Michael Scott, professor of Classics and Ancient History at Warwick University reflects on the reasons for a growing cultural fascination with the ancient Mediterranean in China.
I have been in and out of China this year to work with a number of Universities on my twin research interests: ancient Greece and ancient Global history. Over the past months, I have been to Shanghai and Hangzhou in the south, to Beijing, and to north-eastern China, a much less tourist-visited province, to the cities of Changchun and Harbin. And one thing has stood out that surprised me beyond everything else. The particular fascination right now in China with the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, and most especially with the ancient Greeks.
While in Changchun, I was working with the Institute for the History of Ancient Civilisations, set up back in 1984 as China’s first research institute for the study of the ancient Mediterranean and surrounding cultures: academics in the institute study the Greeks and Romans, as well as Egyptians and Assyrians. The Institute was set up because, as the story is told there, one academic managed to convince the political and administrative rule-makers that studying these cultures was worthwhile for China, and as such had to be done properly with Chinese academics able to read Latin and Greek and so study the key ancient texts in the original (with the research institute aiming to teach these key language skills).
The popularity of the ancient Mediterranean in China, and the value the Chinese currently perceive in its study, I think, is twofold. On the one hand, there is a belief that ancient Greek and Rome in particular stand at the font of Western Civilisation. To understand the West, and particularly the results of China’s encounters with the West over the last centuries, as a result requires an understanding of Western origins, and thus of the Greeks and Romans. But on the other hand, it is also, I think, because 21st century China sees an affinity with these ancient cultures, and in particular ancient Greece.
In the West, while we assign the story of democracy to ancient Greece, we often feel more affinity with Rome. It was the Roman model of government that inspired the founding fathers in America, and the Romans left a physical imprint (not to mention a mental one) on the landscape of most of Europe. In reverse, in China, despite the fact that the Roman and Han Empires existed concurrently with one another and traded indirectly via the ancient Silk Roads, it is the Greeks with whom they feel more cultural affinity. It might seem odd to imagine Communist China feeling affinity with the culture that gave birth to democracy. But the Chinese interest (and emphasis) is on the strong (to Western tastes stifling) community spirit that existed within the ancient Greek polis community: one that gave equal political voice to all (male) citizens, but also demanded that everyone place the importance of the community over the individual – an idea that chimes with the political ethos of China in the 21st century. And at the same time as seeing an affinity in their political and community outlook, China also recognises ancient Greece’s reputation for poetry, philosophy, music and other cultural achievements, arenas in which China itself is rightly proud of its contributions from its own ancient past. Far from being different worlds on opposite sides of the world, there is a sense in China that ancient Greece and China are much more similar than they are different.