Inho Choi is a 2022-23 Berggruen Institute fellow. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University.
On an October day in 1396, a Korean emissary, Kwon Kun, was summoned to the court of Ming China’s first emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang. Upon the emperor’s order, Kun composed a poem:
The wind of China does not set the boundary of the Chinese and the foreign
How come geography sets the boundary of here and there!
For the Korean emissary, China was neither a state nor a civilization with identifiable essences. It was more like a wind, with no beginning and no end: a continuum of received resources shared by all peoples who have access to its heritage.
This idea of China counters one that’s popular in the West: that China is a nation-state with an ancient and alien civilization that can threaten Western civilization. On the contrary, China as a nation is a modern invention, while the so-called “Chinese” civilization is not really Chinese.
When people refer to a Chinese civilization, they are implicitly making at least one of three related statements about how such a civilization was created: that there was an identifiable group of ancient Chinese people who produced a civilization; or, if not, that it was produced by multiple groups of people who occupied the Chinese heartland; or that there must have existed a fixed set of cultural essences shared among various groups, whoever their original creators were.
None of these, however, is an accurate historical statement. The groups who participated in the creation of Chinese civilization, if such a thing exists, were extremely diverse and varied and cannot be reduced to an identifiable Chinese ethnic group or nation. The Tang Dynasty, for example, which today is a cherished historical period, was a product of an influx of northern nomads and Han Chinese groups. Similarly, during the Qing Dynasty, Manchu, Mongol, Han and Tibetan ethnic groups cross-pollinated cultural ideas.
The creation of Chinese civilization was also not confined to the geographical area known as the Chinese nation today. Korea and Japan share Confucian classical traditions with China. While both places mostly remained foreign to “China” historically, they all innovated Confucian classical traditions through intellectual dialogues with revered sages and scholars like Mencius and Zhu Xi.
It is very difficult to pin down a fixed set of Chinese cultural essences — its contents vary greatly and are always open to changes. For example, even within the Confucian tradition, which is just one of many identified with Chinese civilization, there are extreme varieties of moral and philosophical positions. At one end are iconoclastic individualists like Li Zhi and at the other are authoritative legalists like Wang Tingxiang. Even Christian teachings and early modern Western sciences had been parts of learning for quite a few prominent Confucian literati in East Asia.
What, then, would a “Chinese” civilization really be? First, as Alan Patten has clarified, a culture or civilization need not refer to its contents but rather to the shared formative resources that the participants of a culture use to shape their lives, like classical texts, rituals and literature. Second is the very act of claiming and constructing one’s Chineseness by using these shared resources, and this claim often takes the form of creating connections to a largely fictional antiquity.
When a person refers to a “Chinese” civilization, he or she likely means this fictional antiquity and constructing a connection to it by using those shared resources. For example, when current Chinese leaders talk of the “great rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation, they are constructing its connection to a fictional antiquity by using the abundant cultural resources that their land and people harbor. However, their claim does not prevent others, like Korean, Japanese and Western students of Chinese culture, from claiming their own connection to a constructed antiquity.
Defined this way, Chinese civilization does not require its participants to belong to a group of people or to a land. Nor does it establish necessary cultural criteria or essences. Anyone can participate in Chinese civilization without following existing standards. Its participants only need to be able to use the inherited resources, such as Confucian classics, to fashion their practices and thoughts. A Western political theorist engaging a Ming thinker, a Korean Confucian democrat and a Daoist international relations theorist can all participate in Chinese civilization. Furthermore, the boundary of these received resources periodically shifts, like when works of Western literature were included in Ming and Qing learning.
The shared resources are the wind of China, the huangfeng, which could mean both the shared resources that influence and sweep through the lives of participants in Chinese civilization and their resulting lifestyle. As a style, the wind of China is comparable to the phenomenon of chinoiserie in 18th-century Europe or today’s Korean wave culture. But there was an important difference: It also conferred political and moral authority to those who participated in it.
Thus, strictly speaking, the singular “Chinese” civilization consists of plural “Chinese” civilizations, including Korean, Japanese, American and many other claimants to this constructed tradition. While this tradition is a fictional construction, it does not mean it is an arbitrary fabrication. Any claimant to the tradition should be skillful in using its shared resources.
It was in the late 19th century that this shared heritage of Chinese civilization became more exclusively attached to the Chinese nation. China (the nation as an object of global discourse) did not exist until then. While a sense of a Chinese nation could have existed internally since the 11th-century Song period, it was only by being called “China” by the imperial powers of the day, and its responses to that, that it became a nation in the modern international system.
As Lydia Liu has shown, the use of the English word “China” by Western colonial powers constructed China as an object on the international stage. Chinese nationalists, in turn, used the foreign word to redefine the Chinese word zhongguo, which had meant an open and ever-changing civilization, to refer to the Chinese nation. With the new word also came a new institutional process of nation-building, which included inventing ancient history and civilizational attributes for a newborn nation. Chinese civilization consequently became increasingly entangled with the Chinese nation.
However, even the reduction of Chinese civilization into the Chinese nation need not preclude other participants from using the resources of Chinese heritage to fashion their lives and generate experimental practices. A few comparative political theorists have advocated for a combination of Confucianism and democratic thought as a viable alternative to liberal democracy. In particular, Sungmoon Kim of the City University of Hong Kong has advocated what he calls “public reason Confucian democracy,” which is based on actual democratic practices in South Korea. Even supposedly Western democratic principles, Kim argues, can be enhanced by using the resources of Chinese civilization.
Kim argues that unlike in many post-communist societies where civic activism subsided after institutional democratization was achieved, Korean civil society drew from its Confucian legacies to build a thriving ethical civil society during its period of democratic consolidation. Inspired by the Neo-Confucian ideal of moral agents who have an active duty to rectify the wrongs of public institutions, Korea’s ethical civil society has functioned as a government evaluator and acted to remove unfit rulers when their corruption decidedly compromised the legitimacy of the state and sovereignty of the people, like the 2016-17 candlelight protests that led to then-President Park Geun-hye stepping down.
Kim also regards the moral sentiments cultivated by centuries of institutionalized Confucian politics and social discipline in many East Asian societies as an alternative, non-liberal foundation for robust democratic polities. He calls this foundation Confucian public reason. Unlike liberal public reason, where rational deliberation over the formal matters of justice and rights is separated from the personal lives of citizens, Confucian public reason consists of the universalizable interpersonal and familial sentiments such as filial piety as the public medium through which equal citizens deliberate and negotiate their differences.
Kim uses the Korean feminists’ movement to abolish the family-head system as an illustration. The family-head system was discriminatory: It rendered women subordinate members of a patriarchal family headed by a male member. However, the movement initially failed to garner public support when it pitched its position as a liberal critique of oppressive Confucianism. It was only when the movement reorganized its position to propose that abolishing the family-head system would better secure Confucian familial values that it achieved more widespread public support. To justify their cause publicly, they had to operate within the confines of shared Confucian public reason.
Thus, legacies of a Confucian past (familial sentiments) were mobilized to promote new democratic values of popular sovereignty and equal rights of genders. But it is also true that there is no necessary reason for Confucian legacies to favor democracy against other forms of rule, like meritocratic government. The resources of Chinese civilization are an open template for variations and innovations.
Confucian democracy and its practice in South Korea deconstruct the framing of the U.S.-China rivalry in civilizational terms. Ever since Samuel Huntington first articulated his idea of the clash of civilizations, it has captured the imagination of the American foreign policy establishment and is now exerting its influence on its geopolitical approach to China. However, South Korea is a key U.S. ally and a democracy, proving that Confucian-inflected democratic governance is not necessarily antithetical to the West.
Another promising experiment to leverage the resources of Chinese civilization is to close the gap between the planetary effects of human action and the national and individual mode of organizing such actions. Despite some troubling essentializations, Zhao Tingyang’s Tianxia system, for example, reconstructs the Chinese ideology of “all under heaven” to propose a worldwide institution that cares not just for a group of nations but for every human being on the planet. Setting aside the questions of practicality and originality, he at least suggests a worldwide vantage point to measure the effect of national and individual political actions.
An even more persuasive solution is James Miller’s reconstruction of Daoist ideas and practices, particularly the “highest clarity” tradition. Miller provides a post-human alternative paradigm to modernity. Unlike Zhao’s focus on abstract principles and large-scale institutional order, Miller is very corporeal and centered on rethinking the human self. He suggests that we replace the modern notion of the self-sufficient individual with the Daoist “distributed self,” which means that no individual can independently execute an action without distributed agencies in the world. Then he illustrates how we can cultivate this alternative self through Daoist practice of transfiguration.
Transfiguration is an aesthetic discipline of the human self to enhance its perceptual capacity. The key is to create a perceptual circuit that internalizes the feedback between an action and the reactions of distributed agencies in the world. There are interesting contemporary technological and artistic experiments that provide means of transfiguration that develop human perceptual capacity. David Eagleman, for example, uses sensory augmentation technology to make humans directly sense abstract data such as stock exchange fluctuation. John Luther Adams, a composer, developed symphonic soundscapes to sensitize his audience to the inner textures of oceans, winds, deserts and other natural processes.
To go further than the Daoist transfiguration technique, which is centered on the human self, we might try to transfigure collective political actors such as states. I find hints of the political transfiguration in another Chinese tradition, Neo-Confucianism. It is a comprehensive moral, political and metaphysical paradigm developed first by 12th-century Song scholars in China.
One of its aspects is the fractality of its view of diverse political actors. For Neo-Confucians, there is no hierarchy between smaller and larger political actors. For them, there is only an all-encompassing network of properly aligned nodes of political actors. Like a fractal image, each node repeats the whole network of political actors in its internal organization. It means the collective actors like the state are composed of various relationships, or the distributed agencies of Daoism.
Thus, the state, too, needs to cultivate its connection with distributed agencies. In the past, that cultivation often took the form of various state rituals. Neo-Confucian rulers performed sacrificial rituals for heaven, Earth and their ancestors. The diplomatic relationship among states, too, was heavily ritualized, and the internal relationships between rulers and their subjects were mediated by rituals and literary rhetoric. Through these rituals, Neo-Confucian rulers inscribed the relationships of the state into its artificial body politic. The ritual inscription transfigured the state and sensitized it to its network of distributed agencies.
Another key element in Neo-Confucian transfiguration of political actors is its peculiar definition of political legitimacy. Unlike humans, political actors like the state require legitimacy to act at all. Without it, they would garner no support and mobilization and produce no enduring result. For modern states, such legitimacy is often given through popular sovereignty and democratic institutions that enact it. In contrast, for Neo-Confucians, the legitimacy of the state was determined by the impartial quality of the mind of the agent who acts on its behalf. The impartiality meant the agent’s mind must be capable of considering the effects of its action on all the distributed agencies of the state in the world.
Neo-Confucian legitimacy creates a starkly different conception of the state. Consider nuclear weapons. Using them affects victims and the whole Earth, but producing and deciding to use them are strictly the responsibility of executive state leaders. If they are democratically elected and abiding by international law, the use of nuclear weapons, too, is “legitimate.”
From the Neo-Confucian perspective, on the other hand, it’s impossible for nuclear weapons to be legitimate at all because their effects are too broad and include foreigners and the habitability of the entire planet. The extreme damage is unlikely to be compensated by any security gain for its domestic population, and thus no impartial mind would follow such a course of action.
A Neo-Confucian state possesses a very different organizing principle than modern states. Whereas modern states represent their domestic population, the Neo-Confucian state is more of a mediator between its foreign and domestic constituencies, both of which are its distributed agencies in the world. It exists not to reflect the will of a people but to balance between the needs of inside and outside. Its actions are only as legitimate as its mind is impartial toward external and internal constituencies.
In the end, the various resources of Chinese civilization are there for any innovative effort to appropriate them. While the geopolitical rivalry between the U.S. and China might be inevitable at this point, there is no reason to intensify it through another imagined layer of civilizational conflict. Confucian familial sentiments, Daoist transfiguration techniques and other resources of Chinese civilization are available for Americans and Chinese alike as a possible source of political and ethical innovation.