Commentary RESEARCH

Traditional culture inspired early Chinese IR studies


2023-10-30 12:00

Chinese Social Sciences Today

International relations (IR) emerged as a field of study in China in the first half of the 20th century, with rich content, a wide range of topics, diverse theories and methodologies, and far-reaching academic and practical implications. 

When studying international issues, modern Chinese scholars were subject to the influence of traditional Chinese culture consciously or unconsciously. They harnessed traditional Chinese intellectual and historical resources to make sense of what was happening in the international community in modern times, internalizing international norms like sovereignty, the balance of power, and collective security. Through creative transformation, they leveraged concepts and thoughts from within traditional Chinese culture to delve into major problems and challenges in modern international relations and proposed an ideal world order, contributing Chinese insights and input. 

Textual reinterpretation 

The emergence of IR studies reflected the dissemination of Western learning and science and the transformation of knowledge in China as modern scholars developed practical knowledge, primarily of international law and diplomacy, into international relations as a branch of political science, highlighting its social science attribute and theoretical pursuits. 

Naming the discipline after such Western concepts as international relations, international politics, and international studies, Chinese scholars also creatively put forward terms like “guoji xue (internationology)” and “guoji xianxiang xue (international phenomenology)” to encompass all human knowledge regarding international life. 

In terms of concrete knowledge production, modern Chinese scholars vigorously translated and edited Western works on international law, IR history, and international political theory. While absorbing Western intellectual accomplishments, they paid particular attention to exploring and interpreting texts of ancient Chinese thoughts, responding to global dynamics in modern times through ancient classics, thereby endowing classical texts with IR connotations. 

Apart from the reinterpretation of classic texts, the utilization of traditional culture during the emergence of Chinese IR studies also manifested in scholars’ rediscovery or re-elaboration of traditional concepts as well as the creative transformation of traditional historical narratives. 

In modern times, Chinese scholars had already introduced such concepts as “tianxia (all under heaven),” “datong (great unity),” “guanxi (relationships)”, “yi (, righteousness)” and “li (, interests),” “gong (public)” and “si (private),” “sheng (continuous generation)” and “yi (, change),” “de (morality)” and “dao (principle),” and “li (, force)” and “shi (trend)” into the analysis of IR issues. Taking into account the realities of international relations and China’s diplomatic practices, they gave modern IR meanings to these important traditional concepts through reinterpretation, fostering unique outlooks on power, ethics, and morality in international politics with traditional Chinese intellectual features. 

Creative transformations of traditional Chinese culture in historical narratives fueled the emergence of the histories of international relations and diplomacy, while instilling the views of order and of time and space in traditional Chinese culture into the theorization about the evolution of the international community and the evaluation of the global situation. 

On one hand, the historical experience of international relations in ancient East Asia became an intellectual resource for modern Chinese scholars as they envisioned the international order and coined terms like “tianxia guo (state under heaven),” “tianxia xing (nature of being under heaven),” “wangdao zhuyi (benevolent-ism),” and “chaogong tizhi (tributary system)” to describe and explain regional order in ancient East Asia and China’s diplomatic thoughts. 

On the other hand, scholars emancipated “international issues” and “world knowledge” from conventional writing of foreign histories and geographies to generate fields of study such as “diplomatic history” and “IR history.” Meanwhile, they expounded on the historical evolution of the modern international community with Confucian classics and went beyond the historical view of realistic international relations, giving traditional Chinese historical studies the significance of world history and intensions of IR history. 

Theoretical construction

In the first half of the 20th century, when it was urgent to save the nation from subjugation and enlighten the people, traditional Chinese culture was shaping the model, methodology, and characteristics of theoretical research on IR issues through creative transformation, advancing the orientation of IR studies toward a field of social sciences. 

Regarding theoretical construction, a theoretical landscape featuring the troika of realism, liberalism, and Marxism was built within modern Chinese IR studies. Between these different paradigms, eclecticism and theoretical integration were evident, demonstrating a strong practical rationality. 

When it comes to research methodology, the view of science as well as the understanding and application of science-based approaches, which formed in early Chinese IR studies, was also profoundly influenced by traditional Chinese culture. This influence is not only embodied in IR scholars’ extraordinary attention to historical approaches, and their attempts to underline traditional cultural and social elements when examining the evolution of the international community, but also in their emphasis on and practical application of dialectics and the method of contradiction analysis as they examined historical and realistic IR issues. The underlying philosophical mentalities of dialectics and zhongyong (the doctrine of the mean), which are significant components of traditional Chinese culture, also had a far-reaching impact on the disciplinary and theoretical development of Chinese IR studies later.  

By creatively transforming traditional Chinese culture, modern Chinese scholars provided interpretations specific to the times for concepts like gong tianxia (pursuing common good for all), xiewanbang (peace among all nations), and ren de tianxia (winning the world with virtue). They broadened the scope of these notions and made them universal principles. These creatively transformed ideas greatly influenced China when the country took part in international organizations and international affairs, carried out national independence and emancipation movements, joined the global anti-Fascist united front, and promoted international cultural exchanges and mutual learning among civilizations.  

At the same time, during inter-lingual practices of knowledge production in the early stage of Chinese IR studies, traditional Chinese culture left its indelible mark within translations of Western monographs and papers published in foreign academic journals. For example, scholars introduced Western “cosmopolitanism” and “pacifism” using the traditional Chinese concept “great unity” during translation, creatively translated the Confucian notion of “ren (benevolence)” by exploring the traditional Chinese thought on human rights, and delivered voices with Chinese historical, cultural, and intellectual value on international academic journals. All these endeavors called for a fairer, more just, and more civilized international order in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. 

Knowledge production

Knowledge production during early Chinese IR studies reflected a civilizational outlook which stressed diversity, equality, openness, and inclusiveness in traditional Chinese culture. Modern scholars realized that China’s integration into the West-led international community and socialization in the international arena didn’t necessarily mean that China should dismiss its traditional culture and intellectual resources. They understood that traditional culture should not be overlooked or left in oblivion. 

As Chinese IR studies emerged, scholars’ practices of exploring, drawing upon, and leveraging traditional culture revealed that creatively transforming and innovatively developing fine traditional culture was of paramount importance, in order to turn the cultural resources into useful legacies for handling the relationship between China and the world and into intellectual wisdom that China would share with the international community. 

The concept of ren in traditional Chinese culture inherently requires the parties concerned to retain their own personality and learn to respect those of others as well as their own, therefore enabling each individual and nation to achieve full self-development. This spirit is not only a code of conduct for interpersonal relationships but is also applicable to international relations. 

The socialization of China by integrating into the modern international community was by no means a process of Westernization. Instead, it was a process of cosmopolitanization. Early Chinese IR studies’ creative transformation and innovative development of traditional culture mirrored the unique value pursuit of “allowing each civilization to demonstrate their own unique beauty and thus making the world harmonious,” despite the tremendous impact of Western knowledge and culture. 

Today as global IR studies are thriving, traditional Chinese culture, as an indigenous intellectual resource, plays a vital role in shaping the theoretical development, disciplinary system, and discourse system for a Chinese school of thought in IR theory. 

In the 20th century, as the international order and norms underwent significant changes, China’s strength and global status also evolved. As a result, contemporary Chinese scholars possess a distinct mentality, purpose, and approach when it comes to comprehending and utilizing traditional Chinese cultural resources, which differs greatly from their modern counterparts. However, through different eras, Chinese intellectuals’ value pursuits and their visions of an ideal international order have been inseparable from the influence of traditional culture. Different generations have much in common when exploring and utilizing the intellectual resources. 

To contemporary academia, building a Chinese school of thought in IR theory requires efforts to dig into resources of fine traditional Chinese culture during the emergence and development of Chinese IR studies, and review how modern scholars creatively transformed the traditional culture and dissected IR problems of modern times on that basis. It is essential to reflect on the process of how international relations was introduced to China as a field of study and formed Chinese characteristics from long-term perspectives, thereby contributing Chinese insights to problems facing international relations and global governance. 

Zhao Siyang is an associate professor from the School of International Studies at Jinan University in Guangdong Province. 




2023-10-31 02:23
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