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November 18, 2021

Responding To: Inquiries into the Future of Cosmopolitanism

Tian Xia: A Confucian Model of State Identity and Global Governance

Bai Tongdong

The Necessity and Possibility for an Alternative Global Order

During its stellar rise in the past a few decades, China keeps claiming that the rise is going to be peaceful, but to little effect, for a good reason.Footnote 1 For China presents itself as a nation-state, and it is against the very logic of a nation-state that it should rise peacefully. A nation-state is supposed to pursue its national interests ruthlessly. When it rises, it will naturally demand more from the rest of the world, and use all means possible, including force, to get it if the demand is not met.

One could argue that, partly due these experiences, we have established international institutions and laws. The EU in reality and the cosmopolitanism in theory seem to offer an even more radical alternative in which states will be eventually transcended. As Prasenjit Duara argues, however, much of the existing global order is rooted in nation-states, and there are conflicts between nation-states that claim agency and sovereignty and limit sympathy to the national community on the one hand, and globalism that is meant to transcend these on the other (2017). In reality, the nation-state side of this dichotomy seems to be winning, as we witness the disruptions of various world institutions and norms by state actors, and the rise of nationalism all over the world, including the developed West.

What is a viable alternative? In Chinese history there was the so-called Zhou-Qin transition or the Spring and Autumn and Warring States periods (SAWS, roughly from 770 B.C.E. to 221 B.C.E.). What emerged in this transition, in this newly “globalized world,” is large, populous, well-connected, and plebeianized societies of strangers, and a few de-facto sovereign states. This transition may be a forerunner of the European transition to modernity, and even of the globalization in our times. Common to all these transitions is the need to answer three key political issues in this new world: the bond among members of a large state of strangers, the principles of international relations among independent states, and the selection of the ruling members of the state and even the world (and the legitimacy of the selection). We can then argue that nation-state is merely one possible answer to the first two questions: through an imagined nation or national identity, a large society of strangers is bonded together. The principle of dealing with international relations is the ruthless pursuit of national interests.

But even in the West, nation-state is not the only answer offered. Various forms of cosmopolitanism are also developed. Facing similar problems, pre-Qin Chinese thinkers offered their own answers, including the Confucian model. It is simply wrong to claim that to become a nation-state is the only path to modernity and root of global order. Among all the different paths, a question that a normative theorist needs to answer is which model best addresses the aforementioned issues of modernity, and I will argue that what I shall call the Confucian New Tian Xia Order, which is inspired by the early Confucians’ answers, but is reconstructed and updated, is one of the best answers.

The Confucian New Tian Xia Order

Facing the issue of how to bond strangers together, the early Confucian thinker Mencius developed Confucius’s idea of ren 仁 (humaneness or benevolence) into his concept of compassion (恻隐之心), a universal sense of care for even a mere stranger.Footnote 2 But the compassion we naturally and universally possess is merely the beginning of humaneness, and in order for it to become strong enough to hold strangers together, it needs to be cultivated, first in family, and then expanded through “treating the elderly of my own family [as they should be], and extending this treatment to the elderly of other families” (1A7 of the Mencius). The ideal, as the later Confucian Zhang Zai张载 (1020-1077) put it, is the view that “all people are my siblings, and all living things are my companions.”Footnote 3

This care, however, is different from impartial care advocated by some cosmopolitans and the Mohist school in the Zhou-Qin transition. For there is another aspect of Confucian universal care: the care will have to be graded or hierarchical. Our care for more distant objects comes from the care for closer ones, and the latter is the root of and thus should be stronger than the former. This means that we are justified to put the interests of our own state above those of other states. But we cannot defend our national interests by all means, especially by totally disregarding the well-being of other peoples. For this total disregard means no compassion for our fellow human beings, and according to Mencius’s criteria of what makes humans human, we then cease to be human and become beasts instead (4B19 of the Mencius). In short, our patriotism should be limited by our humaneness.

In addition to universal and unequal compassion, pre-Qin Confucians introduced another idea to bond strangers together and deal with international relations, i.e., the distinction between the civilized夏 and the barbaric夷. This distinction is sometimes misinterpreted as racially-based, but early Confucian texts clearly indicated that it is based on whether one adopted a civilized way of life, and not on race or country of origin. During the SAWS, there was more than one civilized state, and each civilized state could use its own special identity as the basis for building a bond among the members within the state. Then, the Confucian international structure can be summarized as the following: a people should “give preferential treatment to their own state over other civilized states, and give preferential treatment to all civilized states over barbaric ones” (The Gong Yang Commentaries《春秋公羊传·成公十五年》).

Now, with the early Confucian answers to the basis of bonds within a state and international relations explained, let me construct a “New Tian Xia” system inspired by these answers. In the contemporary world, according to the Confucian theory, geography, history, language, customs are elements that constitute state identity. Above states, all civilized states should form an alliance through their shared endorsement of the civilizedness. As an entity, they should defend the civilized way of life, and guard against and exert positive influence on the barbaric states. I cannot offer an adequate account of the meaning of “civilized,” but it should include the following Confucian values: the legitimacy of the state lies in service to the people (humane governance), and compassion, thinly and broadly construed (which can function as an overlapping consensus among people with plural values), should be a key virtue.Footnote 4 In this civilized system, the people of one civilized state should “give preferential treatment to their own state over other civilized states,” and peoples of all civilized states should “give preferential treatment to all civilized states over barbaric ones.” To love one’s own state and to love all civilized states are justified, and to put the interests of one’s state above that of other states and to put the interests of all civilized states above the barbaric ones are also justified. In the meantime, however, such preferential treatment does not mean a total disregard of the interests of “the other.” Rather, people have a moral duty (based on Confucian compassion) to the other. Civilized states can justifiably intervene with the business of barbaric states—a “barbaric” state is defined as one that is not humane to its own people and to a lesser extent, to other peoples. Of course, we should first try to be a moral exemplar, “the beacon on the hill,” as a way of moral intervention, and only under extreme circumstances, can military interventions be justified. In the latter case, the sovereignty of a tyrannical state should not be protected, because for Confucians, the ultimate principle is “humane duties override sovereignty” (rather than “human rights override sovereignty”). Among civilized states, although a civilized state can prioritize its own state interest over the interest of another civilized state, and they can even be in fierce competitions with each other, the competitions can never become violent (thus leading to a “civilized peace” rather than democratic peace).

The New Tian Xia Model vs. the Nation-State Model

Due to the limits of space, let me just say a few words in terms of the merits of the Confucian model in comparison with other models. There are many different versions of the nation-state model, among them the nationalist version which has been emulated by many non-Western countries, including China, and has made a come-back recently in the West through the rise of right-wing nationalism. According to this version, although a nation can have cultural, linguistic, and geographic elements, the defining element of a nation is blood relations or race, which are often imagined and politically manipulated rather than real. But imagined or not, the idea of blood relations is intuitive and strong, more so than, for example, the kind of state identity offered by the Confucian idea of hierarchical care. A nation-state can have a strong motivation to protect its people and even to promote the rights of individuals within the state. But in the merits of this model lie also its drawbacks. The bond is strong in this kind of nation-state because it relies on blood relations, but these relations are exclusive and the distinction between the self and the other is clear and strong. A nation-state can then pursue its interests at all cost, leading to disruptions and wars internationally, and ethnic cleansing domestically.

In contrast, although as the basis of the bond of a society of strangers, Confucian hierarchical care is not as strong as blood relations, because of this, it is also more inclusive than race. The Confucian New Tian Xia Order doesn’t eliminate states, but offers a more inclusive foundation for them than nation-states do.

The New Tian Xia Model vs. Cosmopolitan Models

Recognizing the danger of the nationalist version of the nation-state model, some cosmopolitans wish to transcend nations and nation-states—let us call this the no-identity model. Some more moderate liberal thinkers try to make state identity as thin as possible, grounding it, for example, in constitutional identity (constitutional patriotism)—let us call this the thin-identity model, which can be traced back to the way the Romans and the Chinese Legalists internally bonded their empires together through laws and institutions.

The beauty of the thin-identity model is that it is very inclusive, but this comes from the fact that its bond, which can be described as “diversity produces unity,” is rather thin. Indeed, it can be too thin to hold a state together and to distinguish it from another such a state. Moreover, the liberal commitment to pluralism can sometimes evolve into an active promotion of different kinds of intra-state identities, and the suspicion of any form of state identity, taking it as the root of racism and nationalism. This self-debilitating process contributes to the nationalistic backlashes throughout the West.Footnote 5

On the no-identity version of cosmopolitanism, a possible theoretical foundation for it is a demand to treat everyone with equal care. The Confucian objection to it is that to care for everyone equally sounds wonderful, but is rootless and too demanding for human beings to keep up over a long period of time. As a result, it often leads to a backlash of extreme selfishness and cynicism. What happened during and after China’s Cultural Revolution, and the present retreat from and cynicism about liberal interventionalism are examples of such wide swings.Footnote 6

To conclude, I have argued that the Confucian New Tian Xia order that is based on a universal but hierarchical care is more idealistic and compassionate than the nationalist version of the nation-state model, and can thus solve the dichotomy between nation-states and globalism. It is also more realistic than some cosmopolitan models, giving us hope that it can avoid the trap of mistrust and cynicism that is caused by the unrealistic demand of cosmopolitanism. Using Rawls’s terminology, the Confucian New Tian Xia order may be a “realistic utopia” (Rawls 1999).

1. For a more detailed version, see Bai 2019, Chapter 7 (175-213).

2. “Confucianism” is a long tradition, and I will use mostly texts from the Zhou-Qin transition, in particular, the Mencius.

3. All translations in this piece are mine.

4. Other elements of being civilized should include the protection of some basic rights and liberties, and the preservation of and education through the classics, not only the Confucian ones, but works such as Plato’s Republic.

5. See Lilla 2016 for a criticism of “identity liberalism.” The Chinese Communist ethnical policies have a similar problem: the government invents (in some cases) and then tries to preserve ethnic identities through political measures, but it doesn’t tolerate the cultural practices each ethnic group wishes to conduct. This is a sure recipe for ethnic conflicts.

6. This criticism can be applied to communism as well: instead of “all workers unite,” workers from different states are fighting against each other, creating an environment of “all workers divide!”


Bai, Tongdong白彤东 (2019), Against Political Equality: The Confucian Case.
Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press.

Duara, Prasenjit (2017), “The Chinese World Order and Planetary Sustainability.”, in Wang 2017, 65-83.

Lilla, Mark (2016), “The End of Identity Liberalism,” New York Times, Nov. 20, 2016.

Rawls, John (1999), The Law of Peoples with “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wang, Ban (ed.) (2017), Chinese Visions of World Order—Tianxia, Culture, and World Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Zhang, Zai 张载 (1978), The Collected Works of Zhang Zai 张载集. Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju中华书局.

Bai Tongdong is the Dongfang Chair Professor of Philosophy at Fudan University in China.

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