Essays

Everything Under Heaven

Howard French on China’s geopolitical ambitions

There was once a country at the very center of the world, whose position was recognized as such by peoples both far and wide. Today, we call that country China.

Using the very word “country” is actually deceptive. The nation that we now instantly identify on the map as China hasn’t existed long. Throughout most of its history this dynastically ruled land would not even have recognized itself as a country, let alone seen its neighbors as such. It was an empire, and a largely borderless one, both in its geographical form and in what it considered to be the relevance or applicability— what the French would call the rayonnement of its ideas. One could argue that there has never been a more universal conception of rule. Practically speaking, for the emperors of the Central Kingdom, this place we call China, the world could be roughly divided into two broad and simple categories, civilization and non-civilization, meaning the peoples who accepted the supremacy of its ruler, the Son of Heaven, and the principle of his celestial virtue, and those who didn’t— those who were beyond the pale.