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Greece and China: The Wisdom of Ancient Civilizations

Greek art china
Chinese culture, like Greek culture, belongs to one of the oldest civilizations. Credit: /Wikimedia Commons

Chinese culture belongs to one of the oldest civilizations, as does Greek culture, and Confucian teachings have been regarded as providing the definitive morality that underpins Chinese mentality and behavior, regardless of any religious background.

By Steve Bakalis

“The values of the cultures of our two countries, as well as the way in which we approach and understand the world, the universe, life, science and culture emanating from them, cover a broad spectrum and are renewed over time, and are destined to provide valuable spiritual guidance for overcoming the difficulties of our times and building a community with a common future for all humanity,” said Sun Chunlan.

These sentiments are aligned with the revival of the Silk Road, which has connected Greece and China since the time of Alexander the Great, and aims to open more channels of communication and cooperation between China and Greece, as well as between the West and the East. And the constantly growing presence of a Chinese community in Greece gives us yet another reason for cultivating partnership with China.

In the meantime, the controversy surrounding the AUKUS defense pact which was first signed between three nations (the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia) 18 months ago, returned to the spotlight with the Australian government’s recent decision to back it up with a $368 billion spending commitment for the acquisition of nuclear powered submarines.

Former Prime Minister Mr Keating, who was very critical from the start, insisting that Australia should move closer to China rather than to the United States and the United Kingdom, said history will be the judge of this pact in the end.

In his view, it is a mistake, offers no solution to the challenge of great power competition in the Asia-Pacific region, and offers Australia no security. The coverage of his perspective, politics and policy in the media sought to isolate Keating and portray his perspective as outdated, highlighting to some extent a societal reluctance to acknowledge different opinions.

A restructuring in the global economy

Against the background of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow, and amid forecasts that the global economy, after a long period of contraction, is expected to have another round of slow growth (2.9 percent, compared to 3.4 percent in 2023), nations are facing economic downturns whose scope and magnitude is troubling, while still trying to manage the fallout from a public health crisis. All of this requires careful moves to avoid worsening economic and social disasters.

Certainly, this presents challenges, but also opportunities, for governments around the world who find themselves in hitherto uncharted seas. Within this uncertain landscape, we are witnessing a restructuring in the global economy. For example, China’s share of the world economy is on the rise, from just 3.6% in 2000 to 18.6% today. threatening the hegemony of the United States as an economic superpower.

This development was predicted 90 years ago by Bertrand Russell, who said that China is capable of overtaking America as a superpower, based on a long-term development horizon that differs from the short-term mentality of Western nations, while pointing out that:

“The Chinese are a great nation, incapable of permanent suppression by foreigners. They will not consent to adopt our vices in order to acquire military strength; but they are willing to adopt our virtues in order to advance in wisdom. I think they are the only people in the world who quite genuinely believe that wisdom is more precious than rubies. That is why the West regards them as uncivilized” (The China Problem (1922), Ch. XIII: Higher Education in China – Bertrand Russell)

The Greek poet beloved in China

Nikos Kazantzakis, whose heart was also won by China, has the same way of thinking. When he fell ill duing his last visit to China, he longed to spend the rest of his life there. Later, he was honored by the Communist Party as a great writer and lover of peace.

It is no coincidence that during his November 2019 visit to Greece, in his official speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping referred to Nikos Kazantzakis as a giant of modern Greek literature. He added that “Confucius and Socrates were two masks that covered the same face of human logic’, pointing out that great civilizations have much in common, and offer lessons for the future.

Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis
Photograph of Nikos Kazantzakis, from his personal archive. Photo credit: Dioptra publishing house

Greece and China two great ancient civilizations

Indeed, Chinese culture belongs to one of the oldest civilizations, as does Greek culture, and Confucian teachings have been regarded as providing the definitive morality that underpins Chinese mentality and behavior, regardless of any religious background.

Besides this, they also serve as a practical guide to regulate the conduct (through human virtues and values) of the lives of millions of people in China, Japan and the newly industrialized countries of East Asia such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore, all these countries having been influenced by Confucianism.

And so we see in the East a model of economic development that is aligned with Confucian philosophy, where moderation is one of the key drivers, and therefore one of the important catalysts for maintaining and perpetuating a healthy economy, underpinned by the “right culture”. Indeed, China’s reliance on ancient Confucian economics has become both the driving force behind China’s modernization, and one of the main reasons for China’s “boom” in recent years.

It is also noteworthy that both Confucius and Plato have human moderation at the center of their thinking, and their wisdom guides us towards the need for people to live harmoniously, while at the same time pursuing economic dynamism. Plato taught that wealth is important to individuals and societies because it gives people the freedom to choose to live a “just” life, and facilitates higher levels of well-being and happiness, but attachment to wealth alone, without a moral compass, will lead to decay.

Still, China’s rise is creating much uncertainty worldwide by challenging US hegemony. The words of Chinese President Xi Jinping following his visit to Moscow: “The international community has recognized that no country is superior to others, no model of governance is universal, and no single country should dictate the international order,” seem to resonate with the thinking of both Bertrand Russell and Nikos Kazantzakis.

Steve Bakalis is an expert on international business education and management, He has held adjunct appointments with the Australian National University, the University of Adelaide, and the University of International Business and Economics. 

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