China as a Civilizational State

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1. Alain de Benoist

In today's China, we must also mention the members of the Tianxia School, such as Zhao Tingyang, the historian Xu Jilin, Xu Zhuoyun, Wang Gungwu, and Liang Zhiping, whose catchphrase is “using China to explain China” (yĭ zhōngguó jiěshì zhōngguó) — possibly including among them Jiang Shigong, a proponent of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

Its theorists refer to the central notion of tianxia (“all that exists under heaven”), a spiritual principle of premodern China whose institutional embodiment was the Celestial Empire (Tiāncháo), an ideal whose origins can be traced to the Duke of Zhou (11th century BCE) who used the “mandate of heaven” to justify Western Zhou’s overthrow of Shang dynasty. A polysemic term, tianxia was used even before the time of Laozi (Lao-Tseu) and Confucius: it designates at once an ideal civilizational order, a spatial imaginary in which China lies at the core, a hierarchical order in which the “virtue” of its members determines their rank, and a political system supposed to guarantee the harmony of the whole.

Tianxia is “a dense concept”, argues Zhao Tingyang, “wherein, with respect to first philosophy, the metaphysical as political philosophy comes to replace the metaphysical as ontology”, which affirms that cultures have incommensurable values and that China must escape from Eurocentrism and fully assume its role as the Middle Empire. Relatedly, for Xu Jilin, “the origin of [China’s current] crisis is nothing but the mentality that grants absolute supremacy to the nation”. He adds, “To truly address the problem at its roots, we need a form of thinking that can serve as a counterpoint to nationalism. I call this thought the ‘new tianxia’, an axial civilizational wisdom derived from China’s pre-modern tradition, interpreted anew according to modern criteria”.

In this regard, the way in which, since the 1990s, the Chinese authorities, claiming “Asian values”, have rejected criticism directed at them in the name of human rights ideology is illustrative.

In January 2021, at the Davos Forum, Xi Jinping declared:

- "Just as no two leaves in the world are identical, no [two] histories, cultures, or social systems are the same. Each country is unique with its own history, culture, and social system, and none is superior to the other. […] Difference in itself isn’t a cause for alarm. What does ring the alarm…is the attempt to impose a hierarchy on civilizations or to force one’s own history, culture, or social system upon others."


2. From the Wikipedia:

"The term "civilization-state" was first used by American political scientist Lucian Pye in 1990 to categorize China as having a distinct sociopolitical character, as opposed to viewing it as a nation state in the European model. The use of this new term implies that China was and still is an "empire state" with a unique political tradition and governmental structure, and its proponents asserted that the nation state model fails to properly describe the evolution of the Chinese state. Proponents of the label describe China as having a unique historical and cultural unity, derived from a continuous process of cultural syncretism.The term was further popularized by its use in When China Rules the World by British political scientist Martin Jacques.

According to Li Xing and Timothy M. Shaw, the central feature of analyzing China as a civilization state is the view that the Chinese state derives its legitimacy from the continuation of a sociopolitical order which posits that the state maintains natural authority over its subjects, and that it is the "guardian" of both its citizens and their society, a view of the state that is completely distinct from the Westphalian nation-state model. Other scholars make the case that the key features of a civilization-state are the maintenance of an ethos of cultural unity despite displaying significant cultural diversity, across centuries of history and a large geographic space.[10] Some specifically draw attention to the longevity of the Chinese writing system, or describe China's existence as being uniquely and inexorably tied to the past.

Guang Xia pushes back on the idea of the uniqueness of a Chinese civilization-state. Xia argues that civilization-state discourse in China studies is an important and positive development, as it allows for characteristics of the modern Chinese state to be properly analyzed in the context of their history. However, Xia concludes that ultimately, all civilizations must reinvent themselves in the context of their history, and that it is a mistake to view China as a static entity or to portray it as being more tied to its past than the rest of the world."



"Three or four years ago, as I drove around Beijing visiting officials and intellectuals, I kept hearing the same message. In my experience, the only moment when a Chinese intellectual or official should be taken literally is when he or she is walking a guest to the car. With no one around and no time to add any commentary, a single sentence can speak volumes. And the sentence I was hearing was this: “Always remember that China is a civilization rather than a nation-state.”

This is not a new idea — far from it. Nor is it a Chinese idea. But having received official sanction, the concept was being used to convey an important and often ignored message: The myth that China is destined to be assimilated to a Western model of political society is over. From now on, the Chinese would be treading their own “Sonderweg” — special path. Progress with Chinese characteristics.

As a civilization state, China is organized around culture rather than politics. Linked to a civilization, the state has the paramount task of protecting a specific cultural tradition. Its reach encompasses all the regions where that culture is dominant."


4. Martin Jacques:

* "We will never make sense of China if we persist in treating it as if it is, or should be, a product of our own civilization."

"Our western-centric value-judgements about China must no longer be allowed to act as a substitute for understanding the country in its own terms. This is no easy task. China is profoundly different from the West in the most basic of ways. Perhaps the most basic difference is that it is not a nation-state in the European sense of the term. Indeed, it has only described itself as such since around 1900. Anyone who knows anything about China is aware that it is a lot older than that. China, as we know it today, dates back to 221BC, in some respects much earlier. That date marked the end of the Warring States period, the victory of the Qin, and the birth of the Qin Empire whose borders embraced a considerable slice of what is today the eastern half of China and by far its most populous part.

For over two millennia, the Chinese thought of themselves as a civilization rather than a nation. The most fundamental defining features of China today, and which give the Chinese their sense of identity, emanate not from the last century when China has called itself a nation-state but from the previous two millennia when it can be best described as a civilization-state: the relationship between the state and society, a very distinctive notion of the family, ancestral worship, Confucian values, the network of personal relationships that we call guanxi, Chinese food and the traditions that surround it, and, of course, the Chinese language with its unusual relationship between the written and spoken form. The implications are profound: whereas national identity in Europe is overwhelmingly a product of the era of the nation-state – in the United States almost exclusively so – in China, on the contrary, the sense of identity has primarily been shaped by the country’s history as a civilization-state. Although China describes itself today as a nation-state, it remains essentially a civilization-state in terms of history, culture, identity and ways of thinking. China’s geological structure is that of a civilization-state; the nation-state accounts for little more than the top soil.

China, as a civilization-state, has two main characteristics. Firstly, there is its exceptional longevity, dating back to even before the break-up of the Roman Empire. Secondly, the sheer scale of China – both geographic and demographic – means that it embraces a huge diversity. Contrary to the Western belief that China is highly centralised, in fact in many respects the opposite is the case: indeed, it would have been impossible to govern the country – either now or in the dynastic period – on such a basis. It is simply too large. The implications in terms of the way the Chinese think are profound.

In 1997 Hong Kong was handed over to China by the British. The Chinese constitutional proposal was summed up in the phrase: ‘one country, two systems’. Barely anyone in the West gave this maxim much thought or indeed credence; the assumption was that Hong Kong would soon become like the rest of China. This was entirely wrong. The political and legal structure of Hong Kong remains as different now from the rest of China as in 1997. The reason we did not take the Chinese seriously is that the West is characterised by a nation-state mentality, hence when Germany was unified in 1990 it was done solely and exclusively on the basis of the Federal Republic; the DDR in effect disappeared. ‘One nation-state, one system’ is the nation-state way of thinking. But, as a civilization-state, the Chinese logic is quite different. Because China is so vast and embraces such diversity, as a matter of necessity it must be flexible: ‘one civilization, many systems’.

The idea of China as a civilization-state is a fundamental building block for understanding China in its own terms. And it has multifarious implications. The relationship between the state and society in China is very different to that in the West. Contrary to the overwhelming Western assumption that the Chinese state lacks legitimacy and is bereft of public support, in fact the Chinese state enjoys greater legitimacy than any Western state. We have come to assume that the legitimacy of the state overwhelmingly rests on the democratic process – universal suffrage, competing parties et al. But this is only one element: if it was the whole story, then the Italian state would enjoy a robust legitimacy rather than the reality, a chronic lack of it. And to explain this we have to go back to the Risorgimento as only a partially fulfilled project.

The reason why the Chinese state enjoys a formidable legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese has nothing to do with democracy but can be found in the relationship between the state and Chinese civilization. The state is seen as the embodiment, guardian and defender of Chinese civilization. Maintaining the unity, cohesion and integrity of Chinese civilization – of the civilization-state – is perceived as the highest political priority and is seen as the sacrosanct task of the Chinese state. Unlike in the West, where the state is viewed with varying degrees of suspicion, even hostility, and is regarded, as a consequence, as an outsider, in China the state is seen as an intimate, as part of the family, indeed as the head of the family; interestingly, in this context, the Chinese term for nation-state is ‘nation-family’."


More information

  • Relevant Chinese thinkers: The Tianxia school, with Zhao Tinyang, Xu Jilin, Zhuoyun Xu, Wang Gungwu, Liang Zhiping; eventually: Jian Shigong, who has theorized 'Socialism with Chinese characteristics'.
  • Article: China as a “Civilization-State”: A Historical and Comparative Interpretation. By Guang Xia. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, Volume 140, 22 August 2014, Pages 43-47 doi


Thanks to the publication of Martin Jacques's When China Rules the World, the notion of China as a “civilization-state” has gained wide currency in China studies. This essay revisits his reading of Chinese civilization from a historical and comparative perspective. Historically, despite its exceptional longevity and continuity, Chinese civilization has gone through major changes, especially since China's entrance into the modern world. In fact, modern China, while consciously or unconsciously abolishing and retaining different aspects of its traditions, has embraced some basic components from Western modernity. Hence the transformation of China into a modern nation – first by Sun Yat-sen's ephemeral bourgeois revolution, and then by Mao Zedong's decisive socialist revolution. Contemporary China continues to be shaped by the interaction between the remaining fragments from Chinese traditions and global, mainly Western, forces. Comparatively, the Western dichotomy between tradition and modernity simply does not apply to China. In many ways China has been modern (by Western standard) since ancient times. For instance, a largely secular state, a meritocratic bureaucracy, a highly self-governed civil society, a written language accessible to both literati and laypeople, a stratification system based on achieved rather than ascribed status, a cohesive culture open to multiculturalism, the idea and practice of educational equality, etc., which are fundamental to the formation of Western modernity, have long existed in China. On the other hand, Chinese society, premodern or modern, distinguishes itself by its, among other things, Confucian values, family morality in particular. Indeed, even today, Confucian familism (in forms of paternalism, nepotism, groupism, personalism, communalism, authoritarianism, etc.) is crucial to the operation of China's power system, market economy, and everyday life. Therefore, as a function of its civilization, China is both similar to and dissimilar from the West. In defining China as a civilization-state or, more specifically, in identifying the role of Chinese civilization in contemporary China, we need to decipher Chinese civilization in both its continuity and discontinuity in Chinese history, and in both its similarities with and differences from its Western counterpart."