Tianxia, literally '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 barbarians.

Chinese name
Literal meaningunder heaven[1]
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetthiên hạ
Chữ Hán天下
Zhuang name
  • lajmbwn
Korean name
Japanese name
  • てんか
  • てんげ
  • てんが
  • あめのした

The center of this world view was not exclusionary in nature,[dubiousdiscuss] 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]

According to political scientist Yan Xuetong of Tsinghua University, "Given the then lack of a modern science of understanding geography, the Chinese notion of all under heaven meant all the land, sea, and people under heaven. The term all under heaven was virtually synonymous with the world."[3] 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.[4] According to Zhao, 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.[4]

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.[citation needed]

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.[5] 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.[citation needed]

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:[6]

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 liberal international order arguably being based on Westphalian sovereignty, the idea that sovereign nations deal with each other as equals, China's traditional tianxia worldview collapsed.[7] 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]

In the 21st century, some academics have criticized contemporary philosopher Zhao Tingyang for "aggrandising" the concept of tianxia and being vague on details of what it may entail in the contemporary world.[8]

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.[9][10][11] 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.[12]

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.[13]

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".[4] Under this contemporary view, China's re-emergence as a great power presents an opportunity to reshape the liberal international order into a hub-and-spoke pattern around a single, central state.[14][15] 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.[16][4]

Applying lessons from the tianxia system to a modern framework, Chinese political scientist Yan Xuetong argues that great powers seeking international respect must use "humane authority" instead of seeking to impose hegemony.[4] These concepts influence the Chinese school of international relations.[17]

Various academics have noted that the current discourse of tianxia has been produced for domestic consumption and risks alienating foreigners.[8][18] Danish academics Klaas Dykmann and Ole Bruun state, "[f]oreign observers, particularly in democratic societies, will further note the glaring inconsistencies between the “harmonious world” conception and the tough realities of the domestic harmonious society, and between China’s global media outreach and its increasing domestic control, digital surveillance, blacklisting, and media isolation of the Chinese public."[8]

Western calques


The expression 'all under heaven' inspired literary expressions with reference to China in a number of Western languages, such as the Russian Поднебесная Podnebesnaya. The English term "Celestial Empire" is possibly derived from the title "Son of Heaven".[19]

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.[20]

See also





  1. ^ Sullivan, Lawrence R.; Liu-Sullivan, Nancy Y . (2021). Historical Dictionary of Chinese Culture. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 978-1-5381-4604-0.
  2. ^ Tsang & Cheung 2024, pp. 174–175.
  3. ^ Xuetong, Yan (2013-12-31). Zhe, Sun (ed.). Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power. Vol. 5. Princeton University Press. p. 218. doi:10.1515/9781400848959. ISBN 978-1-4008-4895-9. JSTOR j.ctt32bbm1.
  4. ^ a b c d e Zhao 2023, p. 120–121.
  5. ^ Matti Puranen (17 Jul 2020). "Warring States and Harmonized Nations: Tianxia Theory as a World Political Argument" (PDF). University of Jyväskylä. Archived (PDF) from the original on 14 Dec 2020.
  6. ^ The Art of War.
  7. ^ Tingyang, Zhao (2021-06-29). All under Heaven: The Tianxia System for a Possible World Order. Vol. 3. Translated by Harroff, Joseph E. (1 ed.). University of California Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctv1n9dkth. ISBN 978-0-520-97421-0. JSTOR j.ctv1n9dkth.
  8. ^ a b c Dykmann, Klaas; Bruun, Ole (May 31, 2021). "China's Pledge to Civilise "All Under Heaven"". Journal of Current Chinese Affairs. 50 (2): 227–247. doi:10.1177/1868102621992775. ISSN 1868-1026.
  9. ^ Yeongkwang, Jo (2015). "Status and Tasks for Study of the Foreign Relations and World View of Koguryo in the Gwanggaeto Stele". Dongbuga Yeoksa Nonchong (in Korean) (49): 70–76. ISSN 1975-7840. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  10. ^ 고구려의 천하관. 우리역사넷 (in Korean). National Institute of Korean History. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  11. ^ 장수왕의 남진 정책. 우리역사넷 (in Korean). National Institute of Korean History. Retrieved 6 December 2018.
  12. ^ Em, Henry (2013). The Great Enterprise: Sovereignty and Historiography in Modern Korea. Duke University Press. pp. 24–26. ISBN 978-0-822-35372-0. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  13. ^ Berger, Stefan (2007). Writing the Nation: A Global Perspective. Springer. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-230-22305-9. Retrieved 4 November 2018.
  14. ^ Babones, Salvatore (2017-09-26), "Taking China Seriously: Relationality, Tianxia , and the "Chinese School" of International Relations", Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.013.602, ISBN 978-0-19-022863-7
  15. ^ Babones, Salvatore (25 September 2019). "From Tianxia to Tianxia: The Generalization of a Concept". Chinese Political Science Review. 5 (2): 131–147. doi:10.1007/s41111-019-00139-9. ISSN 2365-4244.
  16. ^ Tsang & Cheung 2024.
  17. ^ Curtis, Simon; Klaus, Ian (2024). The Belt and Road City: Geopolitics, Urbanization, and China's Search for a New International Order. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 199. doi:10.2307/jj.11589102. ISBN 9780300266900. JSTOR jj.11589102.
  18. ^ Callahan, William A. (18 November 2008). "Chinese Visions of World Order: Post-hegemonic or a New Hegemony?" (PDF). International Studies Review. 10 (4): 749–761. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2486.2008.00830.x.
  19. ^ Weekley, Ernest (1967). An etymological dictionary of modern English. Dover. p. 270.
  20. ^ Wang, Gungwu. "Renewal: The Chinese State and the New Global History". Australian Centre on China in the World. Chinese University Press. Retrieved 1 July 2017.


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