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 late. For the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries China was, in practical terms, a provider of exotics—porcelain, tea, silks, lacquer, jades, and the rest—which fascinated and stimulated European artists and decorators. Indeed, plucking a theme here and a motive there, they gradually created their own romantic vision of Cathay, which Hugh Honour has so brilliantly described in his book, Chinoiserie. Similarly in the world of ideas China fulfilled two roles that were tangential to the truth about its civilization. For Voltaire or Goldsmith it was, par excellence, the civilization of reason dominated by the scholar-philosopher, hence a perfect foil for criticism of European society. For Montesquieu and others, however, it was a perfect example of a cruel Oriental despotism. Only a few Jesuits had begun to penetrate the vast complexity of Chinese culture.

Once China was broken open by the squalid Opium War in the nineteenth century, knowledge deepened as contact widened, but it was still very much limited to missionaries and traders—the old China hands who took to ceramics or Confucian philosophy. But, as Raymond Dawson showed in his fascinating book, The Chinese Chameleon, the popular concept of China both in England and America rarely rose above the caricature of Dr. Fu Manchu. True, most of the ground-work of scholarship was being laid at this time, dictionaries and translations of some of the major texts, notably Chavannes’s of the great history of Ssu Ma Ch’ien, but editions were small and few reached more than a highly specialized readership.

The little handbooks, such as “The Wisdom of the East” series, touched a wider public—but here again largely of faddists, theosophists, and cranks. Most intellectuals were unaware of the vast storehouse of Chinese literature and science: only in artistic circles was there some appreciation of painting as well as of the decorative arts, but even here the number of enthusiasts was very limited and by the standards of today the collections of even great museums, particularly in Chinese painting, were pathetically small. Chinese music, like Chinese science, was scarcely known to exist.


One man who never set foot in China and Japan probably did more than any other Oriental scholar to reveal the riches of Chinese and Japanese literature to the general reading public, and that was Arthur Waley. His 170 Chinese Poems, published, it would seem, most inauspiciously during World War I (and at first privately printed!), achieved not only great acclaim but an ever increasing public. Suddenly names such as Po Chü-i and Li Po and Yüan Mei entered the European literary world. Pound and Eliot knew Waley and indeed Pound encouraged the publication of Waley’s first poems.

It is not at all surprising that Chinese poetry should catch the mood to which both Pound and Eliot were deeply responding. A sense of loss, a sense of the grossness of the active political world, a cultivation of a sad, sensitive private vision, a delight in elegance, above all a preoccupation with time and nostalgia pervade much Chinese poetry.

In China, many of the scholar-elites often lost power and authority, and so took refuge in the private world of sensitive nostalgia. And, of course, a sense of loss, a sense of the slipping away of authority and power, combined with a dislike of the new materialistic consumer world, provides early Eliot—as well as late Eliot—with its strong Buddhist undercurrent. His Four Quartets would have enchanted Po Chü-i. Hence Waley’s translations caught the mood of a significant segment of the Anglo-Saxon intelligentsia of the first half of the twentieth century—particularly its deeply conservative element as represented by Eliot.

Waley, however, did more than introduce Chinese lyric poetry to a wide public. For the rest of his life, Waley translated what at first sight seemed the most unpromising of material—No plays, the medieval Japanese romance, The Tale of Genji, Ainu epics, etc.—and yet succeeded in reaching an astonishingly wide public. Others followed—the great Chinese novels The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Golden Lotus, and others became a part of the culture of any book-hungry youth of the 1920s and 1930s.

This expansion of interest in Chinese and Japanese culture was not matched, however, by an expansion in historical or even linguistic scholarship; in all Western countries university departments were pitifully small and students rare. Essentially a gifted amateur (not used in any pejorative sense) Waley was also, as the volume of memoirs makes clear, difficult to approach. Although he enjoyed the work of other scholars, he had no interest in creating a school. When offered the Chair of Chinese at Cambridge, he said that he “would rather be dead.”

It required World War II to change this. If one turns to the bibliography either of detailed monographs, such as that in Philip A. Kuhn’s Rebellion and Its Enemies in Late Imperial China or that in Immanuel Hsü’s excellent textbook The Rise of Modern China, the works printed since 1945 dominate, and American Sinologists sweep the board in the Sixties. Indeed American scholarship in the whole field of Chinese history and culture is unmatched. Berkeley, Columbia, Yale, and Harvard have produced not only world scholars, such as John Fairbank, Edward Schafer, Burton Watson, and Arthur Wright, who can present their scholarship to the widest audiences, but also a group of young scholars as good and as prolific as one could find in any other field of historical study. Indeed one has only to glance at The China Reader, whose three volumes deal with the last two centuries of Chinese history, to realize both the extent and the depth of America’s recent contribution to Chinese historiography—much of it the result of close contact and cooperation with expatriate Chinese or native Japanese scholars.

So vast is the body of work now available that it is possible to teach Chinese history to a degree which was unthinkable twenty years ago—neither the translations, the monographic work, nor the syntheses had been done then. Moreover, Chinese historiography suffered at that time from the attempt, not only of Marxist scholars but of liberal and conservative historians too, to force Chinese history into the pattern of European generalization—chattel slavery, feudalism, rise of the middle class, etc. Others, more conservative still, accepted blithely the Mandate of Heaven and cyclical theories of traditional Chinese scholarship.

Generalization is now more sophisticated and more appropriate to China’s own historical development. Nothing, I believe, could be so enriching now as to teach Chinese history to Western students. The reasons are obvious. Although there was, as Needham has shown, very great technological exchange, particularly from East to West, nevertheless China developed the only literate culture which was staggeringly different from the West in political style as well as art and which maintained an unmatched degree of social stability.


Yet, distinct as Chinese culture and experience were—and knowledge of so divergent a culture must surely enrich any intelligent person’s thought—there are also connections between Chinese and European culture (and American, both North and Latin, could be embraced in that term) that could be fruitfully explored. After all, both China and the West underwent some very similar experiences—rapid expansions into lands occupied by more primitive people; invasion by barbarian hordes; periodic outbursts of civil war and internal anarchy. And again it would be fruitful to compare their basic social structures and their peasant and craftsman economies; both experienced authoritarian and semidivine kingship; their religious structures of priest, monk, and monastery have much in common.

Moreover, the differences of experience as well as of structure may easily illuminate in new ways the problems inherent in European civilization. Why did Europe adopt science, or accept the concept of social change, that is, “progress,” as a valid goal? Why was aggression so deeply embedded in the European states system, and the warrior idolized, whereas in China wars were regarded as social evils and the warrior viewed with disdain? In a narrower field, why did Europe develop history as an attempt to explain the present, whereas in China history’s purpose was always moral and didactic? Comparative studies directed to any of these subjects would provide fascinating material for both East and West, and help to break down the absurd Eurocentrism of our historical attitudes.

Naturally, the most rewarding field might easily be one which involved Rome, its rise and fall, as compared with Han China and the great revival under the T’ang. In fact, no other great Iron Age empire save the Chinese can compare with Rome, whose achievement was stupendous and whose society certainly possessed some close resemblances to Imperial China.

To realize this one has only to read John Ferguson’s The Religions of the Roman Empire, not, it is true, the most perceptive or exciting of books. Ferguson draws together the primitive beliefs—earth mother, sky father—so common in agrarian societies, primitive or sophisticated, that have their counterparts in early Chinese religion; so, too, the quasi-deification of the Emperor, for the supreme authority in both empires needed divinity, although here the Chinese were much more sophisticated. Likewise the magic, the sooth-saying, the consultation of omens, the all-embracing passion for astrology, the preoccupation with the virtues of gems and amulets: here the parallels between Rome and China are almost startling. And again with growing urbanization, with the fading of the primitive gods, both societies welcomed a religion of personal salvation drawn from an alien culture—Buddhism in China, Christianity in Rome.

Then comes the sharp difference of religious experience which may explain so much. China never succumbed in her state apparatus to Buddhism alone. Never for China the monolithic ideology of an all-embracing church. Indeed the conversion of Constantine brought a unique experience to European civilization and one of vast intellectual consequences. The Christian Church forged for itself an aggressive and intolerant orthodoxy which did its best to obliterate the pagan world of the days of Rome’s greatness. As Ramsay MacMullen shows in his excellent account of Constantine, this process was less rapid and less dramatic than the receding vista of time makes it appear, but nevertheless there was a conscious attempt both to wipe out the past and to create a monolithic church-state system.

The pagan world, of course, lurked like a palimpsest. Always there was the hope that this more sophisticated past might be regained or even surpassed. But Europe’s two pasts created intellectual inquiry as well as doubt such as never bothered the Chinese sages, whose past stretched back down the centuries like a limitless ocean, if at times turbulent and windswept, with the dynasties rising and falling like the waves. But the past could be, and was by the Chinese, embraced in one unbroken vista.

The problem of Rome’s fall, plus the sense of need to recover its intellectual heritage, was one of the greatest stimulants to Europe’s intellectual life, and one which China never experienced. Only in the nineteenth century did she confront a totally different intellectual system.

Although a description of Rome’s religions may strike an echoing chord when thinking of China, the differences between the two empires are brought sharply home if one turns to Bandinelli’s Rome: The Center of Power, which is mainly concerned with Rome’s artistic achievement. The contrast with any book on the arts of China is staggering—Roman art, apart from the few wall paintings that still remain, is largely public, authoritative, and marmoreal. Formidable public buildings give off the sense that they are built for eternity. The men and women there depicted, one feels, are facing a crowd.

True, Roman art can be intensely human—particularly in portraiture and in some of the marvelous sarcophagi that are illustrated in this book. The remarkable Roman portrait busts derive from ceremonies of ancestral worship (intensely cultivated by Roman aristocrats as well as Chinese mandarins). Although remarkably realistic, these busts possess a sense of power as well as authority. They are very much private faces in public places in a way hard to define.

They are, perhaps, a clue to one of the essences of Roman civilization. From its very earliest days it was a colonizing power—first the Latins and Sabines, then the slow spread through Italy, and with increasing momentum the onrush to the four corners of Europe. But Rome’s triumph was reached through war and imposed government—no matter what use might be made of local institutions, religions, and laws. Its aristocracy, their ancestral heroes, were men of action, bred for public duty and authority, senators whose power was rooted in the state as well as in time.

Although China, too, expanded its limits by aggressive war, its core of people was larger: it always embraced large territories and a big population that was much more uniform in its social, economic, and cultural expression than Rome’s. For whatever reason there is a privacy about Chinese art, just as there is a public face in Roman art. The Chinese scholar-gentry’s art was not of a government, not even of a ruling aristocracy, but of an intelligentsia—conservative, style-bound, yet heartbreakingly nostalgic, and with a refinement that surpasses elegance and turns into an exquisite sensitivity about human fragility.

The Romans vaunted war and glorified soldiers, the Chinese despised both, no matter how much they might rely upon them. And excessive displays of power in art were alien to their attitude toward life. The Romans built for eternity; indeed almost to impose their will upon it; the Chinese preferred a complex symbolism that harmonized with their interpretation of nature.

When one contemplates the histories of these two great empires, it seems ever more absurd that so many scholars should be crawling antlike over their surfaces, and that so few should be attempting to view their similar, yet differing, sweeps through time. Their histories are at the root of so much of our civilization, for it was the collapse of Rome that gave Europe its disequilibrium, that bred the aggressive, non-self-sufficient states of the West, which, combined with a monotheistic crusading religion, gave it the restless dynamic that led to constant expansionist war.

China, however, was doomed by its very success. Its initial triumphs were far greater than Rome’s; it acquired a social and intellectual stability of enormous strength, yet deadly inertia; so that in the end it became an easy prey of Rome’s barbarian heirs. But why this was so still needs to be explored. Why did Rome fail to acquire the stability and inertia which China achieved?

We need a handful of historians comparing the histories of these two great empires—religion, art, war, sense of the past. Surely we could spare a few, release them from the ant hill and the monographic drudgery that dim our vision.

This Issue

February 25, 1971