Contact with the West
Contact with the West
Exchanges. Direct contact between China and the West came during the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.), when its military thrust reached the Tarim Basin, and the Chinese established garrisons there. Some historians argue that it was from the reign of Xiao Wu Di that trade between East and West, through caravan traffic over rugged desert roads, came into being. It was said that many new things were introduced to China, such as grape wine and lucerne (alfalfa). Chives, cucumbers, sesame, coriander, and many other products followed. In exchange, silk, oranges, peonies, azaleas, and many other items found their way to the West.
Contacts. By the early eighth century, Tang China reached its golden age, and its power and prestige promoted extensive contacts with the outside world during the imperial period. The Chinese monk Xuanzang traveled across Central Asia and India for fifteen years and returned with the knowledge of different religions and cultures that attracted the Tang imperial court. Of the greatest importance for the spiritual history of China was the importation of Buddhism, which has since exerted everlasting impact on the lives of the Chinese people. The Tang capital, Chang’an, was the largest cosmopolitan city in the world and was the terminus of the Silk Road, over which merchants from Eurasian countries traveled and traded. Thus, Chang’an became a multicultural city in which world religions and cultures met.
Foreign Influences. China in Tang times was more open to the outside world than at any other time in the imperial era until the mid nineteenth century. On the streets of Chang’an, goods from distant regions—horses, jewels, musical instruments, food, wines, and arts—flourished. Foreign fashions in hairstyles and clothing were often copied, and foreign amusements, such as polo, became favorite pastimes of the elite class. Caravans that came from Central Asia fascinated the Tang people so much that representations of camels and their non-Han grooms appeared on pottery. In addition, various designs of silver cups, plates, ewers, and other small objects showed the great influence of Persian innovations and techniques. The Tang people’s lives were enriched by new musical instruments and tunes from India, Iran, and Central Asia. Allegedly these items transformed Han Chinese music, which had mostly been performed by a single instrument. The “upside-down larynx,” or falsetto singing, replaced the conventional Chinese style of singing, making Tang music distinctive.
Temples. Among the imported sports such as polo and soccer, there was another popular activity during the second half of the seventh century. This activity became part of the celebration for the coming of winter and required that onlookers shower naked dancing youths with cold water. In Tang times foreign influence had such an impact that the practice of sitting on floor mats was replaced by the use of stools and chairs. In Chang’an were found Buddhist temples, Jewish synagogues, Islamic mosques, and even Nestorian Christian chapels (the latter faith was condemned as heresy in the West in 431 C.E.). The Japanese and Koreans greatly admired Tang civilization. The Japanese modeled their capital city after Chang’an. The Japanese tea ceremony and the formal kimono dress were inspired by Chinese fashions in the Tang period. Chinese literature and poetry reached their height and spread across the borders to Eastern and Southeast Asian countries. For example, the earliest literature in both Korea and Japan was mostly written in Chinese.
Changes. Historians noticed some fundamental changes in China as the country transformed from an outward-looking society in the Tang era to an inward-looking society in the Song period (960-1279). This shift reflected a turning away from foreign cultures and arts, which were often labeled “barbarian.” In the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) contact with the West revived because of excessive territorial expansion, but the cultural impact was limited because the Yuan remained in power for less than one hundred years. Moreover, the Mongol conquerors of China seldom fully trusted Chinese officials and appointed Mongolian or Central Asian commissars to supervise them and keep close tabs on their activities. The Mongols also canceled the Chinese civil service examinations for most of the Yuan dynasty. The Ming (1368-1644) reinstituted the examination system and developed it to its full extent.
Wolfram Eberhard, A History of China, translated by E. W. Dickes (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950; London: Routledge 8c Kegan Paul, 1950).
Shen Fuwei, Cultural Flow between China and Outside World throughout History (Beijing: Foreign Language Press, 1996).
David Curtis Wright, The History of China (Westport, Conn.: Green-wood Press, 2001).