The Hōjōki, written in 1212 by the Buddhist monk Kamo no Chōmei, is one of the most beloved works of medieval literature in Japan. The opening lines of his chronicle are familiar to most people:

 

The flow of the river never ceases
And the water never stays the same.
Bubbles float on the surface of pools,
Bursting, reforming, never lingering.
They’re like the people in the world and their dwellings.

 

The first thing you need to recognize when you are reading an English translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is that you are dealing with what former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called “known unknowns”. Scholars are not certain about when the book was written (estimates range between 770 BCE and 221 BCE), whether it was written by one or several authors, and what motivated the author(s) to write the book.

There’s much to be said for attempting to develop social and political theories, models and philosophies based on something other than Western lines of thought and datasets; the latter’s universality and applicability to the wider world is something which, if not taken merely on faith, that needs to be demonstrated. China, with intellectual, political and social histories of its own, offers both alternatives to, and tests of, prevailing Western conventions.

The Earth may be divided among many countries, but since there is only one Heaven, there can be but one tianxia, or “all-under-heaven”. The Chinese concept tianxia might be literally translated into English as “sky-beneath”, and it has been variously rendered as “enlightened realm”, “world-system”, or simply “the world”. To keep Chinese scholars happy, just don’t translate it as “empire”. The West had empires. China had tianxia.