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How China May Gain from Comparative Studies in Confronting the Ancient West

Jenny Jingyi Zhao

China in the 21st  century is gathering momentum in returning to its own classics and in promoting cultural exchanges with the West through the study of ancient Greece and Rome. While a few of the pioneering higher institutions are opening up to new branches of learning and introducing new courses in ‘western classics’, the promotion of Greek and Latin classics in China has not been without its share of trials and tribulations and still faces great challenges. This paper looks forward to the future of ‘classics in China’ and suggests that comparative studies of ancient Greece, Rome and China will play an important role in opening up China to western classics.

For a Chinese person that studies the Greek and Latin classics, comparisons with his or her own Chinese roots form a natural and essential part of the learning process. Just as sinology already has in it a comparative element (afterall, ‘sinology’ is a coined word for the study of China in the ‘West’) and sinologists are accustomed to compare Chinese traditions with their own, Chinese scholars of ancient Greece and Rome will inevitably adopt a method of approach that will also be comparative. Both in China and in the West ancient texts are in a sense a challenge, even at first sight alien. Generally speaking, Chinese scholars are currently in the very early stages of studying the Greek and Latin classics and unfortunately fall far behind their western counterparts in terms of language proficiency and understanding of the texts and contexts, not to mention the resources available. Comparative studies, then, provide a way through which Chinese scholars may exhibit their strengths and offer novel viewpoints to the West that has a longstanding and venerable tradition of studying the Greek and Roman worlds.

A comparative approach has immense potential in appealing to different groups of people  in  China,  including scholars,  students as  well  as  the  general  public, and  in engaging them with the ‘classics’ of the unfamiliar. The history, literature, philosophy, science, medicine and art and archaeology of the Greek and Roman worlds may be made more accessible by drawing parallels and contrasts with the Chinese tradition. This is not to say that comparative studies should stop at drawing mere similarities and differences between cultures; establishing the comparanda, however, would be the first step. Understandably a Chinese person would be able to relate much more to foreign ideas when comparisons are made with those in his or her own culture; with varied source materials at hand, it is then a matter of identifying the working and living conditions in the respective traditions, asking what are the questions that the ancients themselves were concerned with and how they reacted to those questions and conducted their inquiries.

It is clear that through a cross-cultural and interdisciplinary examination – as such comparative studies happen to be – not only would Chinese people gain knowledge and understanding of the Greeks and Romans who have laid down the foundations for contemporary ‘western culture’, those in the ‘West’ would also benefit from comparative perspectives that offer fresh understanding and invite discussion. Comparison allows both the familiar to be seen as strange and the strange as the familiar, and we can reflect on the idiosyncrasies and commonalities in each culture by looking across the boundary to each other, thereby promoting the most fruitful kinds of cultural exchange.

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Classics and Reaction: Modern China Confronts the Ancient West

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