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BOOK REVIEW: Everything under the Heavens
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Everything under the Heavens

By Howards French

从外国人的视角看中国,永远有着无穷无尽的看点和话题。继前几期我们介绍过的有关中国的书之后,本期将为大家推介中国问题专家、记者兼学者Howard French(傅好文)所著的《天下万物:历史如何帮助中国力争成为全球强国》(Everything Under The Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China's Push for Global Power)。

Howard French先生曾任《纽约时报》驻上海的首席记者,他曾写过多本与中国有关的著作,如《中国的第二块大陆:百万移民如何在非洲建立新帝国》。在《天下万物》中,他认为从本质上来说,中国在寻求恢复中国传统意义上在亚洲享有的地位--即支配性的地区大国,其他国家都必须服从它或向它朝贡:"在过去两千年的大部分时间内,从中国自己的角度来看,世界的常态就是中国天生统治着天下万物。"。实际上,这里的"天下"意味着"包括邻近的中亚、东南亚以及东亚在内的庞大而熟悉的地理版图"。



BT 201706 BOOK 01
China's immense history is both a weapon that can be brandished and a constraint determining patterns of diplomatic interactions. Knowledge of Chinese history, inculcated in every sentient Chinese, like Greco-Roman studies amongst educated Europeans before the First World War, dictates the terms of reference, understanding and thus of action. Everything under the Heavens by Howards French thus attempts to look at China's modern diplomacy with its neighbors through the lens of its historical interactions, its abiding sense of self and its shaping by historical forces.

In effect this is a tour d'horizon of China's neighborly diplomacy, buffeted by discussions of Chinese and East Asian history with parallels sought and resonances conveyed. Despite changes in borders, societies, politics and regional power systems, it's remarkable how consistent the Chinese national conception is and how this dictates its behavior towards its neighboring states. Much is made of the concept of tian xia - "everything under heaven" - whereby the Chinese emperor ruled the known world or everything in the known civilization, so that what was not known was automatically inferior. Such hubris can be seen repeatedly throughout history - probably every great civilization has a foundational myth putting it at the centre of the world; the Romans, for example, named the Mediterranean after medi and terra, middle and earth, and Great Britain naturally placed the central GMT timeline through London.

What is striking is how enduring tian xia is. This is not to say that outsiders are instantly dismissed as barbarians or that fealty is demanded from neighbors and diplomatic missions, as was once the case. Rather, China's conception of itself as a world centre with advantages and risks that go with it is fascinatingly enduring. It might be significant that China's low ebb from 1860 to 1980 is referred to as the "century of humiliation". This implies transgressions against Chinese dignity and greatness, rather than a diminution or displacement from its locus. Even in its weakest moments, knowledge of Chinese history gives recent Chinese leaders a remarkable consistency: they understood (and understand) China's place in the world and also the weapons and strategies that it has had to call upon.

In a book packed with historical resonances, sometimes they appear implied rather than fully explicated. For instance:

...[Emperor] Yongle's policy ... was rejected by his successors, just as his strategy of making forays into the northern steppes was abandoned in place of relying on a Great Wall for defense... The hyper-activism of Yongle in pursuit of growing Chinese domination was suddenly replaced by an inward-looking attitude of passivity and fulsomely proclaimed self-satisfaction. Overseas trade was spoken of as something only relished by foreigners... [And was said] to bring unwanted foreigners.

One does not have to stretch very far to perceive parallels with the United States under Donald Trump. However, for most part, the French have demonstrated historical parallels, tying together China's current relations with Vietnam, Japan, the Philippines, Cambodia and Hong Kong with a deep understanding of the forces shaping China's sense of itself and of others.

For anyone interested in China and its diplomacy, Everything under the Heavens is an absorbing book filled with insight, understanding and an unerring historical sense.

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