Traditional values still play a central role in Chinese policymaking. And China’s rise as a global leader has highlighted how traditional cultural values, especially the value of Hexie or harmony, influence modern Chinese foreign policy. In this Q&A, Zhang Lihua explains the impact these values have on modern Chinese foreign policy and addresses the differences between Chinese and Western cultures.

What are the key elements of traditional Chinese culture that relate to Chinese foreign policy and diplomacy?

Zhang Lihua
Zhang Lihua is a resident scholar at Carnegie China. She is also a professor at the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University.
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The core value of Chinese traditional culture as far as Chinese foreign policy and diplomacy are concerned is the concept of harmony (Hexie, 和谐). Harmony is, in fact, a complete ideological system that consists of not only values but also a philosophy with its own world outlook. To be more specific, harmony includes principles such as the Tai Chi (Taiji, 太极) philosophy and the yin-yang dialectics that help people understand the origins of human beings and the evolution of society. Based on these principles, ancient Chinese sages and philosophers established this ideological system that sought to attain a harmonious equilibrium in the world.

The pursuit of Hexie is about maintaining harmony between man and nature, between human beings and society, between people, and between the mind and soul. With harmony at their core, traditional Chinese values posit that there is a dynamic inherent in the universe that converts imbalance into balance, incoordination to coordination, and disequilibrium into equilibrium. This dynamic manifests itself through the interaction of opposites as they cooperate and struggle against one another. 

Conflict resolution requires abiding by the Tian Dao (the cosmic laws), Di Dao (the telluric laws), and Ren Dao (the social laws) as well as by rational behavior. Chinese culture emphasizes harmony but not uniformity, promotes coexistence while respecting diversity, and advances mutually beneficial cooperation. 

How do traditional Chinese values influence Chinese foreign policy? 

Traditional Chinese culture subtly influences China’s national interests and foreign policy. The concept of harmony in traditional Chinese values provides four key ideas for Chinese foreign policy. 

First, seek harmony but not uniformity. That is, the universe unites diversity. There exist many differences in the universe, nature, and society. However, differences do not necessarily result in conflict or contradiction. Differences between objects sometimes evolve into contradictions and at other times constitute the necessary condition for harmony. 

The unification of diversity is the basis for the generation of new things. Confucius says, “The gentleman aims at harmony, and not at uniformity (junzi he er bu tong, 君子和而不同).” Thus, the gentleman may have views that differ from others, but he does not blindly follow others and instead seeks harmonious coexistence with them. 

Such ideas have been applied in the Chinese leadership’s formulation of foreign policy. Its adherence to the principle of seeking coexistence and common prosperity despite diversity is exemplified in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (he ping gong chu wu xiang yuan ze, 和平共处五项原则)—mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual nonaggression, noninterference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence—that were introduced by Chinese leaders in the 1950s to govern relations between states.

When former Chinese president Jiang Zemin visited the United States in 2002, he explained that this philosophy of harmony but not uniformity meant harmony promotes coexistence and shared prosperity, while differences can complement and support one another. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Chinese government established new directives to build a harmonious world, a harmonious Asia, and a harmonious neighborhood around China. 

The second idea is that big countries should respect smaller ones and vice versa. Lao Tse says in Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing, 《道德经》), “What makes a great state is how it is like a low-lying, down-flowing stream; the bigger state becomes the center that tends to all the small states like the smaller streams flowing to lower stream. The larger rivers and seas are respected by all the streams because of their skill in being lower than the smaller streams. Thus, they are the king. Since the larger stream does not strive to be dominant, the smaller streams and larger rivers and seas work together.”

This tells us that a big power needs to win the trust of a smaller state by keeping a low profile and not asserting its power. This idea is exemplified in the Chinese government's policy of fostering an amicable, secure, and prosperous neighborhood (mu lin, fu lin, shan lin, 睦邻、富邻、善邻), by China’s emphasis on sovereignty and non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, and by Chinese diplomatic concepts such as equality, mutual benefit, mutual aid, cooperation, and “win-win.”

The third idea is that it is lonely at the top (gao chu bu sheng han, 高处不胜寒) for powerful countries. The Qian Diagram (qian gua, 乾卦) in the I Ching or The Book of Changes (yi jing, 易经) says, “The proud dragon repents (kang long you hui, 亢龙有悔),” meaning that even a proud dragon will have to repent when it falls after flying too high into thin, freezing air. Lao Tse also notes in Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing, 道德经) that great strength can easily deteriorate. This means that large countries should not pursue supremacy or become consumed by their quest for power. Chinese diplomacy embodies these principles through its antihegemony stance. 

The fourth idea is that conflicts between states should be handled properly. Nonconfrontational conflicts should be handled through avenues that maintain harmony between states such as diplomatic negotiations. This is to ensure that any imbalance of power is corrected to achieve balance. 

However, in cases of aggressive confrontation that violate territorial sovereignty, threaten human life, or challenge other core interests, such as foreign invasions, counterattacks made in self-defense are appropriate. This is to ensure that unjust violence is ended by just means. As a common Chinese saying goes, “We will not attack unless we are attacked; we will certainly counterattack if we are attacked (ren bu fan wo wo bu fan ren, ren ruo fan wo wo bi fan ren, 人不犯我我不犯人,人若犯我我必犯人).” Harmony does not mean shying away from conflict, compromising on principles, or constant neutrality. Rather, harmony stresses that conflicts and struggles should be dealt with properly and legally. 

What parts of traditional Chinese culture are most valuable today?

Traditional Chinese culture consists of a wide range of values and principles, primarily based in Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Out of these three, Confucianism has been established as the orthodox philosophy of the Chinese state (guo xue, 国学) since the reign of Emperor Wu during the Han dynasty and has often been advocated by the ruling class. The state has also at times officially supported Buddhism, while Taoism has slowly spread into Chinese culture over time. The Chinese cultural legacy also consists of the Legalist (fa jia, 法家) and Mohist schools of thought (mo jia, 墨家), among others, and Sun Tsu's Art of War (sun zi bing fa, 孙子兵法). 

In modern Chinese society, classes on ancient Chinese classics, especially Confucian and Taoist works, are becoming increasingly popular. This reflects the spiritual hunger of Chinese people in today’s market economy. 

Traditional Chinese values such as harmony, benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, and honesty should be integrated with contemporary values such as freedom, democracy, human rights, rule of law, and equality. This fusion of traditional and contemporary should be combined with the Marxist values that China follows—namely, the realization of development, freedom, and liberation of human beings and the establishment of more advanced values. In this way, traditional Chinese culture can provide invaluable resources to construct the current mainstream value system. 

In the process, Chinese culture should adopt more critical thinking and phase out backward philosophies such as the Three Cardinal Guides (san gang, 三纲), according to which ruler guides subject, father guides child, and husband guides wife, as well as the Three Subjections (obedience to father before marriage, to husband after marriage, and to son after husband's death) and the Four Virtues (san cong si de, 三从四德) of women in ancient China—morality, proper speech, modest manner, and diligent work. Both the Three Subjections and the Four Virtues are spiritual fetters of wifely submission and virtue imposed on women in feudal society. These philosophies embrace monarchism, patriarchy, and sexism. The Chinese value system should advocate for mutual respect among citizens and encourage individuals to uphold benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, and honesty.

How do traditional Chinese values influence China’s modern development? 

Since the Chinese economy became market oriented, Chinese values and beliefs have been negatively altered. Materialism, money worship, arrogance, and scams are now common among the Chinese. In this kind of society, traditional Chinese values like benevolence, righteousness, courtesy, wisdom, and honesty can play a positive role, especially in addressing money worship and arrogance. Combining these traditional values with modern values like freedom, democracy, human rights, rule of law, equality, justice, fairness, efficiency, and competition could have a positive impact on improving society’s norms and values. 

In addition to integrating traditional Marxism and other modern ideals, Chinese society should adopt some traditional Chinese political values such as governance by virtue (wei zheng yi de, 为政以德) and the principle of people-oriented governance. Such political values correspond with other modern Chinese values like democracy of the people (renmin minzhu, 人民民主) and serving the people (wei ren min fu wu, 为人民服务).

How can China help the international community better understand the concept of a harmonious society? 

Many foreigners misunderstand the concept of a “harmonious society” because they do not truly understand the concept of harmony. 

The English word harmony is not the exact translation of the Chinese word Hexie (和谐). In English, harmony means attaining agreement without conflict or fighting and describes an ideal world of a completely harmonious society that does not exist. Hexie, by contrast, stresses the pursuit of coexistence while respecting differences. A more precise English translation of Hexie would be “appropriate”—meaning that conflicts should be resolved through the appropriate channels according to the laws, truths, and principles to ensure that balance is maintained. 

How are traditional Chinese values similar to Western values? How are they different?

Traditional Chinese values are quite different from the concepts that define Western values. Western values such as freedom, democracy, rule of law, human rights, equality, and justice are based on the belief that human nature is inherently evil. The Western lens focuses on human nature’s imperfections, like selfishness and greed, and has based its values and political institutions upon this outlook. For example, democratic elections, checks and balances, and freedom of speech were established to prevent the abuse of power. Western values stress human rights and civil rights, mutual respect, and self-esteem. But the West also encourages competition and struggle, which differs from the Chinese concept of harmony. Although Chinese tradition says to stay away from those who are vile and mean, the Chinese traditionally consider human nature as inherently good. 

In spite of these differences, both Western and Chinese values may have the same objective. The more advanced and modernized values in both cultures have adapted to laws of nature and society, in accordance with people’s interests and the natural development of human society. Integrating elements of Western values is vital for the modern Chinese value system. 

What kind of impact can traditional Chinese values have on the modern international community? 

The influence of traditional Chinese values on the international community has not been as pronounced as the influence of modern Western values. However, the establishment of Confucius Institutes government-supported organizations to promote Chinese language and culture, events promoting traditional Chinese culture like the Sino-French Cultural Year, and the rise of China’s global status can together increase the influence of Chinese values on the international community. 

I believe the most valuable traditional Chinese values are harmony and cooperation since these two values are extensively reflected in China’s foreign policy. For example, in the spirit of Chinese values like cooperation, mutual benefit, and “win-win” (he zuo, hu li, gong ying, 合作、互利、共赢), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was established in 1996 and has made remarkable achievements over the past decade. Another example is China’s vigorous promotion of the Six- Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament. 

China has always played the role of mediator, trying to create harmony between conflicting agendas. In the Sino-U.S. bilateral relationship, China has not challenged the United States’ superpower status or directly confronted the United States except when China’s core interests were threatened. Beijing manages its relationship with Washington by balancing conflicts of interest and behaving according to international regulations and norms. China’s foreign policies and behavior on the global stage have significantly contributed to the promotion of international peace and cooperation. 

This article was published as part of the Window into China series