2019 Confucius Academy Summer Debate


On June 6, 2019, the Confucius Academy Summer Debate jointly hosted by the Cultural Communication Center of Guiyang Confucius Academy, the Guangming Daily and the International Confucian Association took place with the theme focused on “Tianxia天下as a New World System and the Confucian Tradition”. The organizers invited three internationally renowned scholars as debate guests: Professor Zhao Tingyang, the proposer of the Tianxia System theory, an academician of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and senior research fellow at the Institute of Philosophy, Professor Wang Rongrong of Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, USA, and Professor Gan Chunsong of the Department of Philosophy at Peking University. Yao Xinzhong, a philosophy professor at Renmin University of China, acted as the academic chair of the debate.

Zhao Tingyang: The Tianxia System is for the whole world, and will be network-based.

The concept of Tianxia has existed in China for 3,000 years. It can be found in pre-Qin documents such as The Book of Songs, The Book of History and The Book of Changes. However, Professor Zhao Tingyang makes use of the ancient concept to put forward his own new ideas based on the contemporary world. His concept of Tianxia has three meanings - geographical, psychological, and institutional - which are all essential and mutually dependent on one another. Geographically, Zhao argues that Tianxia is more than a physical place, but a way of thinking of the world which does not automatically begin from a national perspective. Psychologically, Zhao links the concept of Tianxia as pertaining to “all the peoples” in which there is no such thing as an “outsider” because China’s process of thought does not reject the “other.” Zhao said: “the concept of Tianxia requires the three meanings to be completely integrated and indispensable. Only when the three meanings of Tianxia completely overlap can we consider it an ideal Tianxia. So Tianxia is a political ideal.

How to build the Tianxia system? Professor Zhao Tingyang further pointed out that a cosmopolitan law would be needed. The world Constitution shall fit in with three concepts, first, Tianxia as pertaining to “all the peoples” in which there is no such thing as an “outsider” because the Tianxia system does not exclude the “other”, second, the relational rationality, that is, the minimization of mutual harm should always take precedence over the maximization of respective interests, and third, the “Confucian improvement”, that is, the improvement of everyone’s interests is necessarily related to the improvement of others’ interests, and the improvement of anyone’s interests will inevitably promote the improvement of everyone’s interests. If a cosmopolitan law or cosmopolitan order meets these three criteria, it should initially meet the requirements of the Tianxia Order or Tianxia System.

The proposal of the Tianxia System has also caused a good deal of controversies in the academic circle. Some scholars think that it might be just a different name for “a post-hegemonic world order”. In this regard, Professor Zhao argues that the Tianxia System is the full concept for the whole world, not for any country/state/nation or a doctrine. It is anti-hegemonic by nature and its future form must be a network system. The closest coordination with the Tianxia System may be derived from the high-tech system, including the internet, artificial intelligence, genetic biology, and new energy. These technological systems can closely link the existing modes of all humankind, so it will be a network-based existence in the future.

Can the Tianxia System be accepted by the world? Professor Zhao reveals that he had carried out researches on human rights and moral principles long before the theoretical system was put forward, making theoretical preparations for the rationality of the system at the theoretical level. However, he also says that people actually accept a value not merely because of theory itself, but because the theory is backed up by the theoretical legitimacy. People actually accept a value through role models, since only models can be persuasive. As Confucius said, “If people who are close to you are happy, people who live afar will come near you.” That is to say, the system can satisfy the local people and the people from far away would be willing to learn from it, which in fact has already demonstrated the exemplary principle. Whether the Tianxia System can become the role models is a practical issue in the future, but it is only a theoretical problem at present.

Wang Rongrong: Tianxia has no boundaries. We can reach a consensus by telling stories, being grounded and making friends.

For the Tianxia system, Professor Wang Rongrong explains the concept of Tianxia from the perspective of philosophical theory. She agrees that Tianxia  is not based on personal rationality, but on relational rationality. Relational rationality has such elements as contradiction, dependence, sympathy, complementation, transformation, concealment, etc. It is also one of the most important ways of Chinese traditional thinking. The first is contradiction. A contradiction indicates opposites and conflicts. Conflicts between countries are inevitable. How to resolve the conflict? In China, we do not use the opposing thinking mode of “You Lose and I win”;instead, symbiosis and republicanism are used to solve contradictions in the process of reaching harmony.

When being asked about how can Tianxia be inherited as an ancient concept, accepted and understood by the Chinese in the 21stcentury and accepted by more peoples in the world after undergoing disruptive changes in the 19thand 20thcenturies, Professor Wang Rongrong suggests using the following three methods, that is, telling stories, being grounded and making friends, to reach a worldwide consensus.

She believes that each culture, country or individual has a story, and we shall touch others by “telling stories”. How to let your ideas take root and blossom? “The McDonald’s has enabled people all over the world to accept fast food with a very down-to-earth way –free internet and free toilet.” But to make friends, one shall not only make friends with the same interests, but also make friends with different values and advocate civilized dialogues in order to reach a common understanding. She further points out that the concept of Tianxia itself does not have a boundary, and there is no obvious opposition between countries, peoples and systems. If the concept of Tianxia is to be responded to in other cultures, it may require understanding at the realistic level or theoretical level, which is to be realized through the process of telling stories.

Gan Chunsong: The premise of creation is to understand and face up to the role of traditional culture in the modern society.

Professor Gan Chunsong first summarizes the international and domestic academic debates and criticisms on the Tianxia System, thus guiding the audience to view the theoretical system from more dimensions. Furthermore, he discusses the relationship between the Tianxia System and Confucianism, and expresses his own views on the inheritance and value of Confucianism in contemporary China.

Professor Gan Chunsong further explains the Confucian “Model” principle mentioned by Professor Zhao Tingyang: “Model” is a special core of Confucianism. The “Gentleman’s Personality” advocated by Confucianism is an example set up for the people in the society. If we want the ideal society to be like this and the people in the society to be like that, the advocators have to behave like this before others can be convinced. This is also the main point of the Tianxia System. For the ancient Tianxia theory which becomes convincing in the modern world, corresponding examples are required. The Tianxia System theory should be used to govern a country and set an example for the world. Then, other countries would also think that the model is worth following up. This is a very important thinking angle of Tianxiaism.

“Of course, ideals cannot be fully realized. If we can make some attempts from a certain angle, society will progress.” Professor Gan Chunsong says that from the perspective of China, it is actually trying to practice the Tianxia System theory. The Belt and Road proposal can be taken as an example. Although China is the initiator, it emphasizes win-win. From China’s point of view, what needs to be done is that since the emphasis is on a win-win situation, it is necessary to construct a win-win mechanism and have a reference system for the win-win situation. This will probably become a sample of Tianxia Order  in the future.

At the end of the debate, academic chair Professor Yao Xinzhong concludes that Tianxia is a core concept of the pre-Qin Confucianism. Tianxia as a term appears 23 times in The Analects of Confucius, 127 times in The Book of Rites, 173 times in Mencius, and 369 times in Xunzi. Although the frequency of occurrences itself cannot prove the ideological importance of a concept, the data do tell us that the concept of Tianxia was becoming more and more important in the development of pre-Qin Confucianism, and its status, value and function are also constantly improving in the following history.

Yao Xinzhong believes that Professor Zhao Tingyang’s Tianxia System theory has taken advantages from the traditional ideas of Confucianism, and extracts very valuable and universal concepts and values, such as relational rationality, Confucius improvement, etc. Therefore, there is a close internal connection between the New Tianxia System and the Confucian tradition, which is worthy of our further study. The Tianxia View in ancient China is deeply branded with the Confucian thought of ruling by virtue and is also an ethical view in essence. This ethical and political view is historical. It not only provides us with ideological resources, but also brings about problems worth further thinking and questioning.

First, if the Tianxia System created in the early Zhou Dynasty not only showed the charm of “the System of the Common People” but also formed the capacity to resolve conflicts and to form a “Multi-cultural and Multi-ethnic Common Mode”, then why did cracks appear in the middle and late Western Zhou Dynasty and the system gradually came to an end in the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period? If the point cannot be explained logically and historically, it will be difficult to prove that the New Tianxia System is a contemporary world philosophy. Second, compared with ancient times, modern world operates in a completely different time and space frame. Plural participations have already replaced monogenesis. How can the moral space give place to the institutional space to promote the New Tianxia Order to be a worldwide one? The relationship between the New Tianxia Order and the Confucian tradition involves not only the modern transformation of traditional ideas, but also the interweaving of Chinese civilization and other civilizations in the world. It should be a dynamic dialogue among civilizations. Only through civilization dialogues rather than conflicts can we not only maintain the internal consistency of the Tianxia system but also enable the coexisting of various subjects, the formation of a new consensus of the Tianxia Order and make such a consensus gradually be accepted by other nations and cultures in the world. This is the contemporary significance and the global value of our discussion on the New Tianxia System and the Confucian tradition.