Abstract–Perceptions of the Barbarian in Ancient Greece and China

The ancient Greeks and Chinese bear striking similarities in their attitudes towards other peoples, often calling them ‘barbarians’. This paper attempts to discuss Greek and Chinese perceptions of the barbarian in a comparative perspective in the hope that such a study might be helpful for further understanding the role that such perceptions played in the self-identification of both societies.

The paper at first outlines Chinese attitudes towards other peoples from the late Shang period (14th-11th centuries BC) onwards to the end of the pre-imperial period (third century BC) as reflected in their records including the Oracle Bone and Bronze inscriptions and pre-Qin literary texts. It then attempts at some comparative analysis and suggests that documentation on the issue in both early Greece and China is in fact fragmentary and scanty. Our discussions of early Greek and Chinese attitudes to others should not focus on the texts alone and should also take into full consideration of the important events that might help to shape those attitudes. Encounters with surrounding peoples in the early expansion of Greek and Chinese civilizations must have played an important role in shaping the respective attitudes of Greeks and Chinese towards others. An indication of this is that the fundamental Chinese political order and accompanying ideas as developed in the Western Zhou period (c. 1046-771 BC) are based on the structuring of the Chinese at the center as ruler and the barbarians at the periphery as ruled. Finally the paper discusses some of the important differences in Greek and Chinese perceptions of others and the implications of these differences for understanding Greek and Chinese cultures.