Professor Wang Gungwu, one of the finest historians of our time, once again, reminds us to take a renewed look at the past from today’s perspective. He presents to readers his insightful analysis of the distinctions between the concepts of the state as an apolitical institution in the modern world and the concept of Chinese history up to the 20th century.
The concept of the state in the modern world was developed in the 17th century after the Thirty Years’ War. At this time, nation-states appeared in Europe to bear the hallmark of being polities with exclusive sovereignties. On the other hand, the concept of tianxia 天下 refers to the form of an empire throughout a millennium of Chinese history. More often than not, tianxia is a cultural, political, and economic network of various components interwoven into a complex coalition by administrative functions, economic interdependence, and cultural affiliations. Ethnic entities have various levels of autonomy as well as tributaries that are in ad hoc relationships with China proper. Neighboring states that are politically independent from China have also stayed within Chinese cultural and economic spheres. In such a model, the contents of the sovereignties of each constituency are often relative and not exclusive.
Professor Wang, realizing the phenomenon of globalization in the world today, has brought to our attention that other than the modern nation-state governed by an exclusive sovereignty, alternative forms that affect the organization of a viable global order deserve our consideration. For instance, an empowered United Nations has preserved the coexistence of nations in the world without the occurrence of frequent conflicts and contentions in recent centuries following the Thirty Years’ War.
Other than the case of the Chinese tianxia, there are still several other patterns of complex polities. For example, supranational unions are different from the modern nation-state world order and include the Hellenic community of city-states, the ecumenical order of Catholicism, and the multitribal leagues of pre-Columbian America. The European [End Page 233] Union and the British Commonwealth also deserve our attention as references for enhancing the function of the United Nations.
Today, following the ceaseless conflicts among nation-states since the end of the unprecedented violence of World War II, we must reexamine the current conditions that the concept of the nation-state and its exclusive sovereignty have created for the world. [End Page 234]