Comparative studies on Chinese and Greek classical civilizations

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2022-09-28


Born in 1933, G. E. R. Lloyd entered King’s College in Cambridge as an undergraduate in Classics in 1951 and graduated with a Ph.D. in 1958. Since 1987, he has been a professor of ancient philosophy and science in the Department of Classics at Cambridge University. Professor Lloyd is now Professor Emeritus of the University of Cambridge, Fellow of the British Academy, and a resident senior scholar at the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge. He has written over thirty books on philosophy, science, and medicine in ancient Greece and China, and published numerous papers and book reviews. Photo: PROVIDED TO CSST

In ancient Greece, philosophy, science, and medicine were the starting points of G. E. R. Lloyd’s early years of research. In addition to Polarity and Analogy (Cambridge University Press, 1966), he has published more than a dozen books, like Aristotle: The Growth and Structure of His Thought (Cambridge University Press, 1968), Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle (Chatto and Windus, 1970), Greek Science after Aristotle (Chatto and Windus, 1973), Magic, Reason and Experience (Cambridge University Press, 1979), Science, Folklore and Ideology (Cambridge University Press, 1983) etc. Among them, Early Greek Science: Thales to Aristotle and Greek Science after Aristotle were selected into the “Ancient Culture and Society” series edited by Professor Moses Finley. Their emphasis and characteristics were not to describe what ancient Greek science was but to explain why it became the way it was, and they must reconstruct the problem and historical conditions of ancient researchers. The Classics researchers have long ignored ancient Greek science, only mentioned in the Department of History of Science and Philosophy of Science, but lacked deep digging. These early writings focused on the aspects of early Greek science, emphasizing the importance of logic and scientific methods in research and their profound influence on scientific argument.

The research progress of early ancient Greco-Roman science was difficult because it was not easy to collect and analyze the original and relevant documents. In order to dig deeper into the typical characteristics of ancient Greek science, Lloyd found that when it had been compared with ancient civilizations such as Babylon, Egypt, India, and China, they could clarify how science existed in different ancient civilizations, so he started comparative research between ancient Greek and early Chinese science.

In 1987, Lloyd was invited to give an academic lecture at Peking University, thus starting a comparative study of science and medicine in ancient China and Greece. Then, he was invited by Professor Li Zhen to deliver a lecture on mathematics and medicine in ancient Greece to Peking University students, who were very smart. They were strongly aware of the cultural contrast between ancient Greece and early China, and responded enthusiastically to his Greek mathematics lecture, which stimulated his enthusiasm for learning Chinese science and medicine. He also hoped that he could read scientific and medical works written in classic Chinese. Later, Lloyd invited Prof. Li Zhen from Peking University to visit Cambridge University, during which they learned Chinese together. In order to learn the Chinese language better, he also studied Mencius and Tao-te Ching with graduate student Bridie Andrews, and became familiar with the basic grammar of classical Chinese. Lloyd changed the Chinese learning materials and began to study ancient Chinese mathematical literature to improve his learning efficiency. After two years of diligent study, he could read classical Chinese with the help of a dictionary. Later, he was invited to give lectures in China many times. He collaborated with American Sinologist Professor Nathan Sivin and published The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece (Yale University Press, 2002), an important work in the comparative study of Greece and China.

As the book title suggests, they conduct a comparative study of science and medicine in early China and Greece, exploring the different experiences and complexities of expressing science in both ancient societies. The greatest advantage of comparative research is to reveal the diversity of scientific traditions so that scholars can eliminate the narrowness of their disciplines. The comparative study of ancient Greek and Chinese cultures make people hold different understandings of the study of another culture. Through comparative research, they can truly reproduce how science and medicine are connected to the social structure on which they depend and the identity and status of practitioners. Compared with their Chinese counterparts, Greek philosophers and scientists worked in a more isolated or independent environment. People also concluded a new concept, “Cultural Manifold,” from the comparative study. When studying science and medicine, they do not compare individual or single elements or concepts but adopt a comprehensive attitude, starting from the daily environment in which scientific knowledge is generated and analyzing the complexity of thoughts and activities.

Similarities and differences

Chinese and Greek civilizations provide a wide range of possibilities for seekers of “Tao” or “Logos.” China and Greece have sufficient conceptual tools and institutional frameworks to systematically and uniquely explore the starry sky, the human body, and the entire universe. The main way of exploration in Greece is to find the basis, make careful arguments, and reach a consensus. The strengths of Greek science lie in clear ideas and rigorous deductions; the weaknesses are in the habit of being keen on divergent discussions and skeptical of preconceptions, which hinder consensus results. The main method of inquiry in ancient Chinese science is to find and explore the correspondence, resonance, and interconnection between things. This Chinese approach facilitates the formation of a comprehensive opinion that integrates different research areas and considers all the elements, but it also discourages radical alternatives to confronting established ideas. It is believed that a comparative study of Chinese and Greek sciences can help understand the similarities and differences between Chinese and Greek sciences and their reasons.

Comparative study of ancient civilizations

Combined with his comparative Greek-Chinese scientific research, there are some principles Lloyd thought scholars of comparative cultural research should follow. Dr. Joseph Needham tried to answer the following questions: seeing that ancient China was so advanced in science and technology, why did the modern technological revolution happen in the West but not in China? What are the laws of human cognition? How do humans understand the world around them? Why is human knowledge so diverse?

According to Lloyd, a comparative study of Greek and Chinese sciences shows that although human cultures are diverse, there is only one nature in this world. Every culture has formed a set of conceptual systems based on its living environment, which are compounds of complexity and specialization, and are worthy of in-depth and detailed study. The comparison of science between early China and ancient Greece provides a vivid case analysis and brings it alive; they should not review the early scientific concepts from the perspective of modern science, but they should understand the original appearance of science with the concepts in their primitive ecology; otherwise, what they do is like looking for fish in a tree, putting the cart before the horse. It is also the principle of cultural contrast that he has always promoted—an immersive experience and fieldwork research.

It is taboo to carry out single-factor comparisons with existing prejudices. The best way is to put yourself in the shoes of your research object and ask yourself the following questions: How would you respond if you were in the same cultural situation? Immerse yourself in the culture, let your research questions emerge slowly, and you may find different solutions. Such a feeling is known to the Chinese as “When you doubt whether there is a path out after endless mountains and rivers, you suddenly encounter a lovely village in the shade of green willow and bright flowers.”

To conduct comparative cultural research, Lloyd also thinks that it is necessary to develop many exchanges actively in interdisciplinary and cross-industry fields. In academic exchanges, only people with different backgrounds can find different sparks of ideas. Lloyd has visited many universities in the United States. However, he is surprised that many professors in the United States focus on their research within the disciplines and seldom have in-depth exchanges with scholars from other colleges and majors, meaning their research seldom makes breakthroughs. Looking back at his comparative cultural studies, it was largely thanks to the collegiate systems of Oxford and Cambridge that he had the opportunity to engage in in-depth exchanges with experts in different disciplines. Only in this way can one deeply appreciate the joy of academic comparison.

Ancient Greece and China Compared (Cambridge University Press, 2018), co-edited with Dr. Jingyi Jenny Zhao, is a full display of the comparative studies of Chinese and Greek civilizations in recent years. The selected papers in this book are the latest achievements in comparative studies of ancient Greece and early China in recent years. They explore the commonalities between the two societies and analyze their respective cultures’ particularities and their underlying reasons for them. In terms of future academic cooperation and interdisciplinary research, this book provides an effective research model for academic references, such as: How to conduct cultural comparison research? How to find comparable factors in ancient societies? And, how to avoid the research trap of unilaterally interpreting another culture? As sinologist Michael Loewe said, any comparison must consider its motivation, attitude, and purpose, as well as the culture’s social environment and political background. Conflicts and differences between different cultures are the tools available to dig out the roots of their respective cultures. By studying a certain phenomenon in culture in detail, then extending it to a broader context, examining it in different cultural backgrounds and comparing its similarities and differences, they can see the essence of this cultural phenomenon. Therefore, some so-called cultural specificities may be easily dissipated in another culture’s counterpart comparison, leading to other research topics. There are two common pitfalls in comparative research: one is to focus too much on the details of a certain problem while ignoring its internal development model; the other is to overlook the differences between the two and blindly draw general conclusions. The best way to compare is to go from specific to general, from part to the whole, to achieve the purpose of comparison.

The comparative study of ancient civilizations allows people to deepen their awareness of cultural research issues and enhance the depth and breadth of cultural understanding. Only through cross-cultural analysis can they be more confident in studying similarities and differences between ancient civilizations and can take a more cautious attitude towards the theory of cultural superiority. In theory, anything can be compared, but in practice, many comparative studies ignore the environment and background of the comparative research factors. Why compare? How to compare? What is the standard of comparison? How to test comparison results? Do the concepts and terminology they routinely use distort the subjects of comparative studies? How can they revise the terminology used in the conceptual system? These questions are both difficulties and opportunities for cultural comparison scholars! Engaging in cross-cultural research allows people to expand research horizons and revise initial views on issues. It is worth looking forward to the prospects of the comparative study of Chinese and Western civilizations, and they will surely become more in-depth and interesting.


Sun Jicheng is an associate professor from the School of Foreign Languages at Shandong University of Technology. This article was edited from an interview with G. E. R. Lloyd, published on CSST (Chinese version) on August 25, 2022.

Editor:Yu Hui

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