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Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power

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How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power

By Howard W. French

New York: Vintage, 2018 (reprint)

352 pages, ISBN: 978-0804172455, Paperback

Reviewed by Robert W. Foster

For the past several years, I have traveled in China at the end of September as the country ramps up for National Day on October 1. In the cities, one cannot avoid Xi Jinping’s China Dream campaign, with various attractive posters urging “Chinese spirit, Chinese culture, Chinese forms, Chinese expression.” On an internal flight, I watched Jackie Chan’s over-the-top “Kung-fu Yoga,” in which he plays a Chinese archaeologist working with a beautiful South Asian colleague to find missing Silk Road treasures. At one point, Chan’s character turns to his counterpart and notes that their cooperation will help promote the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative (more on this below). And, indeed, in Xi’an, with its park and statuary commemorating the Silk Road, banners proclaimed the imminent OBOR meeting. Somewhat more darkly, television programming was replete with anti-Japanese war dramas. All these things point to a concerted effort to restore Chinese pride at home and abroad. This nationalist trend is at the heart of Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power.

book cover for Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power

French’s book is quite readable. It is aimed at a general audience and succeeds in making complicated issues clearer. It is suitable for high school world history teachers or undergraduate classes. The central issue is how China’s rise is challenging the international power structure, particularly the position of the United States. Unlike many other works on contemporary China, French explains Chinese foreign policy through the lens of the imperial tribute system. His catchphrase for the system is tian xia, which he translates as “everything under the heavens.” French writes:

Whatever the needs of the moment, the ideological foundations of China’s move to take over its near seas were bound up in the concept of tian xia, namely that it was China’s manifest destiny to once again reign preponderant over a wide sphere of Asia—the old “known world”— much as it supposedly had in a half-idealized, half-mythologized past. Only by doing so could the country realize its dreams; only in this way could its dignity be restored. This kind of thinking was shared not just by Deng and Mao, but by every modern Chinese national leader since Sun Yat-sen . . . (248)

French applies this historical understanding to China’s current attempts to expand into both the East China and South China seas, which has led to conflict with its neighbors. One of the strengths of French’s work is that it examines the neighboring relations through the lenses of both Chinese and non-Chinese history. For example, much effort is spent on the fraught relations with Japan. French provides a balanced overview of the territorial and ideological disputes from the 1500s to the present. The equally tense relationship with Việt Nam is given similar treatment. French argues that what seems like a new, aggressive shift in Chinese foreign policy is in keeping with the historical sense of hierarchy based upon the Chinese tribute system. In 2010, this attitude was summed up by Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi’s response to a Singaporean official who questioned China’s grab for the South China Sea: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact” (126). Acquiescing to the big neighbor was the foundation of the historical Pax Sinica in East Asia. The choice for “small countries” historically was “accept [China’s] superiority and we will confer upon you political legitimacy, develop a trade partnership, and provide a range of what are known in the language of modern international affairs as public goods” (5).

While China was unable to make good on this vision for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, its economic growth over the past thirty years has provided leverage with its neighbors. Like any power, promises of aid and trade are often linked to political concessions from the recipient. French points to a moment in 2014 when the Philippines challenged Chinese territorial claims in international court. A Chinese official remarked to Filipino reporters that Malaysia had US $100 billion in annual trade with China, despite being much smaller than the Philippines, which only had US $20 billion in annual trade with China (83). His point was none too subtle.

The clearest and most ambitious attempt to shift economic power away from the United States is the OBOR initiative. According to one source, the project “would encompass 4.4 billion people, sixty-four countries, and a combined economic output of $21 trillion—roughly twice the annual gross domestic product of China, or 29 percent of global GDP” (258). Through developing overland infrastructure in Central Asia, China will connect with Europe; through developing maritime infrastructure, China will connect with Asian neighbors and Africa. China would become the hub of this international system, leaving the United States and its floundering Trans-Pacific Partnership on the outside. OBOR would be the carrot to the stick of its expanding navy. The vision of OBOR is of a benevolent China that treats all impartially within the system. The vision fits with Liu Mingfu’s 2010 book The China Dream, which argues that China has never been expansionist. French quotes Liu: “The Chinese empire, at its peak, could have looked at the world in disdain, because there was no other nation strong enough to challenge it, and if China had had the desire to expand, no other nation could have resisted . . . As we can see, China is a nation that does not invade smaller or weaker nations and does not threaten neighboring countries” (243). And yet, conquest and expansion is a constant theme in Chinese history—Việt Nam being a classic case.

The introduction and six chapters of French’s book make a clear case for understanding the PRC’s current irredentism as historically grounded. Interestingly, the conclusion posits that the current urgency for territorial expansion is the party leadership’s recognition that China’s window of opportunity may close soon. French argues that China’s power will soon wane, for a number of mainly domestic reasons, so leaders hope to get what they can while they can (270, 282). While the majority of the book seems a wake-up call to Chinese expansion, the conclusion attempts to reassure. French believes that China’s actions will, on the contrary, promote America’s position in the region, the main reason being that the tribute system of tian xia is a power hierarchy without higher ideals. French believes that American liberal values still have cache internationally (284), though he does argue that the US will have to deal with China’s rise skillfully (282).

This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. The only caveat is that China’s internal problems, which French argues motivate China’s current assertiveness, are not dealt with in detail; however, the book cannot do everything. Yet it does what it does—linking past foreign relations with those of the present—well. In a classroom, I would use it with a source that examines China’s domestic dynamics. Susan L. Shirk’s China: Fragile Superpower and James Kynge’s China Shakes the World both predate Xi’s rise, but introduce domestic concerns.1 Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom’s China in the 21st Century is more current, but I find it harder to use since it is written as brief responses to related questions and issues, rather than having a strong central thesis.2 For a Chinese perspective, one might look to the English-language works of Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University.3 ■


  1. Susan L. Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007). James Kynge, China Shakes the World: A Titan’s Rise and Troubled Future—and the Challenge for America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006).
  2. Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  3. Jisi Wang, “China’s Search for Stability with America,” Foreign Affairs, September 2005, 39–48. Joseph S. Nye Jr. and Wang Jisi, “Hard Decisions on Soft Power,” Harvard International Review 31, no. 2 (2009): 18–22.