Tianxia of the Mind

Correspondence between Mind and Body, Self and Land

Temple of Heaven, located in Beijing. The park grounds surrounding this monumental building prepare one for the ritualistic experience of visiting here.

Back in March, I chatted a bit about what I was reading, and first mentioned Structures of the Earth, by Jonathan Felt, in which the author speaks a great deal about the notion of Tianxia 天下 (all under Heaven). I also wrote about Tianxia in my last post in connection with the meta-geography being constructed by both a fourth century Chinese metaphysician and scholar-poet Guo Pu, and China’s president today, Xi Jinping. 

Here’s a quote from Felt’s book which captures an important aspect of Tianxia—its imaginary nature. In this excerpt, Felt is discussing the Jiangkang empire (the very empire poet Guo Pu was writing about in his poem, the ‘River Fu’). The Jiankang was the first empire of China to be based around the Yangzi River basin in the south, rather than around the Yellow River, in the north of China. 

The Jiankang empire’s claim to political centrality required greater adaptation from the Han model than did the Tabgatch empire’s claim. Jiankang was not part of zhongguo as it was traditionally defined (that is, as the Yellow River plain and/or the state[s] controlling this land). No state with its capital in the Yangzi basin had been recognized in the orthodox line of imperial dynastic succession to that point. The imperial metageography of the Jiankang empire, therefore, emphasized the power of ritual to transcend geography, to transform any regional space into the center of the world. This idea had old roots. The imperial capitals of the Han, Wei, and Jin regimes had moved repeatedly throughout the Yellow River basin, and the literary motif of capital rhapsodies emphasised that it was the transcendent ritual, not the local geography, that made a particular city into the world capital.1

The ‘Tabgatch empire’ refers to the sixteen kingdoms in the north of China during this ‘Period of Disunity’ in China, after the collapse of the Eastern Han in the 220 CE century through to re-unification by the Sui in 581 CE. ‘Zhongguo’ refers to the Roman pinyin Chinese word ‘China,’ which is the integral entity, or nationhood, we are seeking to understand in terms of unities and dis-unities. The Han, Wei, and Jin refer to the political entities that ruled China through the Han (both Western and Eastern) dynasties and Wei-Jin period, with their capitals based in the north until tribes from still further north descended upon the Central Plateau area around the Yellow River, forcing the Han people to flee south and establish the new Jiankang empire. 

Agreed, it’s a lot of history to digest all at once. However, history must be digested along with China’s art and literature. History is the record of China’s cultural political economy, of how economic and political vicissitudes have scripted and re-scripted China’s cultural make-up, both in influencing how people live and enjoy themselves, as well as how China’s artists and writers represent these lives and modes of enjoyment with words and images.

So what do I mean by my post’s title, ‘Tianxia of the Mind”? I am referring to the need for Tianxia, above all, to gain ritual power, this power being specifically the power to ‘transform any regional space into the center of the world.’ That is, a notion (Tianxia) must have the power to create not only a nation (China) as an ‘imagined community,’2but to give that community, or empire, a geographical grounding. In this sense place becomes space,3 and our bodies are now contained within a network of power, now subjects in a ‘bio-polity.’ 

Rituals do two things. First, they serve as a conduit of communication, and secondly by the very nature and strength of this communication, they help human beings transcend the physical world in the act of communicating with divinity. If we were to problematise this notion of divinity, either through a capitalist scientific-materialist lens or through a marxist scientific-materialist lens; we could reduce both human and the divine to physical phenomena within the natural universe, albeit within the mind of the human being. In this case, meta-geographies that “emphasized the power of ritual to transcend geography” would be able to reconfigure our spatial sense of nationhood and other such ‘imagined communities.’ This sort of meta-geography would carry the power of configuring Tianxia of our minds, the sense of all under Heaven, over-riding, or over-writing any other default ontology, or daemon ontology upon which we are basing our belief and value systems. 

Very, very powerful.

 1 Jonathan Felt, Structures of the Earth, Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2021, p.127.

2 Benedict Anderson defines the nation as “an imagined political community,” one that is “imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” Cf: Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (Revised Edition), London: Verso, 2006, p.42

3 Timotheus Vermeulen. “Space Is the Place.” Frieze, April 2015. https://www.frieze.com/article/space-place.

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