Were Confucians the first internationalists?

Sheng [Hong] uses the term in this broader sense, so that we can say that tianxia zhuyi is the idea of a global civilization that encompasses a diversity of cultures. In fact, this interpretation matches with the historical evolution of the Chinese empire, which was a multiethnic body politic based on certain universal civilizational principles and artifacts such as the Chinese script.

It is essential why Sheng makes that distinction. He claims that globalism, which he considers to be a Western term, is actually violating basic principles of economic liberalism in opting for trade liberalization but containing international migration.

That is from Carsten Herrmann-Pillath, a Professor of Business Economics at the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, in a chapter titled “Smith, Confucius and the Rise of China.” The chapter is in Volume 8 of The Adam Smith Review, edited by Fonna Forman, which in turn was a gift from Edwin to me. There is no mention of Mises or Hayek (or NOL!) in the bibliography. Herrmann-Pillath continues:

So, globalism is a conceptual framework which still builds on the conception of the nation state and hence economic nationalism […] Ideas about the transition from the ‘nation state’ to a new political order based on culture and civilization continue to flourish among Chinese intellectuals until today. (88)

Unlike Chhay Lin and Matthew, I don’t know very much about ancient or medieval Chinese political thought,  but I can buy Sheng’s argument. In fact, I’m surprised it has taken this long for scholars anywhere in the world to realize that certain schools of thought in an empire would be internationalist. What is more curious to me, though, is this “new political order based on culture and civilization.” Why not base it on the individual? It seems to me that basing political orders on hard-to-define terms like “culture” and “civilization” will only lead to major problems, such as cultural chauvinism, down the road.

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5 thoughts on “Were Confucians the first internationalists?

  1. Any mention of Tao? I hear he is supposed to have articulated some proto libertarian ideas.

    • Of course Chinese strategists want unrestricted global migration by Chinese populations to all countries. Having the world’s largest population has always been a principal strategic factor in the Chinese geopolitics. Many Chinese are admirably competent, responsible and conscientious in personal relations, so exemplary individuals are welcomed in many countries. But look at recent Chinese migration to African countries for egregious examples of arrogant usurpation of local economies. China’s ultimate goal is to make the entire world’s productive capacity hostage to China’s favor. Chinese industry has destroyed multiple industries abroad, from US furniture to Italian shoes, etc, etc, by deceptive and predatory tactics. (Donald Trump has a point about this, personally disgusting as he is.) China uses claims of (tendentiously fabricated) “history” to bully its SE Asian neighbors about fishing and exploration rights throughout their shared Nan Hai, “South Sea” (as the so-called South China Sea is known in the Chinese language.)

      The Chinese empire was not created by the Confucians, but after it was created the Confucians entered a Faustian bargain with the militarist warlords who had created the Chinese empire. Confucius lived before the empire, and taught men the competencies needed to civilize the militarists in power, for general social benefit. The warlords’ basic philosophy was that of the Legalist (aka Realist) school, which advocated rule by force of a military class supplemented by a civil bureaucratic class to administer the law. Attractive Confucian ideas of benevolence, etc, were used as the velvet glove over the mailed fist. A Han dynasty emperor responded to a Confucian critic, saying that the Han dynasty’s constitution was “Yin Fa, Yang Ru” 陰法陽儒 “Legalism as the hidden core reality; Confucianism as the specious visible appearance”. Confucianism was the “virtual reality”, in contrast to the true reality, of China’s empire.

      The ancient idea of tianxia 天下 ,which literally means “Sub-Celestia”, is not unique to Confucians. It was first realized institutionally by a massive, late 3rd century BCE military conquest of the Qin state over six rival states, mainly in the Yellow River valley and in the Yangzte River valley; the conquest was extended to the extreme south, where unhealthy conditions (swamp gas, etc) of uncultivated terrain made habitation difficult.

      This first Chinese imperial conquest is a re-iteration of earlier comparable universal conquests by the Achaemenid Persian empire (the earliest truly “universal empire”) over the whole area from the Indus River to the Mediterranean, followed by that of Alexander the Great, which replaced the Achaemenids, then by that of the Roman Empire over Western Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.

      However, the West Asian zone, at the time of the Persian conquest, was previously the home of numerous much older and culturally very varied civilizations. On the contrary, the rise of early states in East Asia began over a thousand years later than in the Ancient Near East (Mesopotamia and Egypt). The Chinese Qin dynasty simply expunged all remnants of earlier local traditions and imposed its own version of political culture, building on the conquest by ruling through a class of civil bureaucratic administrators who imposed the language, Being geographically isolated from other urban based and literate ancient empires, China had no peer competitors in its region. Hence the inveterate solipsism of traditional and modern Chinese thought.

      • Thanks Onymous.

        I’m not sure that “Ideas about the transition from the ‘nation state’ to a new political order based on culture and civilization continue to flourish among Chinese intellectuals until today” logically entails that “Chinese strategists want unrestricted global migration by Chinese populations to all countries.” I think that’s a bit of a stretch actually, but I am pretty ignorant about this conception of a world order. It’s worth reading into a bit more, for sure.

    • Michelangelo,

      Yes, actually (see Chhay Lin on Lao Tzu’s proto-libertarianism, by the way; and Tao/Dao is the name of the philosophy of Lao Tzu).

      According to Herrmann-Pillath’s essay, Confucianism is a hodgepodge of ideas borrowed from Daoism, Buddhism, and Legism (all schools of thought that came long before Confucianism). Here is the money quote:

      On all levels, Confucianism is a construct which in fact synthesizes different ideas stemming from Daosim, Buddhismmor the ancient doctrine of Legism with different weights and emphasis, respectively. (86)

      Herrmann-Pillath goes on to explain how Confucians in the Middle Ages were able to create a “Chinese nationalism” long before anything like nationalism arose in the West. It’s an interesting argument and deserves more scrutiny than I can give it here.

  2. The pretentious frauds of Martin Jacques are, indeed, a topic likely to prompt incivility in response. Recent events seem to have overtaken his grandiose fantasies; what a shame! Still, Jacques is a veteran propagandist who well knows that “there’s a sucker born every minute” (the famous words of P T Barnum, who sold circus tickets to gullible folk, allowing them to enter a door marked “This way to the egress”, i.e. the exit, not a female egret.). No doubt there will be wannabe Associate Mandarins for a long time to come who thrill to Jacques’ nonsense. But a Chinese demographer working in the USA has recently said that China’s economy will never overtake that of the USA because of China’s bungled population policy. They will grow old before they grow rich. It all goes back to Mao’s nuttly encouragement of unrestrained population growth. After Mao finally went to meet Marx, his extreme had to be offset by the opposite extreme, so that’s where they are now. China may just need to learn that it is merely one other country in the world, not really the “center”.

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