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.

Morning readings…in medias res… research on ‘culture’ paving the New Silk Roads (1)

Flipping through Xinhua and South China Morning Post this morning, I clicked thru a few headlines about Chinese State-Owned Enterprises calling in non-essential workers from Myanmar, US-China performativity on both sides, and also about the Oxford-trained presence in US President Joe Biden’s cabinet (this last from Peter Frankopan’s re-Tweet).

I’m also going through a book, Structures of the Earth: Metageographies of Early Medieval China by D. Jonathan Felt (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center). If you’re looking for an excellent source for not only quantitative analysis of the literary genre of geographical literature, then this book is the place. If you’re looking for a theoretical framework by which to think about China’s practices of geography as well as historiography, then this is the book.

Main gleanings, interesting edges as thought-blade:

“metageography”–according to Martin Lewis and Karen Wiggen, is “the set of spatial structures through which people order their knowledge of the world.”

D. Jonathan Felt, Structures of the Earth: Metageographies of Early Medieval China, Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2021, p. 3.

“Modern examples of global metageographies include Eurocentrism, the East-West model, the nation-states system, the geographic coordinate system, Wallerstein’s world-systems theory, and the first, second, and third worlds.” –D. JONATHAN FELT, STRUCTURES OF THE EARTH: METAGEOGRAPHIES OF EARLY MEDIEVAL CHINA, CAMBRIDGE: HARVARD UNIVERSITY ASIA CENTER, 2021, P. 3.

“Too often Sinologists construct artificial divisions between Buddhist and “normal” Sinitic literature. But the prominence of Buddhist authors and Buddhist metageographies throughout early medieval geographical literature breaks down these divisions.”


Key geographical genre of literature names and texts mentioned in first chapter of Structures of the Earth:

地理记 dili ji [records of the structures of the earth]
地方志 difang zhi [gazetteer]
杜佑 Du You (735-812 CE), Tang critic of medieval local geographies
中国 ‘Middle-Kingdom,’ aka China
华夏 Huaxia, Sinitic cultural/civilizational realm or ecumene
水经注, Shuijing zhu [Guide to waterways with commentary], by 郦道元 (d. 527 CE), an official of the Northern Wei (386-534)
佛国记 Foguo ji [Record of the Buddhist states], by 法显, cf: 法显传 Faxian zhuan [Memoir of the Eminent Monk]
洛阳伽蓝记 Luoyang qielan ji [Record of the monasteries of Luoyang], by 杨衒之
华阳国志 Huayang guozhi [Record of the kingdoms south of Mount Hua, by 常璩 Chang Qu
禹贡 Yu gong [Tribute of Yu]
史记 Shi ji Records of the Historian, by 表演司马迁 Sima Qian (ca. 145-ca. 86 BCE)
河渠书 Hequ shu [Monograph on rivers and canals]
货殖列传 Huozhi liezhuan [Memoirs of moneymakers]
管子 Guanzi [Writers of Master Guan]
山海经 Shanhai jing [Classic of mountains and seas]
淮南子, Huainanzi [Master of Huainan: ] (地形 Dixing [Terrestrial forms], and 齐俗 Qi su [Monograph on geography] chapters)
邹衍 (ca 250), created an alternative metageograhy based on a model of a Kunlun-centered world in which Sinitic civilization inhabits the southeastern corner of the earth.
地理志 Dili zhi [Monograph on geography), most topically comprehensive geographical text to date, by 班固 Ban Gu (32-92)
吴地记 Wu di zhuan [Tales of the land of Wu]
越地传 Yue di zhuan [Tales of the land of Yue], in the 越绝书 Yue jue shu [Lost histories of Yue]
顾恺之 Gu Kaizhi (ca. 345-406), Eastern Jin painter
江赋 Jiang Fu [River fu], by 郭璞 Guo Pu (276-324)
宋永初山川记 Song Yongchu shanchuan ji [Records of the mountains and rivers of the Yongchu reign period of the Song dynasty]
穆天子传 Mu Tianzi zhuan [Account of Mu, Son of Heaven]
张騫 Zhang Qian (d. ca. 114 BCE), went on a mission to the Xiongnu empire
扶南 Funan, a complex Southeast Asia state that arose in 3rd century, elevating the importance of political and commercial relationships in the Southeast Wu region in Yangzi basin.
三国志 Sanguo zhi, by Chen Shou has accounts of diplomatic missions to South and Southeast Asia
扶南传 Funan zhuan [Account of Funan] & 扶南异物志 Funan yiwu zhi [Record of the peculiar things of Funan)
北史 Bei shi [History of the Northern Dynasties]
南史 Nan shi [History of the Southern Dynasties]
边地 biandi [peripheral land]
道整 Dao Zheng, Faxian’s traveling companion
四海百川水源记 Sihai baichuan shuiyuan ji [Record of the source of the hundred rivers within the four seas], by 道安 Dao An (d. 385)
地理书 Dili shu [Geographical writing], by 陆澄 Lu Cheng (425-94)
地记 Diji [Records of the earth], by 任昉 (459-507)
健康 Jiankang (modern day Nanjing)、长安 (modern day Xi’an)、邺 (capital established by Cao Wei founder, Cao Cao, during the Three Kingdoms period) are the three main geographical centers of the 6th century
禹贡地域图 Yu gong diyu tu [Map of the regions of the tribute of Yu], by 裴秀 Pei Xiu (224-71)
畿服经 Jifu jing [Classic of the imperial domain], by 挚虞
Qualities of geographies: 旁 pang [extensive], 通 tong [thorough], 宣 xuan [comprehensive], 简 jian [scant in detail], 裁cai [reductive], 略 lue [outlines]
史通 Shitong [Comprehensive understanding of history], by 刘知几 Liu Zhiji (661-721)
图经 Tu jing [map-treatise]
职方 Zhifang [Zhou office of manager of regions]
周礼 Zhou li [Rituals of Zhou]
萧何 Xiao He (d. 193 BCE), saved the Qin maps from the fire that destroyed Xianyang so he could know the strategic points of the empire
末学 moxue [superficial studies]
疆理天下 jiang li tianxia [regulating the boundaries of tianxia]
元嘉六年地记 Yuanjia liunian diji [Geographical record of the sixth year of the Song Dynasty Yuanjia reign period]

Sophastre on the Silk Road

Identity Labor

China is a destiny, a growing, and a torture all at once. The expectations of ‘identity labor‘ required of living in skilled contexts in a foreign country, well…it adds character.

This isn’t going to be a long entry, just a milestone, a rock placed in just such a way by the side of the road so as to mark one’s progress.

I met a new friend online. During these days, weeks, and months of COVID-19, I imagine many of us have met a new friend online. It’s a special way to enter into the existence of another. Seemingly random, easy to dispose of should it no longer serve our own daily narrative, and yet; more often than I could ever imagine; incredibly rewarding at times.

My new friend was asking me why I had bound my own life so inextricably with the rise of China, why I had spent twenty years working in its education sector, getting my graduate degrees there, and even now working a job remotely, from my desk here in Bellingham, WA, at a Chinese university.

I got the sense when my new friend asked me about my China-pull, that what she really wanted to know is when it would all end. When would I come to my senses, and just get back to my own culture and society once and for all. So I answered her in a way that expressed the pros and cons of China for me.

China made personal growth inevitable. Just the passage of time, itself, offers ample opportunity for growth. There is the growth one goes through in a developing nation, dealing with aggravation and inconvenience of systems that arise from wholly other logical imaginings of the world. With no privacy, faulty utilities, lack of consumer goods, and no-one who understands or accepts you for who you are; living in a foreign country can take its toll. Hence the growth. It takes vitality and will towards personal transformation to live gracefully in a foreign society. So the torture…that’s the growth factor. I am not complaining. After all, I signed up for every minute of this.

Life in China has changed a great deal in the course of two decades. Water, electricity, gas, or internet are still prone to outages, because the infrastructure is being renewed constantly. However; there’s usually notice, so one can cook one’s meal early, or wash the dishes before the water is turned off. Maybe the notices were always there, but now my Chinese is good enough to read them. The consumer goods are all there now, too; as the world’s supply chains lead inevitably, either in manufacture or consumption, to Beijing; or Hong Kong, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Wuhan, Xi’an, Chongqing, or Chengdu. I used to ride around on my Flying Pigeon bike for an hour and a half looking for a cup of coffee; at last falling into a hot cup of rich aroma from the McDonalds on the priciest commercial street in the city. Now, I can take out my phone, open the Waimai app (similar to Doordash or Yelp), and have any number or flavor of coffee sent to my door within 17 minutes.

Coffee (or anything) door-delivery is very convenient in China with apps such as Waimai 外卖

Another thing that has changed, and this is key, is my role in China. Twenty years ago I was a common English teacher with a B.A. in philosophy. In other words, I had no skills whatsoever to make a living with in my own culture; so I used the cultural capital I had at the time, one of the most basic skills I acquired early in life–that of speaking my mother tongue–and hawked it for the monthly salary of 2300 RMB. Back in 1999, that was about three hundred US dollars. After ten years of that, during which I taught myself a number of disciplines, including how to speak, read, and write in Chinese; I tested into graduate school. Shortly after beginning my MA in Chinese classical literature, I began moonlighting in the fine arts sector as curator of Chinese performance art. Thus, for the past ten years, I’ve been moving through and living in skilled contexts. At school, my conversations with colleagues and teachers are about high-level knowledge at the breaking edge of Chinese philosophical, metaphysical, aesthetic and literary achievement. In the community, my conversations with, interviews of, articles about performance art, painting, sculpture, installation, film, television, and arts management all require lexical dexterity, with every new conversation bringing into my life a new word, idea, value, or reference point.

The work which aged me, sickened me, and drained me of most of my life force in moments of self-doubt; has been the work of ‘identity labor.’ Doing a quick search online, either in google or in an academic data base; the notion is unsurprisingly bound up with discourses on ‘performativity.’ Without going any more deeply into defining or explaining what the term tends to mean, I will express how identity labor feels to me. It is exhausting.

“Well, why can’t you just be yourself?”

“If they don’t accept you then to hell with them.”

In China, you are never yourself. You can never say the words that arise naturally within you. You can never sit in the seat that feels right, or wear the clothes that express who you are. Of course, you can do all of this, and more; in fact many discover new potentials of who they are by transcending not only cultural norms in China; but cultural norms as well. If you work in skilled contexts in China, you are who you are in relationship to others. What you say does not mean what you said. It means what it means in relationship to the last thing you said, and just importantly to the next thing you will say. You may not sit in the seat with the best view, next to the person you want to get to know, or with the best airflow. You must sit around the table in a social or professional hierarchy, in a spatial milieu.

While mainstream media and China pundits are busy condemning or condoning ‘China’ as some monolithic thing which we can or can’t accept; Chinese people are awakening within highly skilled contexts, and ideas arising out of rigorous practise and thoughtful contemplation. Knowledge workers and symbol creators are coming of age in a feedback loop between grassroots social, political, economic, and cultural development; and a highly centralised central government which tempers diversity of social, political, economic, and cultural messaging. Its this foil, between the top-down and the bottom-up, that I attend to.

I think it’s important we support the artists and scholars of a (re) emerging cultural power.