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Historical Chinese-European civilizational exchanges relevant today

ZHANG NAIHE | 2022-12-22 | Hits:
Chinese Social Sciences Today

A calligraphy learning and sharing session of China Time 2022, Hamburg, a collaborative project to promote exchanges between China, Germany, and Europe Photo: FUDAN UNIVERSITY

The history of civilization records the footprint of human growth over a period covering more than 6,000 years. In the face of profound changes unseen in a century, Chinese people have pioneered a Chinese path to modernization and created a new form of human advancement under the leadership of the Communist Party of China. With unprecedented vigor, Chinese civilization has made remarkable contributions to the development of global civilization. A comparative historical review of Chinese and European civilizations, two of the major civilizations of the world, will enhance our understanding of Chinese civilization.  

Overall civilizational landscape

Looking back through history, we can find that Eurasia, an enormous landmass composed of the continents of Europe and Asia, was once an important arena of world civilization. It was the cradle and home to many civilizations. The coexistence of multiple centers and concurrent development of diverse civilizations have consistently characterized the overall development landscape of world civilization. Eurasia is no exception. 

Chinese and European civilizations arose separately at the east and west ends of Eurasia, respectively. Chinese civilization originated mainly from the middle and lower reaches of the Yellow River. With the invention of metallurgy and copper casting technologies roughly 5,200 years ago, different cultural centers gradually emerged and scattered across the vast land of China, shaping a time-honored civilization that has been sustained in one continuous line. 

European civilization is believed to stem from ancient Greece. Around 4,600 years ago, Cretans in ancient Greece began using bronzeware. With this step, ancient Greek civilization was brought into being in the open Mediterranean environment. Evolving continually, it witnessed the rise and fall of different city-states. 

Between the east and west ends of Eurasia, Indian and Mesopotamian civilizations emerged almost at the same time, so the continental landmass gradually featured the coexistence of the four major civilizations, as it served as a major stage for world civilization. 

Since its origins, Eurasia has been home to multiple centers and civilizations, on which Chinese and European civilizations progressed hand-in-hand. Thereafter, the region witnessed interaction and contact between the different civilizations at increasing frequencies. More than 2,000 years ago, the Silk Road, which connected the entire Eurasia continental area, opened up. Through relayed transmission, the civilizations at the area’s east and west ends also established contact. 

Around the first century, the Han Empire in China at the east end of Eurasia, the Kushan Empire in Central Asia, the Parthian Empire in the Iranian Plateau, and the Roman Empire at the west end prospered shoulder to shoulder, interacting with and learning from each other. 

Major incidents arising from extensive interaction, such as the great Germanic migration during the fourth and sixth centuries, the expansion of Islam beginning in the eighth century, the Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries, and the Mongol expansion in the 13th century, channeled exchanges and mutual learning between the different civilizations of Eurasia. 

During these exchanges, agriculture progressively attained maturity. At that time, the world’s most advanced plough-based agricultural production largely took place in Eurasia. The concentration of land ownership in the hands of the upper class and small-scale production were common features of production models among Eurasian civilizations. As a result, a socioeconomic pattern tied to the land and based on personal bondage was formed, and a colorful civilizational landscape was displayed across the continent of Eurasia. 

While Chinese civilization ushered in a new era, marked by the integrated development of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, the medieval civilization of Europe was created out of blending among Germanic customs, Classical tradition, and Christianity. 

Eurasia’s mature agriculture generated intrinsic power for the transition to mercantilism, accumulating strong momentum which broke isolation and separation. In Chinese civilization, emerging economic and social factors fostered amid dynastic evolutions from the Tang to the Song, and from the Yuan to the Ming, were more identifiable. The tributary system, in which smaller states paid tributes to larger ones, became the institutional foundation for the cultural sphere influenced by Chinese civilization. 

In Europe, with the establishment of the medieval civilization, emerging industry and commerce thrived. The Mediterranean and the North Sea and Baltic trade areas were beginning to take shape. An export oriented economy and coexistence of the church and state became hallmarks of European civilization. 

Generally, in pre-modern times, Chinese civilization in East Asia, Indian civilization in South Asia, Islamic civilization in West Asia, Byzantium civilization in Eastern Europe, and Latin civilization in Western Europe were considered the “five golden flowers” of Eurasia. Prior to the Golden Age of Sail in the 15th century, the coexistence of multiple centers and concurrent development of diverse civilizations were predominant in civilizational development on the larger Eurasia continental area. 

Integration of civilizations

In the early 15th century, Chinese and European civilizations jointly ushered in the Golden Age of Sail, which was followed by significant transitions in world history. From 1405 to 1433, great Chinese mariner, explorer, and diplomat Zheng He commanded massive, technologically advanced fleets to conduct seven expeditionary treasure voyages successively, establishing sea routes from China directly to West Asia and Africa via the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. 

In Europe, Prince Henry of Portugal led troops to attack the Muslim port of Ceuta in North Africa in 1415. In 1498, Portuguese voyager Vasco da Gama arrived in India, opening a sea route from Western Europe to India via the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and the Indian Ocean. However, da Gama’s achievement occurred more than half a century after Zheng He’s feat in creating marine passages to West Asia and Africa. Thereafter, the Portuguese invaded Malacca in 1511. Shortly after, they reached China and attempted to occupy Macau. Contact between Chinese and European civilizations became direct rather than being relayed. The two civilizations entered a new stage of direct exchanges and mutual learning. 

Following the Golden Age of Sail, direct communication between the two civilizations was extensive, substantive, and frequent. Before the 18th century, despite obvious institutional and cultural differences, the two sides were comparable in terms of productivity and the development of science and technology, so bilateral exchanges and mutual learning were conducted on equal footing and rational basis, yielding fruitful results. 

However, after the 18th century, European civilization became increasingly aggressive to the outside world, due to capital manipulation and the Industrial Revolution, while suffering from constant warfare due to the rise of nation states and a shift toward imperialism. In the first half of the 20th century, two world wars broke out, such that the Europeans themselves deeply felt the “decline of the West.”

In Chinese civilization, on the other side, the Qing court compromised and retreated again and again to perpetuate its rule since the early 18th century. In a passive position, it was unable to grasp the historical development initiative, so that the Chinese nation was mired in humiliation for more than one hundred years. 

Consequently, Eurasia’s status was wavering as an important stage for world civilization. Although Chinese and European civilizations took entirely different paths after the 18th century, in the end they shared a similar fate.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping said on many occasions, “History is the best textbook and the best sober agent.” Since the mid-20th century, Chinese and Western civilizations, having gone through two world wars and the Cold War, have both begun to reflect on history. 

From identifying itself with a liberal world in the early stage, to prioritizing Christianity in the medieval age, and to considering itself a civilized world in modern times, European civilization eventually realized in the aftermath of two world wars that it was declining. In this process of deepening self-awareness, European understanding of Chinese civilization also advanced from the mirror image of the other to an equal subject and partner.

On the contrary, Chinese civilization evolved from an early conception of tianxia yitong [great unification], to the construction and implementation of the hua-yi order [a China-centered international order which primarily governed East Asia from the Han Dynasty to the late Qing era], and to shattering the fantasy of European and Japanese aggressors about conquering China. Finally, it has drawn a blueprint for a human community with a shared future characterized by civilizational integration, equality and inclusiveness, while proactively integrating itself into the world system. 

Now both Chinese and European civilizations have started to recognize that there are amazing parallel lines among Eurasian civilizations. Economic and social history as well as the history of political culture have also indicated that a confrontation between Asia and Europe or the East and the West is inadvisable. 

Going forward, Chinese and European civilizations are both at a key turning point amid profound changes unseen in a century. The two civilizations not only share values, but also maintain their respective characteristics. Civilizational exchanges and mutual learning are the core pillars supporting the development of human civilization. We have reason to believe that Chinese and European civilizations, through exchanges and mutual learning, will unite to advance the integration of Eurasia and contribute to the building of a human community with a shared future, to make the continental landmass an unbreakably significant stage of world civilization. Moreover, they will guide exchanges and mutual learning among other civilizations around the world and jointly move towards a colorful, equal, and inclusive new era of civilizational harmony. 

Zhang Naihe is a professor from the Institute of European Civilization at Tianjin Normal University.