Political theory is a predominantly West-centric field, replete with texts drawn from across continental Europe and Anglo-America. Yet since I have been teaching in the U.S. higher education system, I have always loved exposing my students to classical Chinese philosophy — abstruse and esoteric texts that the majority of students have never encountered in their lives.
I do this partly out of academic interest, but mostly because of my curiosity about how well common Chinese concepts can be translated in terms comprehensible to Western readers. It is an experiment which produces mixed results. Students receive the texts with a mixture of excitement and apprehension.
Commonly used terms in Chinese cultural linguistics, such as the notions of xiao, ren, and li (often expressed in English as “filial piety,” “benevolence,” and “ritual”) are rather difficult to reposition in a Western political context and consequently can prove perplexing to readers. With no easy parallels in Western discourse, these concepts are, in many ways, untranslatable.
For example, in one of our classes we came across the concept of tianxia. This term, which literally translates as “all under heaven,” originally referred to a vision of cosmopolitanism based on a form of supranational governance, with China at the center. Under the rules of this system, clearly demarcated political boundaries disappear in the light of the shared values that bind all people together.
Interestingly, one American student argued that tianxia was a synonym for the word “imperialism,” as to him it implied ultimate subjugation to a stronger political entity. For Western readers who may often regard the nation-state as the foundation of modern international politics, the deeper nuances of tianxia can therefore be rather difficult to grasp.
The difficulty can be partially attributed to the deeply rooted ideology of dichotomy in American political culture. Building on the Western liberalist tradition and empowered by modern neoliberalism, dichotomy is a mode of governance whereby politics is cast as a zero-sum game with one side triumphing over the other. It creates a dualistic perspective, according to which the ultimate purpose of politics is to divide and categorize. It therefore consolidates divisions that already exist in society, for example between citizens and immigrants, or between homosexuals and heterosexuals.
This is particularly evident in today’s America, where society is becoming increasingly polarized by controversial issues around migration and race. From Donald Trump’s fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric to police brutality against people of color, the current national climate deepens rather than assuages American political dualism. Its implicit logic is that politics is an exclusionary circle, maintained by the majority at the expense of an often sizeable minority.
Misunderstanding about the concept of tianxia also stems from a long-established tradition in American politics which places political institutions above everything else. In the U.S., the idea that good institutions are preconditions for good politics, rather than a function of them, has enjoyed widespread popularity for centuries. Although sound institutional procedures are indeed crucial to the idea of democracy, this tradition has rendered many Americans oblivious to the fact that politics usually plays out on a much wider stage than that provided by the state apparatus alone.
Many Chinese philosophical traditions seek “oneness” in the way politics is perceived and managed. Bypassing a dualist approach, philosophers ascribe politics to a set of dynamic social relations manifested in ritual behavior (li), which is preferred to clear boundaries between people and states. For them, the extent to which politics is considered healthy is based on how possible it is to establish mutually inclusive relations. Hence, the establishment of predetermined boundaries is alien to the Chinese tradition of governance, which operates from a more all-encompassing perspective.
For example, the classical Confucian tradition — espoused by the likes of Confucius, Mencius, and Xunzi — advocates a moral society in which all individuals are held accountable for political well-being. The concept of ren serves as moral guidance for every citizen, affording them the potential (and duty) to both transform and be transformed by society. This, in turn, strengthens the whole community, and not merely the partisan elite.
In addition, the Chinese tradition sees everyday activities as integral to politics. While their Western counterparts have historically ignored the mundane, Chinese philosophers have underlined the daily inner cultivation of the individual as a crucial component of political life. A well-known maxim encourages the populace to “cultivate oneself, manage the family, govern the state, and bring peace to all.” The sequential nature of this exhortation clearly links individual self-transformation with successful rule.
On this point, the difference between the Chinese and Western traditions is immense. Take the family as an example. Western political philosophers seldom consider the family a serious political domain. For them, the family does not belong to any political institution; rather, it is a settled place dominated by structured, unidirectional relations between the capable (parents) and the incapable (children).
But by the Chinese definition, the family is a microcosm of the state, and thus is far from apolitical. Its inner relations are characterized by dynamic forms of reciprocity among different members. In fulfilling personal obligations to family through the everyday practice of rituals — modern examples might include attending your cousin’s wedding reception or inviting your grandparents to your graduation ceremony — all members are held accountable for fulfilling political obligations as well.
The question of “untranslatable” concepts is important for reasons other than bamboozling politics majors, however. It demands that we look for a cross-cultural understanding of politics and enlarge our political vocabularies to transcend the dualist paradigm. In essence, it calls for the adoption of a more inclusionary and pluralistic approach to political issues.
(Header image: Passengers look at Tiananmen Gate from a bus window in Beijing, March 5, 2013. Bloomberg/Getty Images/VCG)