Exchanges and mutual learning advance world civilizations


A group of tourists ride camels on the Mingsha Mountain desert in Dunhuang, part of the ancient Silk Road, which played a significant role in promoting exchanges and mutual learning between Eastern and Western civilizations in history. Photo: TUCHONG

Exchanges and mutual learning between Eastern and Western civilizations constitute an important part of human history. Through exchanges and mutual learning, the East and the West draw upon and integrate with each other in material, cultural-ethical, institutional, and ecological terms. As connections between regions increased continuously, a human history of isolation gradually evolved into a truly global history. Eastern and Western civilizations thus advanced, reaching higher levels.

Evolution of world history

There is a long history of civilizational exchanges and mutual learning between the East and the West. Around 4,000 years ago, Babylonian civilization in Mesopotamia created scripts, built cities, and enacted the earliest written law in the world, setting an example for local development and the growth of surrounding civilizations.

Thereafter, the rise of the Persian Empire broadened the scope of East-West civilizational exchanges. Spanning the three continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Persian Empire extended its sphere of influence to the Aegean in the west, and to the foothills of the Himalayas in the east, connecting the Mediterranean and Asia for the first time in history.

The vast territory brought substantial trade benefits to the Persian Empire. Curiosities from Africa to Central Asia were at the disposal of its rulers, which exposed the Greeks to an Eastern world they had never seen before. As a result, a regional historical understanding that Europe and Asia were indivisible began to grow, setting the stage for the eastward expansion of Alexander the Great from the Ancient Greek Kingdom of Macedonia.

Alexander, who ascended to the throne in 336 BCE, coveted the Persian Empire’s vast territory and colorful cultural achievements. He attacked cities and seized land through sweeping military campaigns. While his expansion was achieved through fierce combat, he embraced Eastern culture with surprisingly high tolerance and an adaptive attitude. He retained local officials and existing posts, and respected Persian customs, striving to earn locals’ loyalty.

Due to his conquests, Western arts, literature, and religion were disseminated eastward, bringing the arrival of an era of Hellenization, and leading to the first recorded large-scale convergence of Ancient Greek civilization with Persian, India, Central Asian, and Chinese civilizations.

The clash of different ideas expanded each people’s horizons, and fostered new thoughts and creations, as the interaction between urban and rural cultures, and settled and nomadic societies was vibrant to an unprecedented degree. The history of Eurasia was steered closer to the development of a “world history.”

The emergence and development of the Silk Road culminated in exchanges and mutual learning between ancient Eastern and Western civilizations. In the 2nd century BCE, Chinese Han-Dynasty diplomat Zhang Qian was sent to the “Western Regions,” where he later established a trade route linking Chang’an (modern-day Xi’an in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province) to Rome. Chinese commodities, largely represented by silk textiles, enjoyed great popularity in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

The continuous thriving of the Silk Road connected the west coast of the Pacific and the east coast of the Atlantic for the first time, fueling trade between the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia, and linking towns and oases on the Asian continent. The East and the West, which used to be physically and culturally far from one another, broke geographical limits and formally began exchanging on the political, economic, and cultural front, thus significantly speeding up the development of world civilization.

In the early 16th century, Western colonialism and the Industrial Revolution led to the Silk Road’s decline. European exploration and the great discovery of America brought the unknown continent to the view of both Eastern and Western civilizations. Expanded inter-civilizational exchanges made human history a complete world history.

The rise of the West revolutionized the previous pattern of world powers, inviting colonial evils and inequalities. Nonetheless, it objectively advanced human progress, accelerated the spread of industrial technologies, shaped a unified global economic system, and expedited the global proliferation of democracy, freedom, socialism, Republican system, and national consciousness.

The clash and integration between traditional and modern civilizations in other regions also intensified. Eastern and Western civilizations were more closely related, and the world civilization’s diversity in unity became more prominent, ushering in the era of globalization.

Promoting civilizational development

History has proven that civilizations do not develop in isolation. Exchanges and mutual learning are not only the norm for relationships between Eastern and Western civilizations, but also the foundation for prosperity and progress.

Civilizations first communicated on the material level. Human exchanges of products of surplus labor represented the initial form of inter-civilizational exchanges and laid the material foundation for the development of civilizations.

The Chinese people had cultivated millet since the Stone Age and then introduced the crop to the Great Yuezhi. Via the Silk Road, the plant was passed down to Parthians and Romans, and from Arabs to Berbers and the rest of Africa. Sorghum originated in Africa, and was brought to India, then further to China.

Amid frequent exchanges, the content of material culture was steadily enriched, as the variety and quantity of natural crops and handicraft products continued to increase. Chinese steel and iron casting techniques, as well as tea, cinnamon, turmeric, musk, rhubarb, and other natural products, were successively exported to the West, from Asia to Europe. Even the tulip that the Netherlanders consider a part of their national identity was known as “Gul-ikhashkhash,” meaning the “Chinese poppy,” among Persian botanists. The tulip was extensively planted in Herat, capital of the Timurid Empire, in the late 15th century, and was later transplanted to Istanbul. It wasn’t introduced to the Netherlands until the 16th century.

Material exchanges and mutual learning enriched food cultures for people in both the East and the West, meeting their visual, gustatory, and olfactory needs, beautifying the living environment, and providing great convenience to their lives.

The development of technology usually treads on the heels of material exchanges. The spread of Chinese watermill and windmill techniques across the oases of Central Asia and the Middle East encouraged local agricultural development. These creations were later brought by Arabs to Byzantine Latin-speaking areas, and entered Italy and Spain, taking root in the West and furthering progress in local agriculture and commerce.

In 1162, the Chinese people began to use artillery, followed by canons in 1232. Through the Mongol Empire’s expansion westward, artillery technology was transmitted to the Middle East and the Latin world. Starting from the 14th century, Chinese porcelain production techniques became popular in Afghanistan, Persia, Turkey, and Italy, when artists and craftsmen in these countries copied Chinese porcelain in large quantities. Iranians not only imported paper from China, but also harnessed Chinese turmeric to dye paper yellow and avoid insect damage.

Following material and technological exchanges is communication in intellectual and institutional spheres. Trade is often synchronous with intellectual communication. People learn from each other in the process of communication, reaching enlightenment in philosophy, science, and linguistics.

Chinese, Indian, and Southeast Asian spices not only satisfy human palettes, but are also useful for treating diseases, which greatly enriched pharmaceutical and clinical expertise in Asia and Europe. Traditional Chinese medicine shone brightly during the rule of the Sasanian Empire in Persia. Medieval Arabian medicine was subject to the profound influence of Chinese pharmacology and filled with Chinese clinical drugs and formulas.

The famous medical treatise Fir-daws al-Hikmah (Paradise of Wisdom), which was written in the mid-9th century, was influenced by Chinese, Indian, Greek, and Egyptian medicine simultaneously, and this document was reputedly an outcome of the intersection of Chinese, Indian, and Greek medical sciences.

In Arabic, the word for “tea” is “shai,” which still retains the Chinese transliteration. China was called “al-Sin” (nation of silk) in the ancient Middle East. The Latin term “Cinnamomum cassia Presl” denotes “Chinese cinnamon.”

Through exchanges and mutual learning, countries and peoples in the East and the West created one peak of world civilization after another. When Arabs left the desert in the 7th century, they were still in a nomadic stage. By boldly assimilating advanced technologies from the Byzantine and Persian empires, and studying Chinese and Indian mathematics, technological, and literary knowledge, they cultivated brilliant new civilizations in the 8th to 10th centuries.

In China, the Sui (581–618) and Tang (618–907) empires represented another civilizational peak in human history. National unity, economic prosperity, and opening up to the world resulted in unprecedented vigor of East-West material and cultural exchanges. The Tang prospered as never before, with its capital Chang’an becoming an international metropolis which was second-to-none.

The modern West’s success is likewise inseparable from exchanges and mutual learning between civilizations. Arab sailors and seamanship served as the earliest model for European exploration. Arab medicine, mathematics, and astronomy, as well as Arabized Ancient Greek and Roman thought built the intellectual groundwork for the Renaissance. Many business and trade innovations made by Arab merchants, such as contract and bill systems represented by trust deeds, private banks, and debt certificates, were spread to Europe, advancing its credit and banking industries. The introduction of Chinese papermaking, printing, and gunpowder improved Europeans’ average educational levels and literacy rates, hastening the breakdown of the feudal system. Without the nourishments of Arab and Chinese civilizations, the rise of the modern Western civilization would have been unthinkable.

Looking forward

Inter-civilizational exchanges and mutual learning are the primary way through which great human creations can evolve and be passed down on to future generations, enabling the preservation of advanced productive forces, thoughts, and systems, while driving and stimulating the development of different civilizations, creating material and intellectual wealth, and expanding world civilization as a whole.

In the 20th century, exchanges and mutual learning between Eastern and Western civilizations gradually reshaped the global power dynamics. The deep integration of agricultural and industrial civilizations, technological advances, and highly developed transportation and communication equipment contributed to the powerful rise of the modern Western civilization, while also bringing development opportunities to countries and people in other regions.

The majority of non-Western countries actively adopted new technologies, new ideas, and new organizational forms to change their own fate and increase their civilizational strength, effectively weakening Western civilization’s absolute advantage. Especially after the two world wars and the collapse of colonial empires, traditional imperialist hegemonic logic failed.

As newly independent nation-states advocate for unity and support each other, they have established profound friendships. China is deeply aware of the significance of inter-civilizational exchanges and mutual learning and proactively practices what it advocates, committing itself to building a human community with a shared future.


Min Jing is a professor from the School of History and Culture at Lanzhou University.

Editor:Yu Hui

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