How Large is China’s “Tianxia”(天下)?

China and Chinese people has managed to form and insisted the view of“TianXia” (天下) throughout their thousands years of history. It is more than a geographical view, and “TianXia” can be far larger than we can imagine.

According to Dr. Gan Chunsong, Professor of Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, Vice Director of Confucius Research Institute at Peking University, the term “Tian Xia” was already widely used in the pre-Qin literature, not only in the geographical and institutional context, but also in the value context, based on the Confucian understanding of harmony and order in which different civilizations could co-exist through cultural transmission.

The ancient Chinese regarded the order of the world as the highest value in dealing with all peoples, which on the one hand enabled later generations to maintain a critical attitude towards the imperfections of reality based on such cultural nature; on the other hand, it also gave the culture an attitude of self-reflection rather than arrogance, which is fully reflected in China’s attitude towards foreign civilization and other peoples.

“The order of the world was never based on territorial size, but on a benevolent order of moral exemplarity.” Dr. Gan Chunsong says.

To Chinese people with the view of “TianXia”, the boundaries of culture were also infinite. The typical example of Chinese culture assimilating foreign culture is the introduction of Buddhism. When Buddhism was introduced into China in the late Eastern Han Dynasty (25 AD – 220 AD), the ancients were not surprised.

The ancient Chinese invented the method of “GeYi”(格义)to understand Buddhism, explains Dr. Gan Chunsong, which means to accept Buddhism through China’s Taoism and other cultural resources. After translating large numbers of Buddhist classics into Chinese, the way of thinking in Buddhism and its life attitudes began exerting profound impacts on Chinese people, and Buddhism’s localization is accomplished in the process of examining, assimilating and criticizing.

Similar to the introduction of Buddhism, Christianity and Islam also went through the process of acceptance and absorption when they entered China and became the Sinicized religions, according to Dr. Gan Chunsong.

“Unlike many Westerners who believe warfare is a way to understand a culture, Chinese people hold the belief that different cultures should assimilate into each other and develop together. Chinese people insist that healthy integration is not about one side taking over the other; if one side does not learn from the other culture, then such integration is of no value.”

Thus it’s obvious that Chinese civilization did not evolve in the same way as the early Western civilization in places like the Mediterranean. These civilizations, from Egypt, Rome to Persia, are largely characterized by “substitutability”, while the Confucianism emphasizes “coexistence”— many ethnic groups assimilate and integrate with each other on the land of China, realizing the Chinese nation’s development in accordance to “diversity in unity”(多元一体).

Diversity, coexistence, self-reflection, examination, assimilation, acceptance and absorption… these are all included in China’s “Tianxia”. And that’s how large is China’s “Tianxia”.