme power over tian xia in the geographical sense is not “de tian xia” or “acquiring the world” in the real sense. “Acquiring tian xia” in the real sense is to have support by all the people on the earth and under the heaven.

Thirdly it is its ethical-political sense, referring to the ideal of Utopia of everybody under heaven treat each other like members of one family. What is special with this part of the idea of tian xia is that in it there is an imagination of and aspiration for a certain “world institution”, and a certain “world government” supported by it.

Compared with the Western idea of “the world”, the Chinese idea of tian xia is, according to Zhao, a philosophical rather than scientific idea, a conceptually completed world that contains all the possible meanings of the world and excludes none of them. Compared with the Husserl’s idea of “the life world”, which is also filled with human meanings, the idea of tian xia contains the institutional dimension that the idea of lifeworld lacks. Compared with the Christian world-view, the Chinese idea of tian xia is not afflicted with all kinds of divisions, conflicts and struggles, and does not deprive us of the ability to imagine a perfect future in this world, the human world.

It is interesting to note when he was arguing for the importance of the idea of tian xia to our times, Zhao Tingyang was criticizing Habermas and Rawls as well. Zhao’s criticism of Rawls is very harsh. Rawls’s thinking follows the line of Kant, which is regarded by Zhao as the best one can do before one goes beyond the paradigm of the non-world. But, according Zhao, Rawls’s idea of “law of peoples” implies two gravely dangerous ideas: the refusal to extend the principle of difference, which is in favor of the disadvantaged, from the domestic societies to the global society, and the suggestion that the so-called “liberal and decent peoples” are justified not to tolerate the outlaw states. “Rawls’s theory amounts to advocating a new imperialism, which is exactly what is carried on by the USA, a country that is willing to invest more in wars than to in the orderly international community.” (Zhao, p. 98)

Compared with Rawls, Habermas received less harsh criticism from Zhao Tingyang. Habermas, in Zhao’s view, neglected two critical questions. On the one hand, Habermas does not see that some matters can never be agreed upon by different parties, however rational a dialogue that has been undergone through might be, and even though the parties concerned have understood each other perfectly. On the other hand, some issues involve immediate interests, which would be lost if no action is taken immediately. In addition to these two problems, Habermas’s approach is wrong mainly because it has still not gone beyond the typically Western habit of taking entities like “individuals” and “nations/states” as the decisive units of consideration. By contrast, in Chinese philosophy the basic unit of consideration is a relational structure, such as family and tian xia. A philosophy based on “relationships” instead of “individuals” thus provides “the view from everywhere” rather than “the view from somewhere”. (Zhao, p. 108)

2. “View from Everywhere” vs. “View from Somewhere”

Although the idea of tian xia is considered by Zhao Tingyang to be able to provide a view from everywhere rather than a view from somewhere, Zhao himself was making this claim from a very clearly expressed “somewhere”: China. The introduction to his book The System of Tian Xia: An Introduction to A Philosophy of World Institution” is titled “Why should we discuss the Chinese world-view?” Zhao’s answer to this question is put forward against the background of the so-called “China’s rise” or even “China threat”.

The reason why we should clearly state the Chinese conception of the world, according to Zhao, is that China’s importance in thinking should match its importance in economy. And this is also required by China’s now growing responsibility to the world. “China threat” or “China’s rise”, two phrases reflecting the growing importance of China in the world from different positions, are both misconceptions of China. The former is a negative misconception of an “Other” by the non-Chinese, while the latter is a positive (self-)misconception of the Chinese themselves. In some sense, every developed countries or large countries are threats to others, because they consume large amount of energy, and create pressure upon others. But the key issue is to identify China’s possible contributions and responsibility for the world, or to redefine the positive meaning of the idea of “China”. Zhao said:

“To the world, the positive meaning that China can contribute is to become a new type of power, a power that is responsible to the world, a power that is different from various empires in the world history. To be responsible to the world, rather than merely to one’s own country, is, theoretically speaking, a perspective of the Chinese philosophy, and practically speaking, a brand new possibility, that is, to take ‘tian xia’ as a preferred unit of analysis of political/economic interests, to understand the world from the perspective of tian xia, that is, to analyze problems with ‘the world’ as the unit of thinking, going beyond the Western mode of thinking in terms of nation/state, to take responsibility to the world as one’s own responsibility, and to create a new world idea and a new world institution. World idea and world institution are values and orders that this world has ever lacked. Both the Great Britain, the power over the world in the past, and the USA, the power over the world now, have no other ideas than the idea of nation/state, and no other considerations than their own national interests, and with regards to the administration of the world they have had no legitimacy either in political or in philosophical senses. The reason is that their ‘world thinking’ is nothing but advocating their particular values, and universalizing their own values. …The problem is not that the Western nations do not think about the world; actually they always do. But ‘to think about the world’ and ‘to think from the perspective of the world’ are two totally different spheres of thinking. With regards to world politics, the Chinese world-view, or its theory of tian xia, is the only theory that takes into consideration the legitimacy of the world order and the world institution, because only the Chinese world-view possesses the idea of ‘tian xia’ as a perspective of analysis that is higher and larger than ‘nation’. Therefore our real problem is what kind of obligation that China is prepared to take for the world, and what kind of ideas China is prepared to create for the world.” (Zhao, p. 3-4)

That is to say, the real importance of China to the world is that only in Chinese tradition there is a way of thinking that is against not only other powers’ egocentric thinking, but also its own egocentric thinking. Here Zhao seems to imply that according to this tradition, a “threat from China” would thus become a “threat against China” as well, and the only correct understanding of “China rise” is the rise of China’s responsibility to the world — not a responsibility in the sense of a “mission” to universalize its values and distribute them all over the world, but in the sense of a duty to “think of tian xia from the perspective of tian xia”, and to regard nobody as others or outsiders, because in relation to tian xia there are, by definition, no outsiders.

The core of Zhao’s idea, I think, is to argue for a cosmopolitan order that calls for a higher sense of responsibility rather than a stronger sense of power and hegemony, and to argue for it from a perspective that is neither other-worldly transcendental, nor this-worldly utilitarian, but in a sense this-worldly transcendental. Zhao regards this “immanent transcendental” perspective as “ontological” and “a prior”, but I would rather interpret it as a perspective concerning “who we are” or “who we want to be” instead of “what we have” or “how much we have”, nor “what we should do” as one would think on a deontological position. A cosmopolitan order or an order of tian xia is justified not from any particular interest positions, nor from any supposedly universalized or universalizeble interest positions, which is the core of Habemas’s version of Kantianism, but from the perspective of tian xia itself, which is the “ontological condition” for our happiness, or our “well-being”, which is our real being. In other words, a cosmopolitan order, or the peaceful coexistence and cooperation among all the peoples under heaven, is justified neither on the basis of the instrumental value of coexistence and cooperation, nor on the basis of some other-worldly meanings, but on the basis of the this-worldly immanent values of coexistence and cooperation.

A utilitarian justification for coexistence and cooperation is limited because interest-relations between different persons or different groups of people could easily change with time, situation and particular considerations of the people concerned at particular moments. If one’s interest is the major reason for his or her engagement in the coexistence and cooperation, he or she may well break this relationship easily for the very same reason of self-interest.

One may then say that coexistence and cooperation should be justified by long-term rather than short-term interests: in the long run cooperation between different peoples is beneficial to each of them. Even if the current cooperation is not very beneficial to us, we may say, we can rely on our long-term interest-calculation, which would tell us that we would be guaranteed of a share of benefit of the cooperation in the future sooner or later. At first sight this way of thinking seems much better than the above one, the one based on short-term interest relations. On closer look, however, it is also somehow problematic. Actually, those who argue for competition rather than for cooperation are making the same type of consideration: although competition on the basis of self-interests is harmful in many cases, it will bring about beneficial results in the long run according to certain laws or meanings governing human society or human history as a whole. Behind both arguments we can perhaps see the following same way of thinking: to base our hope or activity on our conviction of some deep-seated laws or meanings of human society and history, no matter what these laws and meanings say about the result of our hope or action. What is problematic about this way of thinking is that in human world, what our future will be like depends, to a large degree, on what we choose to do now and here, rather than some hidden or deep-seated laws and meanings. To justify something on the ground that it will bring us beneficial results in the future according to certain transcendental goals or objective laws could lead, in my view, to easing our sense of urgency with regard to what we should do now and here, while it is much more dangerous in our times than in previous periods for us to sit and wait until what Kant called “providence” or “the secret plan of Nature”, what Hegel called the “cunning of Reason”, or what Marx called the “law of history”, show us what our real destiny will be in the remote future. In our times, modern science has already peeped into human genes, weapons of mass destruction can be easily used for different reasons, and large scale harmful ecological changes has begun to influence our everyday life. This means that what we choose to do now can easily delete any chance of our further choices in the future, and we are no longer in the situation where we can be sure that any mistake now can be corrected and its consequence be compensated in the long run. This concerns the very “being” of us, rather than the mere “having” of us. Against this background it is really very important to emphasize our (Chinese) responsibility that is growing together with our economic and technological power, and to consider the problem of the world from the perspective of the world itself, rather than the perspective of any particular interests. This is the implication in Zhao Tingyang’s idea of tian xia, which is very important, indeed.

3. “View from Everywhere” as “Ideal Role Taking”

To see tian xia from the perspective of tian xia itself is to justify coexistence and cooperation on the basis of the immanent non-utilitarian value of coexistence cooperation itself, and to say that coexistence and cooperation have an immanent non-utilitarian value in them is to say that to live together with each others in a friendly and cooperative way is to live in a genuinely human way: when we are asked to define the meaning of a genuinely human life, we have to mention friendship and cooperation and include them in that definition. For this kind of thinking I want to give a formulation that is less metaphysical than Zhao’s as follows on the basis of my understanding of Confucianism.

The focus of Confucianism is to teach how to be a human being in the full sense. To be a human in the full sense, according to Confucius, is to cultivate “ren” in ourselves. “Ren” is the kernel concept of Confucianism, and it is composed of “人” “(man) and “二”(two). One becomes a human individual in the full sense only through interaction with other people; “intersubjectivity” comes before “subjectivity” in this sense. Interaction with other people is first of all a process of getting mature as a human being, or a process of learning to be a human being in the full sense, instead of a mere process of benefiting each other. The first passage of the Analectics records the Master’s saying that “Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance and application? Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters? Is he not a man of complete virtue, who feels no discomposure though men may take no note of him?” (Analectics, Ch. 1) What is most relevant to the topic of this paper is the second sentence: “is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters”. Having friends coming from distant quarters is something delightful, and it is delightful by itself, not because of any other things. Of the same nature is “learning with constant perseverance and application”. It is also something that is pleasant by itself and not because of anything else. Put these two sentences together we may say that Confucius teaches us both to love others and to educate or cultivate ourselves, and these two things are actually closely connected with each other: according to Confucius, loving others is a great way of cultivating ourselves, or a great way for us to learn to be human beings in the full sense. That is why the concept “ren” is so important in the doctrine of Confucius and later Confucians. It is, of course, not an easy thing to love others; otherwise it would not be so important to our personal development. “Others” are others because they are different from us, and it is a great challenge for us to learn to deal with differences between people. To have a harmonious relation with others is not to reduce all the differences between them and us. That is what Confucius means when he says that “the gentleman aims at harmony, not uniformity; the small man prefers uniformity, not harmony.” (Analectics, Ch. 12) Harmony, according to Confucianism, is a relation between different elements, like what we have in a “thick soup”. Given the differences and diversities between different people, it is only natural that misunderstandings can arise from time to time. In order to deal with this kind of situation, Confucius asks us to be patient, to be optimistic, and not to give up easily in striving for mutual understanding and trust. That is why the third sentence of the first paragraph of the Analectics goes like this: “Is he not a man of complete virtue, who feels no discomposure though men may take no note of him?” (Analectics, Ch.1)

If we expand our understanding of coexistence and cooperation as the “ontological condition” for our (well-)being, then we can see that when we are engaged in friendly coexistence and cooperation, we should not only avoid trying to benefit us alone, but also avoid trying to benefit others according to our own understanding of “benefits” or “interests”. The first principle in Confucianism in dealing with others is “Not to do to others as you would not wish done to yourself.” (Analectics, Ch. 12) This, as we all know, is the Confucian version of the “Golden Rule”. In addition to this basically negative rule there is another Confucian rule, a positive one: “Now the man of perfect virtue, wishing to be established himself, seeks also to establish others; wishing to be enlarged himself, he seeks also to enlarge others.”(Analectics, Ch.6))Here the expressions “to establish others” and “to enlarge others” should not be understood as simply “making others live the same kind of life as we do”. It is well-known that to impose what we think to be good upon other people very often inflict great harm upon them instead. To have the view of tian xia in our times means that we should not only do good things for others, but also respect others’ understanding of the meaning of “a good life”. In order to show our respect for other people’s right to interpret the meaning of “good”, and, in order to seek mutual understanding between different people (and different peoples) over the problem “what is a good life”, we should take an active part in cooperation not only in trade, finance and economy in general, but also in culture, in cultural exchange and intellectual dialogue.

What is said above is, contrary to Zhao Tingyang’s view, not very different from Habermas’s position. Or in other words, the traditional Chinese idea of “tian xia” can be translated into the language of Habermas’s theory of communicative action. Both Habermas and Zhao Tingyang want to find some a prior condition for our being as human beings, but it is Habermas, instead of Zhao, who seems to be closer to Confucius: Habermas, like a good Confucian typically would do, starts from what is nearby, that is, everyday communication, while Zhao argues that tian xia, the least probable Utopia, has the “logical precedence” over every other orders. Zhao does not see that with Habermas, as with Confucius, subjectivity and intersubjectivity presuppose each other, rather than the latter unilaterally depends on the former. Like many other people, Zhao does not see clearly that Habermas’s idea of “ideal speech situation” is not a purely regulative idea, but also something constitutive, or something we have already presupposed if interpersonal communication is to be possible at all. And Habermas needs his theory of dialogue or argumentation not only because of the importance of dialogue and argumentation to decision-making on domestic, international and global issues, but also because of the importance of study of dialogue and argumentation to answering some key questions in theory of knowledge, morality and law, such as whether it is still possible to keep and defend the ideas of truth, justice, and goodness, and why we should bother to be moral at all. These questions were answered by appealing to traditional world-views in the past, and thus were not real questions at all. In our times, however, they become questions just because they no longer have, if any, ready-made answers. Now both Confucius and Habermas can be said of accepting Herbert Mead’s thesis of “individualization through socialization” (See Habermas 1992, pp. 149-204). With the help of this thesis, we can see that to a person who has become a mature individual through a process of social interaction in which rationalized social norms are internalized in him, “why moral” is a problem that has already been solved in the everyday life before it is raised in expert discourse. At a higher level, in our times, one is developed into a mature individual not only through a process of socialization in one particular cultural community, but also through a process of being engaged in the process of communication between different cultural communities in the global society as well as in domestic societies. A mature individual is one who has learnt to take everybody’s perspective, which is called by Mead (and Habermas) “the ideal role taking”: “In moral discourse, the ethnocentric perspective of an unlimited communication community, all of whose members put themselves in each individual’s situation, worldview, and self-understanding, and together practice an ideal role taking (as understood by G. H. Mead).” (Habermas 1996, p. 162) This, I think, is just what Zhao Tingyang means by “the view from everywhere”.

Confucianism, of course, can be and does have been interpreted in many ways. What I have proposed above is more or less a mutual translation between the Confucian idea of “tian xia” or Zhao Tingyang’s “the view from everywhere” on the one hand, and the idea of “ideal role-taking” in Mead and Habermas, on the other. Preserving the traditional Chinese idea of “tian xia” and interpreting the idea of “tian xia” with the help of the idea of “ideal role-taking”, we can, on the one hand, connect the traditional idea with the contemporary discussions on various relevant issues, including the issue of institutional framework for implementing the idea of “tian xia”, and, on the other hand, bring the achievements of these contemporary discussion, of which Habermas’s dialogical universalism is an very important one, into touch with the traditional Chinese culture, especially its idea of “tian xia” as a this-worldly transcendental Utopia.

November 17, 2005, Shanghai


Zhao Tingyang (2005): The System of Tian xia: An Introduction to a Philosophy of the World Institution (tian xia ti xi: shi jie zhi du zhe xue dao lun), Jiangsu Education Press, 2005.

Jürgen Habermas:

1992: Postmetaphysical Thinking: Philosophical Essays, translated by William Mark Hohengarten, Polity Press, 1992

1996: Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy, translated by William Rehg, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996

2002: “Letter to America”, Nation; 12/16/2002, Vol. 275 Issue 21.

2003: “Was bedeutet der Denkmalsturz?”, Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitung vom 17. April 2003

The author:

TONG Shijun, born in 1958, is Professor of Philosophy of East China Normal University in Shanghai and Deputy President of Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. He got his BA and MA degrees from East China Normal University respectively in 1982 and 1984, and his Ph.D. from the University of Bergen of Norway in 1994. Having taught philosophy at ECNU since 1984, he visited University of Marburg of Germany from May to November 1998, and worked at Columbia University of the USA as a research visiting Fulbright Scholar in the academic year 2000-2001. Among his publications are Epistemology and Methodology in the Post-Hegelian European Philosophy of 19th Century (Bergen 1993) and Dialectics of Modernization: Habermas and the Chinese Discourse of Modernization (Sidney, 2000). Among his translations are Hilary Putnam’s Reason, Truth and History and Juergen Habermas’s Faktizitaet und Geltung.

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