The idea of order in ancient Chinese political thought: a Wightian exploration


  • This is a revised and extended version of the 39th Martin Wight Memorial Lecture, delivered at the London School of Economics on 20 November 2013. I would like to express my gratitude to the Martin Wight Memorial Trust for honouring me with the invitation to deliver this lecture, which has afforded me an invaluable opportunity to repay my personal intellectual debt, incurred over many years, to a number of people closely associated with LSE and Oxford, including among others Hedley Bull, John Vincent, Adam Roberts and Barry Buzan, from whom I have learned more than I can ever hope to acknowledge adequately.


Is there any significant international thought in antiquity beyond the West? If there is, why has there as yet been no meaningful conversation between the expanding enterprise of theorizing International Relations (IR) today and ancient Chinese political thought? This extended version of my Martin Wight Memorial Lecture addresses these questions through a critical exploration of how a pivotal idea in ancient as well as contemporary international relations, namely, the idea of order, is deliberated in ancient Chinese political thought. Inspired by Martin Wight's profound scholarship so steeped in historical and philosophical depth, it investigates why and how alternative visions of moral, social and political order are imagined, offered and debated in ancient Chinese philosophical discourse. It examines the ways in which the moral and political pursuit of order as a social ideal is conducted in the anarchical society of states in ancient China. Through these historical and philosophical investigations, this article seeks to establish that ancient Chinese political and philosophical deliberations are rich in international thought and that classical thinkers in China's Axial Age are alive to us and contemporaneous with us philosophically as much as ancient Greek philosophers are. In establishing such a claim, the article calls for, and issues an invitation to, a conversation between the world of thought in ancient China and the theorization of IR as an intellectual ritual in search of a truly international theory.