American Tianxia

When Chinese Philosophy Meets American Power

Children walk under a flag at the Veteran's Day Parade in New York, November 2011. Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

What is America? The world recoils when U.S. President Donald Trump says “America first,” but nothing should be more natural than a president putting his country first. The problem with “America first” is that for many people around the world, America is not just a country. The United States is a country. America is something more—not only the most powerful state, but the cultural, economic, and institutional center of a world that it has partially recreated in its own image.

The West does not have a good word to describe America in this expanded sense because the modern West has never seen something like it before. The last time a whole world was so organized around a single, central state was in the fifteenth century, when East Asia was centered on Ming-dynasty China. China at the time wasn’t just the leader or regional hegemon; it was the central state of a political and cultural realm that stretched from Burma to Japan. And the word that came to describe this world was tianxia.

Tianxia literally means “everything under the heavens,” but in the days of imperial China, it came to refer to “an enlightened realm” of “universal values that determined who was civilized and who was not,” in the words of the eminent historian Wang Gungwu. In the old tianxia, for instance, Chinese culture was the standard to which all others aspired, with the mastery of Chinese calligraphy serving as a sign of refinement everywhere in East Asia, even among people who didn’t speak Chinese. The Ming court granted titles to non-Chinese leaders, and although these honorifics weren’t absolutely necessary for Asian rulers, the lack of one always made their hold on power a little less secure. The titles also allowed foreign leaders to trade with China. Access to Chinese markets wasn’t crucial, since most countries were self-sufficient in meeting their basic needs, but it was important if a country was to have any meaningful trade

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