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All is equal under heaven. Calligraphy by Sun Yat-sen
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Tianxia (tien-hsia; Chinese: 天下; literally: "under heaven") is a Chinese language word and an ancient Chinese cultural concept that denoted either the entire geographical world or the metaphysical realm of mortals, and later became associated with political sovereignty.
In ancient China, tianxia denoted the lands, space, and area divinely appointed to the Emperor by universal and well-defined principles of order. The center of this land that was directly apportioned to the Imperial court was called Huaxia (Chinese: 華夏), Xia (Chinese: 夏), Hua (Chinese: 華), Zhongxia (Chinese: 中夏), Zhonghua (Chinese: 中華), or Zhongguo (Chinese: 中國), among other names, forming the center of a world view that centered on the Imperial court and went concentrically outward to major and minor officials and then the common citizens, and finally ending with the fringe "barbarians". The center of this world view was not exclusionary in nature, and outer groups, such as ethnic minorities and foreign people, who accepted the mandate of the Chinese Emperor were themselves received and included into the Chinese tianxia.
In classical Chinese political thought, the Emperor of China (Chinese: 天子; pinyin: tiānzǐ; Wade–Giles: t'ien1-tzu3), having received the Mandate of Heaven, would nominally be the ruler of the entire world. Although in practice there would be areas of the known world which were not under the control of the Emperor, in Chinese political theory the rulers of those areas derived their power from the Emperor (皇權).
The larger concept of tianxia is closely associated with civilization and order in classical Chinese philosophy, and has formed the basis for the world view of the Chinese people and nations influenced by them since at least the first millennium BC. Tianxia has been independently applied by other countries in the East Asian cultural sphere, including Japan, Korea, and Vietnam.
Historical and political development
The tianxia world view was not fully developed during the Shang Dynasty. Only during the Zhou Dynasty when Heaven took on human deity traits (or at least when references to Heaven as such enter recorded history) did the concept of tianxia become common. Terms like "Four Quarters" and "Ten Thousand States" appear in texts of the time; the term "Four Quarters" (Chinese: 四方) means territory established by the royal court and governed by the Zhou kings from the capital, but with peripheral non-Han tribes on the outer borders and Han Chinese in the center. The term "Ten Thousand States" (simplified Chinese: 万邦; traditional Chinese: 萬邦; pinyin: wànbāng) refers to both territory and the subjects who reside therein, both Han and "barbarian". The Zhou kings received and empowered these "Ten Thousand States" by virtue of the Mandate of Heaven. This is some of the earliest evidence of the Hua-Yi distinction.
During the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods in the latter half of the Zhou Dynasty, the power of the feudal princes developed rapidly, and several non-Han regions became powerful states themselves. As many of these feudal states had shared cultural and economic interests, the concept of a great nation centered on the Yellow River Plain gradually expanded. The term tianxia began to appear in classical texts like the Zuo Zhuan and the Guoyu.
The territory and governments of the Zhou Dynasty and the Qin Dynasty were unified after the conquests of Qin Shi Huang, and the concept of tianxia was adapted to act as an actual geographic entity. Qin Shi Huang's goal to "Unify All Under Heaven" was, in fact, representative of his desire to control and expand Chinese territory. At the founding of the Han Dynasty, the equivalence of tianxia with the Chinese nation evolved due to the feudal practice of conferring land and autonomy upon the aristocracy to avoid having to expend military expense in their subjugation. Although many areas enjoyed great autonomy, the practice established and spread Chinese language and culture throughout an even wider territory.
"Your aim must be to take All-under-Heaven intact. Thus your troops are not worn out and your gains will be complete. This is the art of offensive strategy."
Unified China fractured into many different nations during the Southern and Northern Dynasties, and with it went the practical use of the term tianxia. When Emperor Gaozu of Tang reunited China in the 7th century, some northern tribes, after being made vassal, referred to him as the "Khan of Heaven".
By the time of the Song Dynasty, China's northern borders were met by the Khitan Liao Dynasty, the Jurchen Jin Dynasty, and the Tangut Western Xia. After being threatened by these northern states and realizing the possible effects of a war to the country and people, the Song Dynasty rulers invented a false concept of kinship with the Jurchens in an attempt to improve relations. The Mongols divided Chinese citizens into two types during the Yuan Dynasty: those of the south, and those of the north. When the Ming Dynasty expelled the Mongols and reunited China under Han rule, the concept of tianxia returned largely as it was during the Han Dynasty.
At the end of the Ming Dynasty, criticisms of Neo-Confucianism and its mantras of "cultivation of moral character, establishment of family, ordering the state, and harmonizing tianxia" (a quote from the Great Learning) became widespread, producing large shifts in Confucianism. Contemporary philosopher Wang Fuzhi believed that tianxia was of a fixed, unchangeable dimension, notwithstanding the fact that the Great Learning's mentioning of "harmonizing tianxia" was actually in reference to government. Using these arguments, Wang was thus was highly critical of Neo-Confucianism. On the other hand, the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and the establishment of the Qing Dynasty by the Manchu, people previously considered "fringe barbarians", heavily influenced people's views of tianxia. Gu Yanwu, a contemporary of Wang Fuzhi, wrote that the destruction of the State was not equivalent to the destruction of tianxia. He argued that the Manchu simply filled the role of Emperor, and that the tianxia of traditional Chinese culture was thus carried on.
The idea of the absolute authority of the Chinese Emperor and the extension of tianxia by the assimilation of vassal states began to fade for good with Earl Macartney's embassy to China in 1793. Earl Macartney hoped to deal with China as equal sovereign nations, as Great Britain would with other European nations of the time, and to persuade the Emperor to sign a trade agreement. Emperor Qianlong rejected his request, and stated that China was the foremost and most divine nation on Earth and had no interest in foreign goods, and rejected the idea that Great Britain could negotiate with China as an equal nation. In the early 19th century, Britain's victory over Qing China in the First Opium War forced China to sign an unequal treaty, thus marked the beginning of the end for the tianxia concept.
Following their defeat in the Second Opium War, China was forced to sign the Treaty of Tianjin, in which they were made to refer to Great Britain as a "sovereign nation", equal to itself. This made it impossible for China to continue dealing with other nations under the traditional tianxia system, and forced it to establish a foreign affairs bureau.
Because Western nations' system of international affairs was based on the idea that the sovereign nations dealt with each other as equals, China's traditional tianxia world view slowly collapsed. After China's defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese terminated Korea's traditional status as a protectorate of China, and the system of feudal enfeoffment and vassalage that had been practiced since the Han Dynasty came to an end, a move that greatly changed attitudes toward the tianxia concept. At the end of the 19th century, Chinese Ambassador to Great Britain Xue Fucheng took the traditional Hua-Yi distinction in the tianxia world view and replaced it with a Chinese-foreigner distinction.
Sinoxenic uses of the term
References to tianxia first appear in Japanese history during the Kofun Period. At the time, Japanese rulers were respectful and submissive to the Chinese court, and Chinese immigrants (then called toraijin 渡來人) were received happily and sought after for their knowledge of the Chinese language and culture. The excavated Eda Funayama grave mound in Kumamoto contained an iron sword with engraved characters that dates to the late 5th century. The characters on the sword refer to the king of the time as the "Great King [Who] Governs Tianxia" (Chinese: 治天下大王). This discovery demonstrates that the Kofun-era Japanese (at least of that area) had begun viewing their realm to be a complete and divinely-appointed tianxia in its own right, separate from the tianxia of the older and larger Chinese empire.
According to the Book of Sui, the Yamato king in 607 sent a hand-written epistle to Emperor Yang of Sui in which he called himself the "Son of Heaven in the Land of the Rising Sun" (Chinese: 日出處天子), showing that the Japanese notion of their independent tianxia had continued to that time.
With the development of Ritsuryō in 7th century Japan, a Sino-centric concept of tianxia was introduced and replaced older concepts. The hallmark of Ritsuryō - the concept of citizenship - necessarily accompanied its introduction into Japan, since Neo-Confucianism said that all were "Equal Citizens Under Heaven" (Chinese: 天下公民).
In the journals of Kujō Kenjitsu (九條兼実), an official of the Kamakura Shogunate whose journals became the Gyokuyō (玉葉), he describes the founding of the Shogunate by Minamoto no Yoritomo as "beginning tianxia". His usage of tianxia is entirely Ritsuryō in nature, and his phrase "beginning tianxia" refers to the establishment of a new nation, jurisprudence, and system of order. However, even if Yoritomo had the intention to become a monarch-level ruler, Japan's tianxia concept had not achieved the Chinese level of an Emperor who governed feudal kingdoms and was entrusted with the ordering of the world by Heaven. In the journals of Gidō Shūshin (義堂周信), Gidō records a discussion he had with Ashikaga Yoshimitsu where the Shogun repeatedly referred to his dominion as "tianxia". In the Muromachi Period, people gradually began regarding the Shogun as the representative of Heaven.
As the Muromachi Shogunate weakened, regional warlords began fighting with each other for control of the nation. More powerful nobles, such as Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, controlled large areas and viewed their domains as tianxia. The term was used with increasing frequency as generals sought to reunify Japan, and came to be equivalent with the land of Japan itself.
By the Edo Period, the Shogun was referred to as "Man of Tianxia" and the Shogunate as "Court of Tianxia". The widespread adoption of the tianxia concept helped influence Japan's long period of isolation before the Meiji Restoration.
Because of China's cultural influence over the kingdoms of the Korean peninsula, the term tianxia was rarely ever used to refer to an independent Korean paradigm. However, the ancient Korea kingdoms including Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla (most especially in Goguryeo), there did exist concepts similar to that of tianxia that were independent of Chinese influence.
However, with the introduction of Neo-Confucianism to the Koreans in the 13th century or earlier, the idea of Korea as an independent tianxia received much criticism, while the idea of Koreans as "Lesser Chinese" (Sojunghwa, Hangul:소중화, Hanja: 小中華) became widespread.
The Vietnamese concept of tianxia as well as cultural identity originate in the Yuan Dynasty's invasion in the 13th century. The Trần Dynasty's defeat of the Mongol-Chinese armies gave them the confidence to adopt their own tianxia view and become the official sustainers of the Kingdom of Vietnam. From that time forward, the area from the Lingnan region of China to northern Vietnam was considered an independent tianxia. However, near the end of the Lê Dynasty in the late 18th century, the orthodox idea of Vietnam as the Viet King's Dynasty fell out of favor, and Vietnam was referred to as "Great South" until European conquests of Southeast Asia.
The "all under the heaven" expression became the origin for the literary expressions denoting China in a number of European languages, such as the Russian Podnebesnaya (Поднебесная, i.e. "Under the heaven"). The English term "Celestial Empire" is said to have been based on the title of Chinese emperors, tian zi (Son of Heaven).
- East Asian cultural sphere
- Hero - a 2002 film centered on the term with controversy on the translation of tianxia to All Under Heaven versus Our Land
- Adoption of Chinese literary culture
- The Land of Fire
- Tzu, Sun. The Art of War. Trans. Samuel Griffith. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963, p. 79.
- Ernest Weekley, An etymological dictionary of modern English, 1967. Page 270. (The tian zi etymology for the "Celestial Empire")
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