From Heaven to Earth: 'Cultural Idealism' and 'Moral Realism' as Chinese Contributions to Global International Relations

Amitav Acharya

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


The discipline of International Relations (IR) is increasingly being criticized for ignoring and marginalizing states and societies outside of the core countries of the West. The idea of a 'Global IR' has been proposed since 2014 a pathway toward a bridging the 'West and the Rest' divide and thus develop a more inclusive discipline, recognizing its multiple and diverse foundations. At the same time, there is a trend toward developing theories, or 'schools', on a national or regional basis, the leading examples of which come from China. This article examines some theoretical constructs emerging in China, such as the 'Relational Theory' of Qin Yaqing, who is the foundational scholar in the 'Chinese School of IR', the Tianxia ('all under Heaven') concept as applied to IR and world order by Zhao Tingyang, and 'Moral Realism' of Yan Xuetong, who is the leading figure of the 'Tsinghua School'. To many scholars, both inside and outside China, the relationship among the various Chinese approaches and their overall contribution to the IR field remain unclear. Without claiming to capture all their nuances and complexity, this article hopes to stimulate a conversation among scholars, Chinese and foreign, with a view to generate greater clarity and highlight their importance to the study of IR. I argue that while making important contributions, the Chinese approaches to International Relations Theory (IRT) also face a number of challenges. This includes the need for them to offer more convincing proof that the concepts and explanations they propose can apply to other societies and to IR more generally. Moreover, there is the need for these approaches to attract a critical mass of followers worldwide, stimulate a research agenda for other, especially younger scholars, and distance themselves from the official Chinese policy framings. The Global IR approach offers a helpful framework for highlighting and perhaps addressing these challenges, especially in avoiding cultural exceptionalism and ensuring their wider relevance beyond China.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)467-494
Number of pages28
JournalChinese Journal of International Politics
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 The Author(s). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Institute of International Relations, Tsinghua University. All rights reserved.


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