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Chinese name
Chinese 天下
Literal meaningall under heaven [1]

Tianxia, literally 'all under Heaven', is a Chinese term for a historical 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 and imperial China, tianxia denoted the lands, space, and area divinely appointed to the Chinese sovereign by universal and well-defined principles of order. The center of this land was directly apportioned to the Chinese court, forming the center of a world view that centered on the Chinese court and went concentrically outward to major and minor officials and then the common subjects, tributary states, and finally ending with fringe barbarian#Chinas.


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 "Son of Heaven", 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 Chinese monarch, in Chinese political theory the rulers of those areas derived their power from the Chinese monarch.

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 applied by other realms in the Sinosphere.

Historical development

The historical consensus is that a tianxia system existed at various points in Chinese history. Historical views differ, however, on exactly when it was in place. How a system of tianxia operated varied over time, ranging from vassal states accepted the authority of a Chinese emperor to when vassal states nominally paid tribute while in fact exercising their own authority. In the most expansive historical view, a tianxia system existed between the Zhou (1027–256 BC) and Qing dynasties (1644–1911). [2]

As reconstructed by philosopher Zhao Tingyang, tianxia presupposed "inclusion of all" and implied acceptance of the world's diversities, emphasizing harmonious reciprocal dependence and ruled by virtue as a means for lasting peace. [3] Academic Yan Xuetong writes that in the tianxia system, rulers relied on humane authority, as opposed to tyranny and military force, to win the hearts and minds of the people. [3]

The tianxia world view was not fully developed during the Shang dynasty. During the Zhou dynasty, it is first attested that Heaven took on anthropomorphic deity traits, and the concept of tianxia became common. Other political terms emerged during this time. These include 'four quarters' (四方; sìfāng)—referring to the territory established by the Zhou court and governed from the capital—and 'ten thousand states' (万邦; 萬邦; wànbāng), referring to both the territory as well as the Han and barbarian subjects residing on it. 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 comprising the latter half of the Zhou dynasty, the power of the feudal lords developed rapidly, and several non-Han regions became powerful states themselves. [4] 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 such as the Zuo Zhuan and Guoyu .

Led by Qin Shi Huang, the former Zhou territories Zhou dynasty and the were unified after Qin's wars of unification, 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 enfeoffment 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.[ citation needed ]

The theme of unification applied to tianxia can be seen in Sun Tzu's The Art of War where the supreme goal of offensive strategy was to conquer without destroying that which you sought to conquer: [5]

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.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Chapter III, Line 11

Unified China fractured into many different dynasties during the Northern and Southern period, and with it went the practical use of the term tianxia. In the 7th century during the Tang dynasty, some northern tribes of Turkic origin, after being made vassal, referred to Emperor Taizong as the "Khan of Heaven".[ citation needed ]

By the time of the Song dynasty, northern China was ruled by the Khitan-led Liao dynasty, the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty, and the Tangut-led Western Xia dynasty. After being threatened by these northern states and realizing the possible effects of a war to the country and people, the Song rulers invented a false concept of kinship with the Jurchens in an attempt to improve relations.[ citation needed ] The Mongol-led Yuan dynasty divided Chinese subjects into two types: those of the south, and those of the north. When the Ming dynasty overthrew the Yuan dynasty and reunited China under Han rule, the concept of tianxia returned largely as it was during the Han dynasty.[ citation needed ]

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. The 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 highly critical of Neo-Confucianism. On the other hand, the collapse of the Ming dynasty and the establishment of the Manchu-led Qing dynasty by the , 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 Manchus simply filled the role of Emperor, and that the tianxia of traditional Chinese culture was thus carried on.[ citation needed ]

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 George Macartney's embassy to China in 1793. George Macartney hoped to deal with China as Great Britain would with other European nations of the time, and to persuade the Emperor to reduce restrictions on trade. The Qianlong Emperor rejected his request, and stated that China was the foremost and most divine nation on Earth and had no interest in foreign goods. In the early 19th century, Britain's victory over Qing China in the First Opium War forced China to sign an unequal treaty. This marked the beginning of the end for the tianxia concept.[ citation needed ]

Following their defeat in the Second Opium War, China was forced to sign the Treaty of Tianjin, in which China was 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.[ citation needed ]

Due to the Western system of international affairs arguably being based on Westphalian sovereignty, the idea that sovereign nations deal 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 tributary state 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 Britain Xue Fucheng took the traditional Hua-Yi distinction in the tianxia world view and replaced it with a Chinese-foreigner distinction.[ citation needed ]

Usage in the Sinosphere


References to tianxia first appear in Japanese history during the Kofun period (c.250–538 AD). At the time, Japanese rulers were respectful and submissive to the Chinese court, and Chinese immigrants were received happily and sought after for their knowledge of 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 'grand king who rules all under heaven' (治天下大王). This discovery demonstrates that Kofun-era Japanese in 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 the Sui dynasty in which he called himself the 'Son of Heaven in the land of the rising sun' (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 sinocentric concept of tianxia was introduced and replaced older concepts. The hallmark of Ritsuryō—a concept of citizenship—necessarily accompanied its introduction into Japan, since Neo-Confucianism said that all were 'equal citizens under heaven' (天下公民).

In the journals of Fujiwara no Kanezane, 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. During the Muromachi period, the shogun gradually began to be thought of as the representative of Heaven.

As the Muromachi shogunate declined, 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.

From the Sengoku to early Edo period, the shogun was referred to as the 'man under heaven', and the Edo shogunate as 'court of Tianxia'. The widespread adoption of the tianxia concept helped influence Japan's long period of isolation before the Meiji Restoration.


Based on epitaphs dating to the 4th and 5th centuries, Goguryeo had concepts of Son of Heaven (天帝之子) and independent tianxia. [6] [7] [8] The rulers of Goryeo used the titles of emperor and Son of Heaven, and positioned Goryeo at the center of the haedong 'east of the sea', which encompassed the historical domain of the Three Kingdoms of Korea. [9]

During the 17th century, with the fall of the Ming dynasty in China, a concept of Korea as the cultural center of Confucianism, or "Little China" emerged among the Confucian literati of the Joseon dynasty. [10]

Contemporary China

Official media frequently portrays general secretary Xi Jinping as having the tianxia perspective to seek "rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and peaceful development of humanity". [3] Under this contemporary view, China's re-emergence as a great power presents an opportunity to reshape the Western-centric international sphere. In this contemporary discourse on tianxia, proponents argue that tianxia's moral appeal distinguishes it from realpolitik, which they submit as creating discord. Similarly, this modern treatment toward tianxia purports to be superior to the United Nations system, which is characterized as more akin to a political market, in which political operations are limited and constrained by parochial national interests. Historian Steve Tsang states that the concept of Community of Common Destiny presumes a vision of tianxia over and above the liberal international order. [11] [3]

Applying lessons from the tianxia system to a modern framework, Chinese academic Yan Xuetong argues that great powers seeking international respect must use "humane authority" instead of seeking to impose hegemony. [3]

Western calques

The expression 'all under heaven' inspired literary expressions with reference to China in a number of Western languages, such as the Russian ПоднебеснаяPodnebesnaya. The English term "Celestial Empire" is possibly derived from the title "Son of Heaven". [12]

Other usage

In 2013, the Singaporean historian Wang Gungwu coined the term "American Tianxia" to refer to the contemporary world order led by the United States. [13]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Chinese philosophy</span>

Chinese philosophy originates in the Spring and Autumn period and Warring States period, during a period known as the "Hundred Schools of Thought", which was characterized by significant intellectual and cultural developments. Although much of Chinese philosophy begun in the Warring States period, elements of Chinese philosophy have existed for several thousand years. Some can be found in the I Ching, an ancient compendium of divination, which dates back to at least 672 BCE.

The Chinese sovereign was the ruler of a particular monarchical regime in the historical periods of ancient China and imperial China. Sovereigns ruling the same regime, and descended from the same paternal line, constituted a dynasty. Several titles and naming schemes have been used throughout Chinese history.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Emperor of China</span>

Throughout Chinese history, "Emperor" was the superlative title held by the monarchs who ruled various imperial dynasties. In traditional Chinese political theory, the emperor was the "Son of Heaven", an autocrat with the divine mandate right to rule all under Heaven. Emperors were worshiped posthumously under an imperial cult. The lineage of emperors descended from a paternal family line constituted a dynasty, and succession in most cases theoretically followed agnatic primogeniture.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Shangdi</span> Chinese view of a supreme God

Shangdi, also called simply Di, is the name of the Chinese Highest Deity or "Lord Above" in the theology of the classical texts, especially deriving from Shang theology and finding an equivalent in the later Tian of Zhou theology.

The names of China include the many contemporary and historical designations given in various languages for the East Asian country known as 中国; 中國; Zhōngguó; 'Central state'', 'Middle kingdom' in Standard Chinese, a form based on the Beijing dialect of Mandarin.

Sinocentrism refers to the worldview that China is the cultural, political, or economic center of the world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Mandate of Heaven</span> Political doctrine of divine legitimacy in China

The Mandate of Heaven is a Chinese political ideology that was used in ancient and imperial China to legitimize the rule of the king or emperor of China. According to this doctrine, heaven bestows its mandate on a virtuous ruler. This ruler, the Son of Heaven, was the supreme universal monarch, who ruled Tianxia. If a ruler was overthrown, this was interpreted as an indication that the ruler was unworthy and had lost the mandate.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Neo-Confucianism</span> Philosophical school of Confucianism mainly influenced by Zhu Xi

Neo-Confucianism is a moral, ethical, and metaphysical Chinese philosophy influenced by Confucianism, which originated with Han Yu (768–824) and Li Ao (772–841) in the Tang dynasty, and became prominent during the Song and Ming dynasties under the formulations of Zhu Xi (1130–1200). After the Mongol conquest of China in the thirteenth century, Chinese scholars and officials restored and preserved neo-Confucianism as a way to safeguard the cultural heritage of China.

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Son of Heaven</span> Sacred imperial title of the Chinese emperor

Son of Heaven, or Tianzi, was the sacred monarchial and imperial title of the Chinese sovereign. It originated with the Zhou dynasty and was founded on the political and spiritual doctrine of the Mandate of Heaven. Since the Qin dynasty, the secular imperial title of the Son of Heaven was "Huangdi".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Glossary of Japanese history</span>

This is the glossary of Japanese history including the major terms, titles and events the casual reader might find useful in understanding articles on the subject.

Fēngjiàn was a governance system in Ancient China and Imperial China, whose social structure formed a decentralized system of confederation-like government. The ruling class consisted of the Son of Heaven and aristocracy, and the lower class consisted of commoners categorized into four occupations. Elite bonds through affinal relations and submission to the overlordship of the king date back to the Shang dynasty, but it was the Western Zhou dynasty when the Zhou kings enfeoffed their clan relatives and fellow warriors as vassals. Through the fengjian system, the king would allocate an area of land to a noble, establishing him as the ruler of that region and allowing his title and fief to be legitimately inherited by his descendants. This created large numbers of local autonomous dynastic domains.

During the late Zhou dynasty, the inhabitants of the Central Plains began to make a distinction between Hua and Yi, referred to be some historians as the Sino–barbarian dichotomy. They defined themselves as part of cultural and political region known as Huaxia, which they contrasted with the surrounding regions home to outsiders, conventionally known as the Four Barbarians. Although Yi is usually translated as "barbarian", other translations of this term in English include "foreigners", "ordinary others", "wild tribes" and "uncivilized tribes". The HuaYi distinction asserted Chinese superiority, but implied that outsiders could become Hua by adopting their culture and customs. These concepts were not unique to Ancient China, but were also applied by the Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans, all of whom considered themselves at one point in history to be the "Central Kingdom" in imitation of China.

Shendao teaching is a Chinese philosophical perspective on religion. Originally it referred to conduct conforming and in harmony with the principles of Nature, following the subtlety of the path of Heaven's Way; it lays the basis for the teachings of tianxia, a worldview promoting social order and harmony, in which the commoners were unified and compliant, to the benefit of the whole society. It is also translated as "to educate by means of mysticism", the education here referring to moral education.

Chinese theology, which comes in different interpretations according to the classic texts and the common religion, and specifically Confucian, Taoist, and other philosophical formulations, is fundamentally monistic, that is to say it sees the world and the gods of its phenomena as an organic whole, or cosmos, which continuously emerges from a simple principle. This is expressed by the concept that "all things have one and the same principle". This principle is commonly referred to as Tiān 天, a concept generally translated as "Heaven", referring to the northern culmen and starry vault of the skies and its natural laws which regulate earthly phenomena and generate beings as their progenitors. Ancestors are therefore regarded as the equivalent of Heaven within human society, and therefore as the means connecting back to Heaven which is the "utmost ancestral father". Chinese theology may be also called Tiānxué 天學, a term already in use in the 17th and 18th centuries.

[In contrast to the God of Western religions who is above the space and time] the God of Fuxi, Xuanyuan, and Wang Yangming is under in our space and time. ... To Chinese thought, ancestor is creator.

Imperial titles were used in various historical Korean states before the 14th century and at the turn of the 20th century: Early Korean states used "great king", "greatest king", and "holy king"; later Korean states used "emperor". Korean monarchs who used imperial titles had political and religious authority over a realm or domain. The Chinese concept of tianxia, pronounced "cheonha" in Korean, was variously adopted and adapted to Korean views of the world from period to period.

Emperor at home, king abroad was a system of conducting relations between states within the Chinese cultural sphere. Rulers of lesser regimes would adopt the title of emperor and/or other imperial titles domestically, and adopt the title of king when dealing with the dominant Chinese regime. Instead of using the styles Imperial Majesty and Majesty (陛下), rulers of lesser realms were styled as Highness (殿下). This system was applicable to Japan, Korea and Vietnam, as well as less powerful Chinese states, among others.

Ōkimi, or Ame no shita Siroshimesu Ōkimi, was the title of the head of the Yamato Kingship, or the monarch title of Wakoku. This term was used from the Kofun period through the Asuka period in ancient Japan.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Religious Confucianism</span> Confucianism as a religion

Religious Confucianism is an interpretation of Confucianism as a religion. It originated in the time of Confucius with his defense of traditional religious institutions of his time such as the Jongmyo rites, and the ritual and music system.



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