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The New Tianxia System: Towards a World of Coexistence?

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

Chinese Philosopher Zhao Tingyang, Berggruen Institute, 2018©

The growing presence of China in domestic and foreign policy discussions around the world has propelled scholars to examine the intellectual roots of Chinese actions abroad. The concept of tianxia (天下), literally translated as “All under Heaven,” has been at the centre of such considerations. This trope is commonly used to refer to an ancient civilization ideal and a spatial imaginary that had the Chinese central plains at its core (Ownby, 2022). The most distinguished proponent of a new tianxia system today is Chinese philosopher Zhao Tingyang, a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who has extensively contributed to the conceptualization of tianxia—a world order that would be based on coexistence and where problems are regarded as shared. His book All under Heaven: The Tianxia System for a Possible World Order (2021) offers a valuable translation of his ideas to an English audience. Yet, despite the relevance of the concept, multiple concerns regarding the geopolitical implications of a new tianxia system remain: What valuable insights can be gained from the philosophy behind this concept? This article will explore the history and philosophy that inspire its current conceptualization, show how tianxia could animate contemporary geopolitical debates, and provide a critical perspective of one of its ontological premises.

Understanding Tianxia

Zhao begins his book by explaining that the old tianxia system was established during the Zhou dynasty (ca. 1050-256 BCE), although the concept predates their rule. The political dimensions of the tianxia concept seem to have been insignificant before the fifth century BCE, when Mozi (墨子) the philosopher who founded the school of Mohism, gave the concept a political element to promote the first political program with universal appeal (Pines, 2002, p. 105). Prior to this shift in the semantic use of the concept, tianxia was conceived as a value-oriented cultural ideal.

This move towards a political—and imperial—use of the concept coincides with a period of conflict between neighbouring states during the Zhou dynasty, which led statesmen to believe that the political implementation of a tianxia system would be the best way of reinstating stability—in a context that reminds us of the implementation, centuries later, of the Westphalia state system in Europe (ibid., p. 107). The main problem that the Zhou dynasty had to face was how to integrate its neighbouring states into a shared political system. The Zhou dynasty needed a solution to control its externalities (外部性) and they found the solution by putting tianxia into practice, which meant the internalisation (內部化) of their external world (Zhao, 2021, p. 24). The advantages of belonging to this shared system were bigger than the benefits of remaining outside of it, and the creation of common, interdependent interests and peaceful relations gave rise to shared universal goals for all states that belonged to the system. It is thus argued that this was not only a political experiment but also the origin of a new political ideal (2021, p. 32).

An essential part of the old application of tianxia was the creation of harmony in the realm of consciousness through music, rites, and the use of traditional characters. Because implementing tianxia was not only about occupying all the lands and territories under heaven, but also about gathering support from different populations, aspects such as writing played a major role in the attractiveness of the central plains (2021, p. 77).

Accordingly, writing had a universal character that could not be monopolized by any source of power, since it created a universe in the realm of ideas that transcended time. Similarly, he states that the use of a shared dynastic calendar during the Han dynasty (202 BC-8 AD, 25-220 AD) diminished the relevance of feudal taxes, which had been crucial for the maintenance of tianxia during the Zhou dynasty. Zhao claims that the use of a dynastic calendar signified the acceptance of the imperial “sovereignty over time” and not only over physical space. It also implied belonging to a shared common history (p. 105). For the philosopher, these are key elements of the system.

Another crucial aspect was the existence of a main state (the Son of Heaven) that watched over the common interests of the system while the other states kept the autonomy to control their economy, culture, and armed forces. Any state could, however, replace the main state. This means that the possibility of a revolution was contemplated if people’s interests diverged from those of the central state (p. 45). Moreover, each local structure was a reproduction of the larger shared structure and the entire system remained open to other states.

An Ontology of Coexistence for the 21st Century

Zhao proposes a reconsideration of these ancient ideas and advocates for a world order in which states (as well as their interests and values) are no longer the most important political entities determining the course of global politics. His suggested tianxia system would be based on the premises that all states and individuals are equal, and that the system must accept the world’s diversity of cultures and religions. For some scholars, one of the intellectual motivations behind the author’s philosophical contributions to our understanding of tianxia is to build an indigenous Chinese perspective on international relations and to rethink China’s role in the world (Zhang, 2009). Yet, his main goal is philosophical in nature: to contemplate the concept of tianxia transcendentally, similarly to what Kant did while developing his concept of the perpetual peace. For Zhao, Chinese thoughts remain far from being understood in the Western world.

The key characteristics of the new tianxia system are the following: 1) Tianxia would internalise the outside world. This is described as the art of converting enemies into friends and constitutes the first step towards building an anti-imperial system in which universal peace and security can be achieved; 2) tianxia would be based on the premise of “relational rationality,” namely the creation of a social order in which common interests are prioritised and where cooperation is always more beneficial than competition; 3) a new tianxia system would emphasise that any individual can improve their conditions if, and only if, everyone else improves their conditions as well. This characteristic evidently builds on Vilfredo Pareto’s claims (for whom improvement is guaranteed when individual advances do not lead to worsening the conditions of others); 4) this model would be based on universalist principles and values (ibid., p. 150).

Zhao imagines this system as a net of actors with an inherent centripetal force that attracts other actors to join, in contrast with the imperial model of power. Since our current world system has not achieved the convergence between physical and political worlds, it is defined as a “non-world” without a shared worldview that could be universally accepted (p. 109). According to him this only deepens inter-state conflicts because the institutions and legal systems that emerged after World War II benefited the interests of some states over others. But who would become the centripetal force in this new system?

Chinese historian Xu Jinlin, who has also contributed to the conceptualization of a new tianxia system (which he calls “tianxia 2.0”), affirms it is crucial that this new spatial imaginary and political system does not position China in its centre like it did in the past— situating the country at the centre would be “reactionary and a simple illusion” (in Ownby, 2022). Whereas the legitimacy of the ruler in the old tianxia derived from a mandate from Heaven, Xu believes that the new tianxia would transcend both its traditional form and the nation-state. Therefore, the geographic expression of the system that he proposes are concentric circles that remain open and inclusive.

Zhao defines politics as an ontological question that determines human life and death and proposes an ontology of coexistence with a crucial political dimension: for him, coexistence precedes existence (in Williams, Forst & Zhao, 2021: 8’39”). His ontology of coexistence is not an ethical claim, but a pure ontological question and a necessary first step for overcoming war and conflict. By creating codependency among all states and peoples under heaven, coexistence would eliminate the pervasive effects of pursuing exclusive interests. However, an aspect that needs to materialise before the new tianxia system can be developed in practice is, accordingly, the emergence of a one-world political imaginary and the will “to approach the world as seriously as we approach state interests” (2021, p. 110).

Despite key differences (such as a different understanding of the concepts of network, actor, and their relations), this claim is similar to Bruno Latour’s. For Latour, we as humans live in a finite space, a trap that we have created for ourselves by changing the environment irreversibly, and the pandemic is a warning that we must start paying attention to our shared terrestrial condition now (Latour, 2021).

While Zhao acknowledges that the climate crisis is one of the biggest global problems humans are facing, he finds financial capitalism to be the most pressing global problem today. The Chinese philosopher argues that during the industrial phase of capitalism, we would sell ourselves to the capitalist at a low price, but under financial capitalism we sell “our uncertain future to ourselves at the risk of losing everything while the capitalist players use our money for themselves” (Williams, Forst & Zhao, 2021: 42’45’’). Additionally, selling our future would be an ontological crime. However, despite the importance given to financial capitalism, his conceptualization of tianxia relies primarily on a critique of Westphalian principles and of the nation-state.

A Note on Zhao’s Premises

Zhao’s conceptualization of the new tianxia system has been criticised for various reasons. Some of its opponents have argued that the Zhou dynasty that forms the basis for the ancient Chinese tianxia model was made possible by conquering rival states and by subjecting them through feudal taxes. They also maintain that the dynasty’s collapse was precisely due to the individualist goals of its member states (Zhang, 2009). Others have claimed that Zhao’s comparison between an allegedly ideal ‘Chinese’ past and the practices of a flawed Westphalian system is not only a very selective comparison, but also one that misrepresents the past to propose a distorted political agenda (Dreyer, 2015, p. 1031). But perhaps the most severely criticised aspect of his work is the lack of clarification regarding the pathway of actions that could lead the world towards a new tianxia system. However, during a dialogue with philosophers Rainer Forst and Melissa Williams, the philosopher stated that it is still too early to bring his concept into practice (Williams, Forst & Zhao, 2021).

What none of Zhao’s critics have discussed is the premise upon which his arguments are formulated: that world politics is overly determined by the actions of nation-states and therefore, that we will never be able to establish a true world system (2021, p. 124). Political geographers, on the contrary, have long challenged the relevance given to the Peace of Westphalia, as well as common assumptions in international relations theory, such as the preeminence given to state sovereignty or the understanding of countries as containers of nations and societies (Agnew, 1994). Other scholars have shown that sovereignty and authority have taken multiple forms throughout history and are never fully exclusive. For instance, medieval authority and land divisions were blurry and overlapping, often giving rise to conflicts over land tenure and to difficulties in settling claims. Similarly, the formation of European nation-states was a contested, non-linear process that sometimes was even temporarily reversed by their own populations (Branch, 2014). And these claims continue to be true and relevant today (take, for example, ethnic questions in China). This is to argue that Zhao’s premises seem to diminish the role played by other actors and flows that exceed state boundaries and interests.

While the initial utilisation of the concept seems to have helped imperial statesmen and thinkers to adapt to political changes in East Asia and respond to them, especially at times of imperial decline, Zhao himself admits that the concept will remain an ideal unless the political and the natural worlds converge (Pines, 2002; Zhao, 2021). Yet, this can only happen if tianxia, in its thrust towards universality, moves beyond the state. What if tianxia gave more relevance to other scales, such as people or the environment?

About the Author:

Irma Losada Olmos is a PhD student and “la Caixa” fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), where she specializes in political and legal geography. A Fulbright scholar, she holds two MA degrees, one in Geography from UCLA and one in Diplomacy & International Relations from the Diplomatic School of Spain. Her research interests include the geopolitics of infrastructure, transnational migration, and Chinese foreign policy.

The opinions expressed here are those of the writers and do not represent the views of European Guanxi.

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