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Encyclopedia > All under heaven

All under heaven (Chinese: 天下; pinyin: tiān xi ) is a concept in Chinese history. It was related to the Chinese conception of China as the Middle Kingdom, the center of the universe. In ancient Chinese political thought, the Chinese emperor would ideally rule all under heaven, that is, the entire world, which was possible because China was considered to be so vast that it encompassed all the world. The known kingdoms that lay outside of China were considered to be barbaric, and many of them paid tribute to the Chinese emperor and were under the suzerainty of the Chinese empire.

Since ancient times, the Chinese emperor has used the concept of all under heaven to justify his rule of China. In more modern times, the concept of all under heaven has controversially used as a justification for Chinese reunification, applied to Taiwan and Tibet.

Usage in the film Hero

In the 2002 Chinese film Hero, all under heaven is the central concept of the film. The film tells the story of a nameless assassin who originally sets out to assassinate a tyrannical king. Another character, named Broken Sword, begs the nameless assassin not to do so for the sake of all under heaven: the king has the potential to unify all under heaven (that is, China), thereby ending the chaos and warfare of the Warring States Period—and indeed, the king does eventually do so, becoming Qin Shi Huangdi.

The original English subtitles for the film when it was released in East Asia used the phrase "all under heaven" as the translation for 天下 tiān xi . This was slightly problematic because several times throughout the film, 天下 tiān xi is referred to as a two-character phrase. Since "all under heaven" is a three-word English phrase, it was necessary to substitute "three words" for "two words" in other parts of the subtitle translation when the characters in the film are discussing the phrase.

However, when the film was released in the United States in 2004, the English subtitle translation was changed to "our land". While this retained the property of 天下 tiān xi consisting of only two words/characters, this translation was severely criticized by many Chinese speakers in the United States because it lost the essence of the meaning of all under heaven.

In the West, Hero received generally positive reviews from movie critics; it also did well at the box office, setting a record as the highest-grossing opening-weekend foreign language film in the United States. However, some critics criticized Hero for its apparent endorsement of authoritarian governments and for its perceived support of Chinese reunification using the justification of all under heaven.


  • Paludan, Ann. Chronicle of the Chinese Emperors: The Reign-By-Reign Record of the Rulers of Imperial China. London: Thames and Hudson, 1998.



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