Home > Philosophy, politics > Tsinghua University Professor, Yan Xuetong: “Xun Zi’s Thoughts on International Politics and Their Implications”

Tsinghua University Professor, Yan Xuetong: “Xun Zi’s Thoughts on International Politics and Their Implications”

Recently, I asked Tsinghua University Professor, Yan Xuetong, “In your view, how could our world shift away from politics that’s dominated by power? Can China’s rise change that?” Previously, I wrote about Professor Yan’s paper, “Tsinghua University Professor, Yan Xuetong: “The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes”,” where he said that the current international relations culture established by the West is dominated by power – where might is right. So I was hoping he’s got an answer to that question.

In response, he said:

No one can gurantee China’s rise will lead the world toward a one based on morality. It only creates a opportunity for the world to change. Morality will become the base for world politics if China provides a leadership of humane authority and power will still be the base if China replace the US with the same hegemonic leadership.

He then pointed me to a paper he published few years ago, “Xun Zi’s Thoguhts on International Politics and Their Implications” in The Chinese Journal of International Politics (where he is also Editor in Chief).

In that paper, Professor Yan analyzed international relations theory through the thoughts of ancient Chinese philosopher Xun Zi (荀子, 312-230BC). It’s a fascinating read. My favorite quote from the paper is:

This author believes that Xun Zi’s ideas on statecraft can be summed up in one of his main statements: ‘One who uses the state to establish justice will be king; one who establishes trust will be a lord-protector; and one who establishes a record of expediency and opportunism will perish.’

(The paper will explain Xun Zi’s definition for “king” and “lord-protector.”)

In the passage below, he articulates Xun Zi’s view of “normative hierarchical order” as a better value for creating fairness and stability in the international system:

After the signing in 1648 of the Westphalia Treaty, equality of state sovereignty became a universal international norm. It is one in direct opposition to Xun Zi’s belief that a differentiated, hierarchical norm helps prevent conflict between states. Certain countries worry that a rising China might revive the old East-Asian tributary system. But any such renewal would inevitably lessen China international political mobilization. Objectively, however, big and small states are not equal as regards power. Establishing a hierarchical norm, therefore, could help maintain a balance of power and responsibility, thereby reducing international conflict and strengthening cooperative relationships.

‘Hierarchy’ is a negative term in modern political language, synonymous with inequality. Because, however, the power status between states objectively differs, only a normative hierarchical order maintains fairness. The principle of absolute equality actually promotes unfairness. In a boxing match, for example, boxers are classed according to weight—a kind of normative hierarchical order intended to uphold fair play. Without differentiated weight ranking a fair match is obviously impossible. As regards international norms, differentiation depends on the concerned state’s position in international society, according to Xun Zi’s explanation of the Five Ordinance System. The closer a state’s power status to the world centre, the more closely it should follow strictly designed international norms. International norms applied to peripheral states, on the other hand, should be more relaxed and flexible. This is an unequal but fair international norm. In the 10+1 (China and ASEAN) free-trade area, for example, China will be the first to levy zero tariffs on the agricultural products it imports from ASEAN countries. This unequal regulation enhances 10+1 development. Japan, in its pursuit of economic cooperation with ASEAN countries, however, demands parallel tariff levels, which impedes ASEAN development.

  1. May 2nd, 2011 at 12:23 | #1

    I find it difficult to accept Xun Zi’s notion of normative hierarchy.

    (1) a defined “hierarchy” in any form is as rigid as a system of “equality”. Fundamentally unsustainable to deal with the fluid dynamics that changes relationships.

    (2) Naturally, all state powers seek equilibrium with others, and thus, every action invites counter actions. A “hierarchy” maybe only maintained temporarily before the weaker parties seeks to change the dynamics. Even strong parties in the “center” may seek to lessen their burden and move to the peripheral, if that is advantageous. This flux would render the system, again, unsustainable.

    (3) The key to balance, I believe, is that a system of “equality” in name only, which everyone acknowledges informally inherent “inequality” in influences.

    A system where the center bears more burden would also be detrimental in creating potential tyrants in the center, who come to think that they are more entitled because of their burden.

    China should not be burdened more, nor feel entitled more.

  2. May 2nd, 2011 at 14:46 | #2


    I think the idea of “normative hierarchy” is to make sure it is NOT rigid. Over time as nation state’s strength increases or declines, the system adjusts accordingly.

    As Prof. Yan says:

    Establishing a hierarchical norm, therefore, could help maintain a balance of power and responsibility, thereby reducing international conflict and strengthening cooperative relationships.

    You also made this comment some times ago that as the West’s relative strength declines, you’d expect a “right” proportioning of the West’s influence on the global stage. People also point to, for example, the U.K. having the veto power in the Security Council being an out-sized influence that ought to be corrected.

  3. raventhorn2000
    May 2nd, 2011 at 16:19 | #3

    Relationships are dynamic.

    Influences we wield cannot be set in diplomatic stones.

    It is sufficient to minimally pretend that nations are “equal”, and leave the finer details of influence hidden.

    That way, it would make the bigger power look smaller, and make the smaller powers look greater.

    A humble man knows to use his humbleness to look ignorant, so that others with knowledge to teach would not be put off.

    And when bargaining, a stronger diplomat knows to let himself look weak, so that the other side thinks they have the advantage. While at the same time, the diplomats on the weak sides often do bluff their strengths, so that the other side thinks them truly have the advantage.

    In this, it is the game of pretense of equality, for the purpose of all involved.

    Even in a “hierarchy”, there would be the same pretense of equality, as part of the game.

  1. January 26th, 2018 at 09:58 | #1

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