When detailing cross-cultural encounter many times the discussion veers in the direction of Non-Western cultures encounter with Westernized cultures and vice versa. Usually when these types of encounters are documented there are striking differences witnessed by both cultures, Non-Western and Western. Many of these first documented cross-cultural encounters are by Europeans. In some case this refers to the Spanish in others the Portuguese or possibly the French or English or Dutch but the lesser known European encounters are by the Islamic world.
Regardless of who adventures out from their homeland to explore and find new trade routes and new cultures one aspect remains the same, each encounter changes the course of both Western and Non-Western development. From the perspective of Europe the cultures they encountered “represented a wider world with Europe at its center.” (Sayre, 2013, p.275) However, from the perspective of the Non-Western, Non-European cultures “Europe represented…a cultural force invading their own centers of culture”. (Sayre, 2013, p.275) Either way the results will vary depending on the culture being “invaded” by the Europeans.
Map 1. World Exploration, 1271-1611. (Sayre, 2013, p.275)
In this discussion we turn our attention to the indigenous people of China. There was little to no cultural syncretism with Europe seen in Chain as there was in other Non-Western culture, such as India. The people of China, for the most part, resisted any and all European influence when explores landed on their shores. To date, scholars have amassed a number of reasons why cultural syncretism did not occur but the number one reason is because Chinese believed themselves superior to their invaders. In the centuries leading up to Marco Polo explorations into China, the Chinese “had come to prefer isolation from foreign influence.” (Sayre, 2013, p.289)
Over more than a 1,000 year period of Chinese history from 618-1644 CE the Chinese isolated and resisted influence from foreigners. This does not mean the Chinese removed themselves completely from the world stage of trade and economic growth. Instead, what we find is that each of the 4 dynasties, Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming, all played a role in influencing cultural thought and progress inside of China. However, keep in mind that as one Dynasty rises to dominance the others were thriving in one form or another even if the newer Dynasty is considered the promote force in China during a particular time frame.
By the last half of the first millennium the Tang Dynasty (614-907 CE) had produced “the largest and most organized government in the world”. (Sayre, 2013, p.289) It was under the Tang Dynasty that the trade route known as the Silk Road between the east and the west would be restored. The Silk Road ended in the capital Tang Dynasty of Chang’an, “City of Enduring Peace”, which was also the largest city in the world at the time. The city was “laid out in a carefully conceived grid that dramatized the Tang commitment to social order and mirrored, they believed, the order of the cosmos.
Since the Yuan Dynasty was a short lived dynasty it will not be discussed here, for more understanding about this dynasty refer to other resources.
Map 1 Plan of the Tang Dynasty capital of Chang’an, China. ca. 600. (Simkin, 2013)
Along with reestablishing and recreating the Silk Road and Chang’an capital, respectively, the Tang Dynasty also valued education. Chang’an boosted an imperial college where all civil servants, except women, were trained and “intellectual achievement was held in high esteem.” (Sayre, 2013, p. 290) Toward the beginning of the Tang Dynasty two poets rose to prominence, the Daoist Li Bai (701-62) and the Confucian Du Fu (712-70), both poets based their writing on early philosophies found in either Daoism or Confucianism. The poems by these two artists’ “embody the complex characteristics of the Tang culture – at once strong and vigorous as well as passionate and sympathetic, simultaneously realistic and idealistic, intensely personal even while dedicated to public service.” (Sayre, 213, p290) Below are poems by both poets:
“Summer Day in the Mountains” by Li Bai
Lazy today, I wave my white feather fan.
Then I strip naked in the green forest,
Untie my hatband and hang it on a stone wall.
Pine wind sprinkles’ my bare head.
“Broken Lines” by Du Fu
River so blue the birds seem to whiten.
Flowers almost flame on the green mountainside.
Spring is dying yet again.
Will I ever go home?
By far the most dynamic interactions to occur between the east and the west were during the Song Dynasty, when Marco Polo traveled over land to the capital city of Hangzhou. Polo was the first Westerner to see Hangzhou and called the city “the most splendid city in the world.” (Sayre, 2013, p.290) Another city named Kinsai or the “City of the Heavens” amazed Polo, being a native a Venice, it reminded him of home because it had an elaborate “systems of canals…crisscrossed by some 12,000 bridges” with floating tea houses. (Sayre, 2013, p. 291)
The citizens of the Song Dynasty and the capital of Hangzhou were familiar with living well. Polo even claims “the houses of the citizens are well built and elaborately finished and the delight they take in decoration, in painting and in architecture leads them to spend in this way sums of money that would astonish you.” (Sayre, 2013, p.291) This and other explanations provided by Polo of the Hangzhou way of life leads scholars to believe that Hangzhou was the cultural center of Asia during this time period. It exceeded any ideas the West had of the East.
Fig. 1 Early Springby Guo Xi. Song Dynasty, 1072. The image denotes the Chinese way of life. (Sayre, 2013, p.293)
It was during the Ming Dynasty when the Mongols Yuan dynasty would be overthrown in 1368, marking a time when China was once again ruled by Chinese after almost 100 years on Mongol rule. It was also under the Ming Dynasty’s rule of Zhu Yuanzhang that the Imperial Palace compound in Beijing known as the “Forbidden City” would be constructed. The palaces name is derived “from the fact that only those on official imperial business” were allowed entry through the gates. (Sayre, 2013, p.295) The Forbidden City is “laid out on a grid within the grid along a north-south axis according to the principles of feng shui.” (Sayre, 2013, p.295)
Fig. 3 The Hall of Supreme Harmony.
Daoist believe certain forces called “dragon lines” form energy that flows “through the earth, along mountains and ridges, down streams and rivers, influencing the lives of people near them.” (Sayre, 2013, p.295) Forces of evil were said to flow from the north therefore the city opened to the south. The entire design of the city was constructed around the principles of feng shui because the emperor was considered divine. The overall construction of the palace was to create balance and harmony for the emperor and his family. This is also the reason the Forbidden City was designed to “mirror the harmony of the universe”. (Sayre, 2013, p.295) The architecture “was a symbol of the emperor’s rule and of his duty as the Son of Heaven to maintain order, balance, and the harmony of his land.” (Sayre, 2013, p.295)
Over more than a 1,000 year period of Chinese history from 618-1644 CE the Chinese isolated and resisted influence from foreigners. However, this isolation and resistance was not seen throughout the entire 1,000 years. Each of the 3 dynasties discussed above, Tang, Song, and Ming, all played a role in influencing cultural thought and progress inside and eventually outside China.
It was under the Tang Dynasty that the trade route known as the Silk Road between the east and the west would be reestablished. This is because the Silk Road ended in the capital Tang Dynasty of Chang’an, “City of Enduring Peace”, which was also the largest city in the world at the time. During the Tang Dynasty two influential poets, Li Bai and Du Fu, would leave their poetic mark on history. However, the most dynamic interactions to occur between the east and the west were during the Song Dynasty with Marco Polo travels over land to the capital city of Hangzhou. In the journals of Marco Polo, he paints a picture of cities vibrate with life and culture that the west had never seen before. Under the Ming Dynasty the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty would be overthrown in 1368, marking a return of China to Chinese rule. It was also under the Ming Dynasty’s rule of Zhu Yuanzhang that the Imperial Palace compound in Beijing known as the Forbidden City would be constructed.
Sayre, H. M. (2013). Discovering the Humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.
Simkin, T. (2013). History: Chang’an Xian. Retrieved from http://www.sacrificeworldwide.com/2011_History_ChangAnXian.asp.