China in the Age of the World Picture

Florian Hoffman & Anne Orford eds., Oxford Handbook of the Theory of International Law, Oxford University Press, 2016, Forthcoming

Emory Legal Studies Research Paper No. 16-398

19 Pages Posted: 10 Apr 2016 Last revised: 16 Apr 2016

See all articles by Teemu Ruskola

Teemu Ruskola

Emory University School of Law

Date Written: 2016


Most scholars of international law approach the topic from the vantage point of the North Atlantic, with China figuring at best as an example — or, more frequently, a counter-example — that illustrates a more central point about the history and character of the international legal order. This chapter insists on placing China at the center of international legal theory. Stated most broadly, it asks: How did the multiethnic Qing empire (1644-1911) on the eastern edge of the Eurasian landmass become “China,” a sovereign nation-state in a world of other, formally equal nation-states?

With the aid of Martin Heidegger’s essay “The Age of the World Picture,” this chapter approaches international law as a foundational aspect of the political ontology of the modern world — one that depends on and sustains a particular metaphysical conception of the world, with associated notions of political time and space. In this light, I analyze the law of nations at its origin as the constitution of Europe: a set of constitutive norms that governed the relationship among the so-called “Family of Nations.” As this historically specific legal order has become globalized by means of colonialism, it has become effectively the constitution of the world.

Where is China in the world made by modern international law? The Eurocentrism of mainstream scholarship aside, there is a growing literature on the colonial origins of international law. Much of it is concerned with the juridical implications of the “discovery” of the New World. A focus on Americas in this literature is obviously not unwarranted, yet the implications of the history of the New World cannot necessarily be extended globally. The Orient (to avoid anachronistic use of the term “Asia”) demands a theoretical account of its own, no less than America, and so does China as the dominant Oriental civilization on the eastern end of Eurasia.

This chapter contrasts the now global international law of European origin with the historically Confucian world of East Asia, structured around Chinese cultural and political hegemony. Both traditions pretended to universality while each in fact embodied a particular set of imperial norms — Eurocentric in one case, Sinocentric in the other. Set against this comparative frame, the chapter considers a few key episodes in the historic encounter between these two imperial formations. Throughout, I analyze the Sino-Western encounter not as a clash of civilizations in geographic space and in historical time, but as the collision of different conceptions of space and time. What was at stake in that collision was the constitution of the international legal order and, ultimately, modern world.

Suggested Citation

Ruskola, Teemu, China in the Age of the World Picture (2016). Florian Hoffman & Anne Orford eds., Oxford Handbook of the Theory of International Law, Oxford University Press, 2016, Forthcoming, Emory Legal Studies Research Paper No. 16-398, Available at SSRN:

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