China and the wider world

Buddhist figure, China, 6th centuryBuddhist figure, China, 6th centuryNowadays, Chinese migrants are to be found in every corner of the globe, but this is a fairly recent phenomenon. In earlier times mountains, deserts and oceans acted as natural barriers to easy communication with other peoples, and though the Chinese did have a few great travellers of their own, they never developed a historical tradition of overseas exploration. That said, the inhabitants of southern China were nevertheless attracted abroad to trade throughout South-east Asia, and their own country's fabled riches lured people to China from all points of the compass, so that throughout the historic era China was never completely out of touch with the wider world.

Amitabha Buddha, India, 2nd- 5th centuryAmitabha Buddha, India, 2nd- 5th century

Figure of the infant Buddha, Korea, 14th centuryFigure of the infant Buddha, Korea, 14th century

Buddhist figure, Tibet, 16th/17th centuryBuddhist figure, Tibet, 16th/17th centuryIndeed, long before that, the natural ebb and flow of tribal peoples had meant that Chinese ancestors were inter-relating with their neighbours in south-east and central Asia. From them, they acquired their first knowledge of rice cultivation, ceramic manufacture, and metal working. Evidence from archaeological remains around the Tarim Basin, including mummified bodies, shows that the people living immediately to the north-west of 'China' through the 2nd millennium BCE were of Caucasian stock. It may have been thanks to them that the Shang rulers were proudly able to show off the first chariot to be seen in China, around 1200 BCE, and its means of traction, the domesticated horse. They may also have provided the Shang court with much of the jade in which, remains from royal burials show us, it also took delight in.

Even in its imperial heyday, centuries later, when Chinese culture was self-confident in its supremacy, it was not immune to outside influence. Musical traditions in the Middle Kingdom were enriched by imported instruments such as the Arabian lute, the Mongol two-stringed fiddle and the European dulcimer. In the realm of religion and philosophy, Buddhism, Christianity and, later, Marxism all took root in China and influenced its arts. In the case of Buddhism, China embraced and adapted it so successfully to its own circumstances and needs that by the 7th century CE China had become the centre of the Buddhist world, and contributed to the spread of Buddhist ideas and cultural forms throughout eastern Asia.

Buddhist figure, Japan, 18th centuryBuddhist figure, Japan, 18th centuryBut far from the traffic of influence being all one way, a balance sheet would actually show that China's own contributions to the growth of world-wide civilisation outweighed those of the West, at least before the 19th century. Some of its inventions and discoveries are well known, such as sericulture, paper-making, printing, and porcelain; others, like the encyclopedia, wallpaper, the efficient curved plough, the continuous belt and the chain drive (essential to so many belt- and chain-driven Western inventions in the Industrial Revolution), and many botanical specimens, are less commonly recognised as Chinese in origin. Through the 20th century, the Western world slowly began to appreciate that China's legacy had not been confined to the Chinese take-away and the kind of pictures and writing to be seen on its walls. And there may be more surprises to come: through the growing popularity of alternative medicine, traditional Chinese medical systems, especially acupuncture and herbal remedies, are becoming for many Westerners an acknowledged part of daily life.

Prof. K. Pratt | Jul 2002
Further reading:
  • Needham, J.,1954. Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge, volume 1 (continuing)
  • Needham, J., 1960. Heavenly Clockwork, the Great Astronomical Clocks of Medieval China. Cambridge University Press
  • Needham, J., 1969. The Grand Titration. Science and Society in East and West. London: George Allen and Unwin.
  • Weidner, M., ed., 1994. Latter Days of the Law. Images of Chinese Buddhism, 850-1850. University of Kansas Press.
  • So, J.F., and Bunker, E.C., 1995. Traders and Raiders on China's Northern Frontier. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
  • Cohen, W.I., 2000. East Asia at the Center. Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Mallory, J.P. and Mair, V., 2000. The Tarim Mummies. Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West. London: Thames and Hudson.
  • Cohen, W.I., 2000. East Asia at the Center: Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Lu Gwei-djen and Needham, J., repr. 2002. Celestial Lancets. A History and Rationale of Acupuncture and Moxa. London: RoutledgeCurzon