Education About Asia: Online Archives

Teaching Early China and Ancient Rome Comparatively

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Instructed by the antiquary times, He must, he is, he cannot but be wise.1

William Shakespeare

World history instructors constantly encounter the exhortation to teach Han dynasty China and the Roman Empire comparatively.2 The reason for this is clear: teaching early China and ancient Rome comparatively invites students to calculate and evaluate what David N. Keightley calls the “costs and benefits” of “great civilizations” for themselves—not only explicitly, in terms of first-millennium antecedents, but also implicitly, in terms of third-millennium legacies.3

Han China (c. third century BCE to third century CE) and Imperial Rome (c. first century BCE to fifth century CE) both were strong, centrally ruled regimes that expanded geographically, promoted the assimilation of ethnic and linguistic minorities, and provided lasting stability to their respective regions. They controlled populations and territories that were roughly equivalent in size, built roads, defensive walls, and waterworks, and were threatened by “barbarians” on their frontiers even as they employed such peoples as military auxiliaries. Finally, each of these ancient regimes subordinated religion to the interests of the state and experienced the introduction of a popular foreign faith (Indian Buddhism in China, Palestinian Christianity in Rome). To study these two early imperial cultures is to examine how human beings in widely separated geographical contexts coped with similar challenges and circumstances—an ancient lesson with poignant value for students and teachers in today’s globalized world.

Yet such an examination must also include the divergent outcomes between the two cultures’ experiences, which can be seen in their significant contrasts. Han China was based on rural agriculture, imposed uniformity through a common script, and ultimately asserted indigenous religious values over imported ones. In contrast, the Roman Empire was based on urban and maritime trade as well as agriculture, never became homogeneous except religiously, when the Empire eventually exchanged indigenous religious values for imported values, and never successfully imposed cultural uniformity, especially in written language. Thus, when the contemporary heirs of Han China and Imperial Rome are considered, it is no surprise that nationalist discourses and state authority play relatively greater roles in the People’s Republic of China than in the European Union democracies, where cosmopolitanism and corporate globalism seem to hold greater sway.

While numerous theoretical justifications for this comparative approach exist, seldom are such comparisons and contrasts actually at tempted, either within world history survey courses or within more specialized courses on ancient civilizations. I was able to offer an entire course on “Ancient Empires: China and Rome” during the Berea College January 2006 “short term.”4