Before celebrations started in 2022 to mark the golden anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Greece in June 1972, a series of events had already been held to highlight the values shared between the ancient Chinese and Greek civilizations, their common cultural traits, and the solidarity between the two countries in modern times.
In November 2021, the Chinese publication Civilization Magazine, brought out a special album with an NGO, the Capital Civilizational Development Foundation, as a tribute to the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games that will open on February 4. The foreword to the album, titled “The Olympic Manifesto – The Beautiful Olympic Cultural Scroll III,” is a congratulatory message by Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, who said Beijing 2022 will offer new opportunities for deepening the Sino-Greek relationship, especially benefiting sports communications.
Shared Cultural Pursuits
Sakellaropoulou emphasized the ancient tradition of the Olympic truce, when countries suspended hostilities to participate in the Olympic Games, replacing war with friendly sports competitions. She said this tradition should be revived today to enable dialogue, mutual understanding and conciliation between countries and organizations in conflicts.
The leaders of both China and Greece have been emphasizing the long history of both nations as great civilizations. During President Xi Jinping’s visit to Greece in 2019, a signed article by him mentioned how both peoples had faced enormous hardships in the past and had yet found their way through them.
The presidential sentiment was echoed at a conference held in Beijing on the first day of 2022 where the speakers discussed the many bonds and similarities between the two nations. The timing of the conference, themed “Civilization, Peace and Friendship: Spiritual Dialogue between Chinese and Ancient Greek Civilizations,” and organized by the Department of Literature and History of the Chinese Academy of Governance together with Civilization Magazine, the Center for Classical Civilization of Renmin University of China, and Beijing Sport University, had a special significance. January 1 is the day when Pierre de Coubertin, who revived the Olympic Games in modern times, was born. The Olympic truce and spirit were among the dominant topics at the conference.
Euthymios Athanasiadis, Press and Communication Counselor at the Greek Embassy in China, said in a video message that solidarity is the cornerstone of the Games. What matters most is not to outperform but self-improvement and self-transcendence through efforts and struggles in competitions held under fair and explicit rules. Today’s Olympic motto, “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together,” would be meaningless if “Together” was absent.
Professor Fang Xu from Chongqing Institute of Public Administration pointed out that from the first Olympic Games, it became a tradition for states to sign the Olympic truce, and the Games replaced wars with peaceful competitions.
Though the tradition was interrupted in the medieval times, Coubertin rediscovered the Olympic spirit and brought into modern civilization an awareness of classical heroism to combat the growing alienation among nations due to capitalism, according to Feng Qing, a staff researcher at the Center for Classical Civilization of Renmin University of China.
Like the Greeks, the ancient Chinese had also sought peace through sports. Party secretary of Beijing Sport University Cao Weidong mentioned how sports in ancient China originated from the ancient aristocratic education system and then evolved into a holistic school comprising medicine, healthcare and morality. The Chinese values of peace and moderation are spiritually akin to the Olympic values of solidarity and friendship.
Both the ancient Chinese and Greek held music and education in high regard. Professor Li Wentang of the Department of Literature and History of the Chinese Academy of Governance said Confucius and Plato, the epitome of wisdom in ancient China and Greece respectively, both deemed musical education to be important to produce citizens or aristocrats with a moral personality and spiritual harmony. The central doctrine of Confucianism was the virtue of ren -- love and benevolence, which was similar to the Greek philosophy of stoicism as well as Christian morality. They all have their roots in a tradition that valued fraternity.
The culture of music and rituals were common threads between ancient China and Greece. Xie Maosong, a researcher at the China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy, said rituals and a music culture reflected the shared pursuits of the Chinese and Greeks: virtue, inner peace and harmony.
Beijing Language and Culture University professor Chen Rongnü compared archery in China, which evolved from the early hunter-gatherer lifestyle into a way of training and education for a person to reach physical and moral perfection, to competitive sports in ancient Greece, which also served to produce ideal citizens with “a healthy mind in a healthy body.”
Greek Studies in China
Despite the geographical distance, China’s interest in Greek culture goes way back. Elements, the mathematical treatise by Greek mathematician Euclid, said to have been published in 300 B.C., was translated into Chinese and published in the early 17th century.
After the May Fourth Movement, an intellectual revolution and socio-political reform movement in China in 1919, Greek or Hellenic studies gained considerable importance in Chinese academia. In the 1990s, the complete works of Greek philosopher Aristotle were published in Chinese, which marked the beginning of a new era in China’s Hellenic studies. After entering the new millennium, Greek classics became more popular. A milestone of this period was the translation of the complete works of another renowned Greek philosopher, Plato, in Chinese, together with annotations. The past 20 years have seen further development in China’s Hellenic studies, in both research and translations. For example, the Classici et Commentarii, an academic book series including over 600 books, has about two thirds devoted to Hellenic studies or translations. The series makes many new sources on ancient Greek studies available to scholars as well as young students.
Another milestone for Greek studies in China is the founding of the Center for Classical Civilization at Renmin University of China in 2010. It was the first in China to give systematic lectures in the ancient Greek language and on Greek classic works. Through the years, the center has been publishing academic books and journals and training students pursuing higher education.
Over the years, more and more young Chinese have grown interested in Greek antiquity and learned its language, literature, and culture. They continue to connect China and Greece, the East and the West.