From Peking to Rome

Madly Singing in the Mountains: An Appreciation and Anthology of Arthur Waley

edited by Ivan Morris
Walker & Co, 403 pp., $12.50

Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864

by Philip A. Kuhn
East Asian Series, Harvard, 225 pp., $8.50

The Rise of Modern China

by Immanuel C.Y. Hsü
Oxford, 830 pp., $14.50

The China Reader, Vol I, Imperial China

by Franz Schurmann, by Orville Schell
Random House, 322 pp., $1.95 (paper)

The China Reader, Vol II, Republican China

by Franz Schurmann, by Orville Schell
Random House, 394 pp., $1.95 (paper)

The China Reader, Vol III, Communist China

by Franz Schurmann, by Orville Schell
Random House, 667 pp., $2.45 (paper)

Constantine

by Ramsay MacMullen
Crosscurrents in World History Series, Dial, 272 pp., $7.95

Rome: The Center of Power

by Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli
Arts of Mankind Series, Braziller, 450, 451 illustrations with 91 color plates pp., $30.00

One of the most astonishing facts about the history of China is the immense length of time that elapsed before it became the disinterested study of Western intellectuals—and even now Sinologists are only beginning to grope with some of the fundamental questions posed by the immensity of China’s past. At first sight this seems in marked contrast to Rome on whose history myriads of scholars have swarmed like ants these last 400 years; editing, translating, collecting, commenting on everything from the text of Livy to a denarius unearthed in Kirkcudbrightshire. And yet some of the most fundamental problems, particularly those which relate to the consequences of Rome’s decline and fall, have not made much progress since the days of Edward Gibbon. But what is perhaps more surprising still, in these days of comparative history, hardly a scholar has ventured to compare these two great Iron Age empires, Rome and China; the two most formidable, most accomplished, most sophisticated that the pre-industrial world was to know.

Rome collapsed in the West, faded away in Byzantium, but China survived until the cataclysm swept her antique structure aside in the twentieth century. Why did Rome succumb to the barbarians, yet China absorb hers? But an even more searching question: Why did the Europe of old Rome recover some thousand years after the initial collapse and then quickly surpass China, not only in technology and science, but also in literature; indeed in all the arts that adorn the life of man? It seems to me that here is a huge field that lies fallow.

After all, very many Sinologists, certainly in Europe, spent most of their youth both learning the classical languages and studying ancient European history; many of them are, therefore, technically equipped for such comparative studies. Unfortunately the whole drive of professional history is away from such large-scale themes. There are few scholars like Joseph Needham, alas, in this world, who has, in the middle years of his life, taken the whole of Chinese science and technology as his province and masters it, and does not hesitate to probe for the reasons why Chinese science became stultified, whereas European burgeoned. If only others were dealing in a similar way with political and social structures, with warfare, with constitutional forms and ideology, how much richer history would be.

But it is safer, certainly wiser, to deal with the “social origins of the scholar-gentry in Hopei in early Ch’ing times” or with “some Roman coinage hoards of the fifth century in southern Calabria.” And it would be folly to deny that such studies are the bricks and mortar of sound history. They are indeed, but only if we can have in the profession a few historians like Needham, who can range not only over the literature, but also across the continents. Although the time may now be ripe, this could not have happened until the West began to view China with both deeper sympathy and increasing objectivity.

This occurred surprisingly …

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