Alexandrian Motifs in Chinese Texts
E Bruce Brooks

Sino-Platonic Papers #96 (June 1999)

Following WW2, national consciousness retreated to narrower horizons. Scholarship followed suit, turning away from any consideration of the interconnectedness of the past. Anthropology in particular declared itself interested only in linear development within cultures. not in the influence of one culture on another. A Sinological expression of this mood was Joseph Needham's series Science and Civilisation in China, whose first volume (1954, 150f) ridiculed the notion of west-to-east migration of ideas in the ancient world as being inherently improbable, and requiring in some cases nearly simultaneous transmission across the breadth of Eurasia. That derisive rejection, in a context of distaste for the whole question of influence, prevented any serious discussion of the possibility that China had learned something from somebody else, for almost fifty years.

This study takes up the challenge of six earlier-proposed Greek/Chinese loan concepts which were ridiculed as impossible by Needham. Based on an extended reconsideration of the chronology of the Chinese and Greek texts involved, the study finds that:

1. All the Greek ideas involved in the six cases occur in the works of Plato as known to Aristotle, or in the works of Aristotle himself down to a point shortly before the beginning of Alexander's eastern campaign. That campaign led to the conquest of Bactria in 0329/0327. Alexander made Bactria a Greek city by leaving behind 30,000 Greeks to populate it. Archaeology of that site attests a fully Hellenized atmosphere in which copies of the works of the Aristotelian school circulated.

2. Bactria is known from Herodotus as the gateway to the east. It would have been the transshipment point for that trade, and the furthest point west likely to have been reached by Chinese traders.

3. The Greek ideas involved are of the gee-whiz type, not the learned type. They do not imply erudition in the philosophy of Athens. On the contrary, they might have been picked up in casual conversation at the end of a business day; in Bactria.

4. The Greek ideas involved are of a type likely to appeal to the Chinese consciousness. The most obvious example is the filial piety crisis which is the basis for Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, where an unfilial but public-spirited son (named from the stem Euthy-, "straight, upright") accuses his father of having committed a crime. This would push a hot button in any Chinese hearer.

5. No echo of any of these ideas occurs in Chinese texts earlier than c0322. Stimulus diffusion, the only mechanism of transmission considered by Needham, would indeed not have worked, but there is plenty of time for a silk trader's return journey from post-conquest Bactria.

6. The earliest of these echoes, Analects 13:9, is the filial piety crisis, where an unfilial but public-spirited son (named from the stem jr-, "straight, upright") denounces his father for having committed a crime. The semantic parallel to Euthyphro (also having a stem "straight") is nothing if not striking.

Update. The study noted that Aristotle's role as tutor to Alexander provided a link between his knowledge and the culture of post-Alexandrian Bactria. As Steve Farmer pointed out in subsequent discussion, the idea that Aristotle was Alexander's tutor rests on dubious authority. It is probably a mythic exaggeration of the fact that Aristotle was well known in Macedonia (Aristotle's father Nichomachus also had Macedonian connections). We accept the correction. That "general celebrity" situation will actually account more convincingly for the Aristotelian character of post-Alexandrian Bactria, since that will have depended less on the personal culture of Alexander than on that of the 30,000 soldiers he left behind as the population nucleus for Bactria.

Back to Monographs Index Page

24 April 2000 / Contact The Project / Exit to Publications Page