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Writing Roman Empire in Republican China (1920s-1940s)

Mon, June 22, 2:00 to 3:55pm, South Building, Floor: 5th Floor, S525


In rethinking and rearticulating Chinese identity and culture in Republican China, Chinese intellectuals who took defensive, destructive, or negligent approaches to the Chinese past and had varying views on Westernization generally shared an uncontested reverence for Greek antiquity. This philhellenism had a negative consequence on the Chinese Historiography of the Roman Empire. While Ancient Greece was invariably represented as the most artistic, philosophical, and scientific nation in human history, the Romans were perceived as being immensely similar to the Chinese, both being inferior to the ancient Greeks in that they both privileged practicability over metaphysical thinking. More attention was thus given to the failure/lessons of the Romans than their accomplishments, an approach that the Chinese intellectuals found supported by the "decline and fall" model popularized by Edward Gibbon. While the fate of China was seen as strikingly similar to that of Greece, both being ancient civilizations truncated by foreign invasion and dominance, the association between Mussolini and the (idea of) Roman Empire, which he aggressively promoted, was quite disturbing to at least some Chinese intellectuals. News reports and several general histories of Rome written by Chinese scholars clearly noted their anxiety over Mussolini's Italy becoming the new Roman Empire characterized by belligerence and aggression. The writing of Roman History, therefore, became a site where philhellenism, discourses about China's past, concerns over China's fate, searches for historical lessons, and a close attention to contemporary European affairs and their historical precedents intricately coalesced.