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posted on 08 March 2017

Ancient Greece vs. Ancient China

Written by

In my last post (The U.S. vs. China), I promised to publish a series of articles on China, comparing China with the West historically and with America in modern times. This is the first article of the series. Remember: the purpose of this series is to help my fellow Americans better understand China as a competitor, if not a friend.

To compare China with the West historically, let's go all the way back to Ancient Greece, the first civilization in Europe, and compare it with Ancient China.

1. Overview

The image below highlights Ancient Greece and Ancient China in timelines.

Specifically, let's focus on four aspects:

  1. Ancient philosophers: the Greeks vs. the Chinese.
  2. Alexander the Great.
  3. China's First Emperor.
  4. Alexander the Great vs. China's First Emperor.

2. Ancient Philosophers: the Greeks vs. the Chinese

The image below highlights 10 prominent ancient philosophers: five Greeks and five Chinese.

What a surprise! They all lived in the same period of time, historically speaking, despite the fact that the two countries were (and still are) thousands of miles apart geographically and the two civilizations developed totally independently of each other.

Each of these philosophers significantly contributed to the development of their respective civilizations and beyond, with lasting influence even to this day.

While the Greek philosophers and their Chinese counterparts share many philosophies (e.g. the good and evil nature of mankind), the biggest difference between them, to me, is on governing. Specifically,

  1. The Greeks experimented widely, even with democracy.
  2. The Chinese (e.g. Confucius) were more confined to a hierarchical structure of governance, emphasizing more on the respect for authorities, from parents to the rulers, without a clue about democracy or “We the People” (even to this date, mostly)!

Below are two examples.

For more on Greek philosophers, read: Wikipedia - List of ancient Greek philosophers. For more on Chinese philosophers, read: Wikipedia - List of Chinese philosophers.

3. Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great is unquestionably the most significant figure in Ancient Greece, especially for expanding the Greek Empire to its maximum.

Two highlights:

  1. He took pride in conquering Egypt, a civilization preceding Ancient Greece, resulting in Egypt's then capital being renamed after him: Alexandria.
  2. He did attempt to advance deeper into Asia beyond Pakistan, but failed to completely pass the high mountains over there, and turned back from eastern Pakistan when his soldiers mutinied. A very few years thereafter, he died too early at age 32.

The image below highlights the Greek Empire at its peak under Alexander the Great. For more, read: Ancient Greek Map of Greek Empire.

4. China's First Emperor

The most significant figure in Ancient China is unquestionably Qin Shi Huang. Why is he also known as the "First Emperor"?

The image below highlights the geographical relations among China's seven warring states at that time. As the king of Qin, Qin Shi Huang managed to conquer and annex the other six states, then he named himself the "First Emperor".

After unifying China geographically, the First Emperor proceeded with many significant standardizations and developments, such as a common "official" written language, a common currency, common measurements (for weights and measures), the development of an extensive network of roads and canals connecting the provinces to improve trade between them, and standardizing even the length of the axles of carts to facilitate transport on the road system.

Very importantly, the First Emperor built the (earliest portions of the) Great Wall of China.

5. Alexander the Great vs. China's First Emperor

There is no comparison between the two - The First Emperor contributed to China far more than Alexander the Great did to Greece!

Militarily, Alexander the Great perhaps achieved more than the First Emperor did. But that was misguided, as it appeared that he conquered for the sake of conquering, without knowing how to govern afterwards.

In contrast, the First Emperor conquered to rule. For example, his extensive policies and accomplishments after unifying China decisively helped propel China well ahead of the rest of the world for centuries to come.

Now, consider the EU: It has been trying to do to Europe just a fraction of what the First Emperor accomplished in China more than 2,000 years ago. Commonality as a result of extensive standardizations led to efficiency and full utilization of resources, which was a critical factor behind China's preeminent economy in the world for much of the first 1,800 years of our 2017-year-old calendar!

6. Discussion

History is written by real leaders, not by "We the People" (aka "the indistinguishable")!

The history of Ancient Greece is written by several Greek philosophers and great kings like Alexander the Great.

Likewise, the history of Ancient China is written by several Chinese philosophers and great emperors like the First Emperor.

Alexander the Great was a great military leader, whom many western military leaders have been trying to emulate (and even worshiping) over the past 2,000 years.

China's First Emperor not only was a great military leader, but also has proven to be one of the greatest leaders in human history. However, many westerners were completely unaware of his greatness, until today, hopefully.

The Greek Empire did not last long after the death of Alexander the Great, but Greek philosophies have long lived even to this date, having permeated throughout every corner of the western civilization and beyond. For more, watch the video in the end.

In contrast, the Chinese Empire lasted for some 2,000 years after the death of the First Emperor, thanks, largely, to the solid foundation he laid. Specifically:

  1. Language: One "official" written language - huge benefit!
  2. Race: One race (i.e. Han Chinese), mostly.
  3. Culture: One culture, mostly, including all kinds of philosophies developed before and after the First Emperor.
  4. Religion: Many Gods (e.g. Sun God, Moon God, and Water God), but no major religion, as the Chinese Emperor is the son of heaven.
  5. Authority: The Emperor!

The list above happens to be China's five prime attributes to this date. For more, read: The U.S. vs. China.

7. History repeats itself

Two examples in modern America:

  1. Like Alexander the Great, President George W. Bush launched the Iraq War on March 20, 2003, for the sake of destroying the enemy, without knowing how to govern afterwards. As a result, 14 years later, we are still over there and Iraq is much worse off than its days under Saddam, with no end in sight.
  2. Like China's First Emperor, President Trump wants to build a "beautiful wall" on our southern border (Trump wants to build a big, beautiful wall).

8. Closing

Not only does China have the longest continuous civilization in human history, it also has the best documented history over the past 2,000 years at least, thanks to the solid foundation laid by the First Emperor, especially the part on one “official” written language.

Why, then, isn’t Chinese history better known in the West? Two main reasons:

  1. China suffered a huge set-back for about 200 years until 1978.
  2. History is written by, and about, the victors. The West led the world for the past 200 years at least, while China became almost irrelevant.

As China is roaring back, it’s time for the West to profoundly understand China. Stay tuned for more comparisons of China vs. the West, from Ancient Greece on …

Now, please sit back and enjoy the long video below. It's very informative and entertaining.

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