Tuesday, September 23, 2008

China and the West - a note on the importance of dates in comparative history

There is a common view in China and the West that Chinese history is ancient compared to that of Europe. This is both true and false.

If we compare the broad sweep of Chinese history with that of Western Europe following the fall of Rome, then its true. However, if we compare China with the broad sweep of western history including the ancient world, then it is not.

I make this point because I was surprised at just how recent much Chinese history is. Recent is, of course, a relative term in itself. However, I thought it might be interesting and helpful in any posts on Chinese history to provide comparative material on the position in Europe at the time.


Neil said...

Having once come first in Asian History at Sydney U, I find this post a little odd. One could argue that the most significant slice of European history dates from the 15th or 16th centuries, or even the 18th, so in a sense we too are "recent". On the other hand, if you want to go back to Sumer... But then the Chinese can go back to the Shang -- from which there is a degree of continuity, and that predates Greece or Rome.

BTW, whenever I taught any topic in junior history at school -- and I began doing this in the late 1960s -- I always did a "what was happening elsewhere at the time" lesson, often just a timeline that I would talk through. I have always thought pulling back from the topic or period at hand to look at the whole planet as far as one can, even sketchily, was a valuable exercise.

Jim Belshaw said...

Good, Neil, that you found this post a little odd. I am challenging stereotypes, my own views included.

I was quite serious when I commented on my surprise at just how recent much Chinese history was. Of course, there are ancient traditions.

The Shang Dynasty, the first bronze age dynasty in what is now China, date from 1600-1850 BCE. According to Wikepidia, Upper and Lower Eygpt were unified around 3,150 BCE.

To take another more modern example, Taiwan was colonised by the Europeans before the Han Chinese.

When I was first taught history at school, we started with the ancient world of the middle east, then followed through. The somewhat later empires that arose in India (2600–1900 BCE)and a little later China were ignored.

This was a mistake. However, I think that we are guilty of another mistake now in unquestionally accepting some modern interpretations.

There is, of course, a definitional issue in all this. The point, and I am pleased that you did this in junior history, is that cross-references provide a corrective context.