Imagining a Postnational World:
Hegemony and Space in Modern China

By Marc Andre Matten

Reviewed by Ban Wang
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright September, 2018)

Marc Andre Matten, Imagining a Postnational World: Hegemony and Space in Modern China. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2016. xi, 362 pp. ISBN: 978-90-04-32715-3 (hardcover)

The nation-state system has dominated the Western picture of the world since the Westphalia Treaty in 1648. As Marc Andre Matten explains, “the Peace of Westphalia . . . marked the beginning of a new world order characterized by the concept of a sovereign state governed by a sovereign” (81). Rooted in the tenets of sovereignty, territory, and state equality, the nation-state model divides the world into separate entities along the lines of ethnicity, race, and culture. Although it is a superstructure built on the concepts of national sovereignty and accepted by non-European societies, international law has never stopped worldwide lawlessness, and the nation-state has been the perpetrator of ceaseless conflict, chaos, and domination.

In his Imagining a Postnational World: Hegemony and Space in Modern China, Matten contends that the nation-state, for all the constraints of international law, was and is ill equipped to address interstate conflict and maintain world peace. From an East Asian perspective, Matten challenges the myth that “international law with its normative set of rules is the sole way to organize international behavior, create peace, and prevent war” (16). International law has proved powerless in checking states’ belligerent behavior and has been complicit with the colonialist suppression of colonized regions and nations. In the transit from empire to nation-state, China and Japan embraced nationalist thinking and built national institutions for self-protection and security. But East Asian thinkers felt the urge to go beyond the nationalist model. They imagined and articulated a post-national world by drawing on the imaginaries of world order from the imperial tradition and ecumenical tenets of Confucianism. This book thus joins a host of works about world order and geopolitics, such as Zhao Tingyang’s 趙汀陽 The Tianxia System (天下體系), Lydia Liu’s Clashes of Empires, Wang Hui’s The Politics of Imagining Asia, William Callahan’s Chinese Visions of World Order, David Kang’s East Asia Before the West, and many others. Such works proffer an East Asian perceptive about how to imagine a world order amid interstate conflict.

Works of political theory tend to take a presentist stance, rooted in rigid concepts, toward China’s global role and power. But this book excels at delving into classic canons, key documents, and historical context. Its theoretical premises lie in the twin notions of “territory” and “space.” Territory is associated with the modernization projects undertaken by China and Japan to build their own nation-states in order to survive in the cutthroat Social Darwinist world. It points to “the emergence of a territorially defined political consciousness that found its most refined expression in nationalism” (29), which coalesces territory, ethnicity, and sovereignty into a modern political entity. But this nationalist core is “questioned by the emergence of spatial thinking” (29),which comes as an alternative and corrective. Spatial thinking can be associated with the imperialist offshore sphere of influence, foreign interventions, and scrambles for hegemony over spaces. While it offered justifications for colonialism and capitalist expansion, spatial thinking allowed East Asian thinkers to go beyond nation and territory in search of inclusive spaces of alliance, affinity, and even solidarity, as in different versions of pan-Asianism in Japan and China. Re-enactments of classical intellectual resources are also part of spatial thinking. Re-examining past and current pronouncements of the tianxia 天下 doctrine (all under heaven), the Kingly Way, and other elements of ecumenical Confucianism, Matten masterfully articulates the deeply entrenched impulse among Asian thinkers to move beyond the territorially bounded nation-state and aspire to a moral space of harmony and reconciliation.

What makes this book an engaging read is the way Matten traces the shifting emphases of political concepts through research grounded in specific contexts. Rather than a conceptual exercise in normative International Relations theory or political thought, the book observes the classical tradition of intellectual history by blending conceptual analysis with attention to historical vicissitudes. Matten follows Quentin Skinner’s advice that “ideas have no lasting history but only a momentary performative role” (269). Chapter 5, “Fighting the White Peril: Japan’s Turn to Spatiality,” for instance, is a tour de force of intellectual analysis grounded in the dynamics of East Asian geopolitics. Asian responses to Western encroachments ranged from Japan’s Meiji Reform to the critique of the League of Nations, culminating in the call for the pan-Asian movement that sought to rally China, Japan, and Korea to fend off imperialist aggressors. Adducing abundant evidence from Japanese and Chinese documents and archives, often in illuminating detail, Matten delineates how pan-Asianism became an urgent topic of debate and a political agenda, embraced by both the right and left, and how it transformed into an ideological veneer for Japanese imperialism.

The East Asian tradition that Matten draws on is nothing less than the venerated repertoire of theories, visions, and practices associated with ancient China’s imperial system. Matten contrasts the model of a conflict-ridden modern world with radical distinction between friend and foe found in the work of the German thinker Carl Schmitt to the traditional Chinese notion of tianxia, a vision that yearns for the harmonious integration of areas beyond the civilized world. The scope of the latter constitutes a transnational entity broader than any particular nation-state, cutting across and transcending the lines of region, territory, and ethnicity. In the tianxia network, not only the Han, but also other groups could take up and preside over this capaciously conceived polity, as in the case of the Mongols, the Jurchen, or the Manchus.

The author delves into such classics as the Analects and Mencius and retrieves the idea of tianxia as a regime of value, ritual, and moral space, an integrative fabric connecting high and low, and far and near. Unhappy with the nation-state system, thinkers such as Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and Chen Lifu tapped into the Confucian classic Great Learning (大學) to imagine a different picture of world order. The Great Learning calls for the cultivation of the mind for literati officials, who ought to be able to spread virtue outward to the family and beyond, to administer the welfare of the people. Their concept of moral cultivation harmonizes all elements of society, leading to the pacification of all under heaven.

One fascinating result of the use of the past to understand the present explored by Matten is the concept of the tianxia-state 天下國, which echoes Liang Qichao’s vision of the cosmopolitan state (世界主義的國家 ). Coined by Liu Mengce 劉夢冊, the tianxia-state re-enacted the Kingly way and favored integration and harmony over rivalry and blood competition. Its core value consists of an ethic of reciprocity and mutual obligation. But, unable to peacefully pursue—let alone enshrine—a golden age of peace and harmony as envisioned in the tianxia-state, Chinese nationalist thinkers confronted the nation-state system as an external threat from a position of weakness and stress, and were compelled to build a nation-state as a prerequisite for survival and sovereignty against the encroaching powers. Indeed, Japan’s modernization project, followed later by China, appealed to the cardinal principles of the nation-state system in terms of sovereignty, state equality, and non-interference. Yet East Asian modernizers were denied access to the international club and their dream to stand as equals among the Western powers was shattered by a global racial hierarchy established by those at the top. This negative experience prompted them to resort to different visions of the world, so they engaged the nationalist reality by working through it. In Joseph Levenson’s words, they joined the world by going against it. Sun Yat-sen stressed the power, strength, and solidarity of a new Chinese nation. But the new nation would not be sucked into the vicious cycle of war and conflict. More than a mere copy of the Western nation-state, the Chinese Republic, infused by the tianxia ideal, would support colonized peoples and contribute to world peace and stability.

This study is intellectual history at its best. The author examines theoretical concepts not in splendid isolation but with an eye to historical circumstances. Historical upheaval and political events constantly compel thinkers to revise and reshape intellectual categories. For example, Schmitt’s theory of the political, which pivots on the irreconcilable divide between friend and foe, is re-examined comparatively. The friend-foe distinction, pitted against tianxia’s pacifist orientation, is deployed by Matten not to essentialize a peaceful Asia against a warlike West. He readily acknowledges that the use of force against enemies abounded in Chinese history and was significant in legalist thinking. But from a longer perspective, ancient China’s divisive politics were consistently checked by the conciliatory power of the tianxia vision. It is true that the Schmittian divide became a prominent feature in late Qing China, as in the case of the Taiping uprising or Zou Rong’s designation of the Manchus as the absolute enemy. But these episodes are only short interludes in a long duration dominated by the tianxia vision.

This admirable study ends with a reflection on the resurgence of tianxia discourse in the contemporary world. China’s rising influence allows Chinese writers to re-assert the nation’s responsibilities for world peace. But their re-assertion of the ancient vision as a norm leaves them open to charges of hegemony and imperial hubris. Still, Matten expresses the hope that as a viable alternative, the postnational tianxia may contribute to the rethinking of idealist theories of international relations, of hegemony without domination, and of culture rather realpolitik as a significant factor in forging a peaceful world order.

Ban Wang
Stanford University