History: The meeting point of two civilizations in ancient Eurasia. Interview with Professor Siep Stuurman

Siep-StuurmanAlthough Greece and China represent two different civilizations – the first represents the western one while the second the Asian one – the two countries of ancient Eurasia, have a common denominator for a comparison. History is the meeting point of both; Herodotus and Sima Qian, both described as ‘fathers of history’ are the concrete example of this meeting point.  While they have a lot of differences, both ‘have understood that you can only understand your own culture in its relationship with the greater frame of “world history” in the words of Siep Stuurman, Professor of the History of ideas, at the Centre for the Humanities, Utrecht University*. In his interview with chinaandgreece Professor Stuurman shares his expertise on Herodotus and Sima Qian, the dynamics of ancient cultures and their co-operation.

How would you describe the two civilizations in ancient Eurasia: China and Greece? Where do the two civilizations meet?

In antiquity, both China and Greece belonged to the Axial civilizations, together with ancient Egypt, Mesoptotamia, Iran and India. All of them developed notions of humanity, of what it meant to be human. Plato and Aristotle are roughly coeval with Confucius and Mencius. In particular, Aristotle’s notion of a virtue as a mean between two extremes (e.g.: courage as a mean between cowardice and recklessness) has some affinity with Confucius’ idea of moderation (Analects 5.20: “Lord Ji Wen always thought thrice before acting. Hearing this, the Master said:’Twice is enough.’”).

The Chinese, being the major civilization-cum-empire in East Asia, were more inclined to see themselves as the natural center of the world. The Greeks, as peripheral newcomers to the civilized world of Egypt and Western Asia were somewhat more experimental in outlook and temperament. In particular, the Greeks had to cope with a greater variety of political regimes, they were compelled to “reinvent the state.”

Why both Herodotus and Sima Qian are called ‘fathers of history’?

Herodotus is the first Greek historian of which we have a more or less complete work. Of his predecessor Haecateus only fragments are left. In the Hellenistic world he was thus seen, often in conjunction with Thucydides, as a “beginning.” But after Roman times he fell in desuetude only to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when his work was translated into Latin. But in early-modern Europa the Roman historians were held in higher esteem than Herodotus. Recently, however, interest in Herodotus has revived, because he addresses present-day concerns about frontiers and cultural difference.

By contrast, Sima Qian’s status as father of history is less contested. The Shiji really represents the first comprehensive history of China, and later Chinese “grand historians” all refer to Sima Qian and acknowledge his authority. His theory of dynastic cycles has remained important in framing Chinese history until the fall of the last dynasty in 1911.

What are the similarities and differences between Herodotus and Sima Qian?

Both conceived of history as a critical inquiry into the past in order to enlighten people in uncertain and dangerous times, but they did so from quite different vantage points. Sima Qian, invoking the authority of Confucius’ Spring and Autumn Annals, asserted that it was the task of the historian to criticize state functionaries, and even emperors, but such criticisms are always put in the mouth of protagonists of the story. By contrast, Herodotus’ critique of rulers is voiced in direct speech by himself. He had no political position and could speak more freely, while Sima Qian suffered disgrace when he spoke too openly. Even so, his histories are replete with criticism of his patron, the energetic and severe emperor Wu.

Another important similarity is that both Herodotus and Sima Qian are keenly interested in frontiers and cultural difference. Their Greco-centrism and Sino-centrism is tempered by an open-minded approach to the “barbarians” living beyond the frontier. Both are able to imagine how the “barbarians” look back at China or Greece. As I have tried to show in my article in JWH, Herodotus book IV on the Scythians and Sima Qian’s chapter 110 on the Xiongnu seek to understand the way of life of the steppe nomads as a functional whole well adapted to the ecology and the geopolitics of the steppe peoples and their relationships to the Empires confronting them. That is no mean feat. Where they differ is in their stances vis-à-vis the grand Empire of their day. Herodotus’ ethnography of the Scythians is leading up to the history of the Persian wars. The failed attempt of the Persians to subdue the Scythians is thus framed by the fact that the Persians are the antagonists of the Greeks. Sima Qian, however, is residing in the entrails of an Empire that also fails.to subdue the Steppe Nomads. His open-minded appreciation of the culture of the Xiongnu is wedded to his critique of an imperial policy of aggression he considers misguided.

What they share—and that is in my opinion the crucial and most valuable point—is that both had understood that you can only understand you own culture in its relationship with the greater frame of “world history.” In that sense, both Herodotus and Sima Qian use history to overcome ethnocentric closure. And they do so, moreover, because they understand the risks of not doing so. That is what we can learn from them.

How important is to investigate the dynamics of your own culture in its evolving relationships to other cultures?

Extremely important and absolutely vital. Since antiquity, world history is the history of empires, their allies, their adversaries, and their victims (see Jane Burbank & Frederick Cooper, Empires in World History, Princeton 2010). World history is not a mountain of facts but it is a way of thinking. It should enable us to spot those “facts” that are relevant to the problematic we want to explore, whether such facts are close to home or in remote lands. Doing world history might enable us to develop a sober and well-informed perspective on “globalization.” Taking a longer historical view is often a useful antidote to “presentist” myopia. We should attempt to understand our present, not to bury ourselves in it.

At the present time, history teaching in many European countries is dominated by s neo-nationalist agenda. Young people, we are told, need to know their own history, which mostly means: the history of their own nation. All right, but how shall we frame that history? Shall we only look at Istanbul from Amsterdam, or shall we also look at Amsterdam from Istanbul? In my opinion, high school history teaching should pay attention to the national, the regional (e.g. Europe, or China, or Africa) and the global. What is decisive, is how we frame our history. Only a world-historical framing can really do the job (and besides, it is much more fun!).. So there’s work to do for all of us.

*Professor Stuurman’s article: ‘Herodotus and Sima Qian: History and  the Anthropological Turn in Ancient Greece and Han China’ is available here.

Theano-Damiana Agaloglou