Han China and Ancient Rome

All Grades, Arts & Literature, Economics, Government, History, Science/Technology, Society, Curriculum Guide
  • Left: Roman in his toga (Ancient Rome); Right: A pair of horsemen (Eastern Han)

With the participation of teachers from all over the U.S., the Teach China program develops multi-disciplinary curriculum units aligned with national standards.

In July 2001, Teach China conducted a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Institute, “China and the World.” The institute offered a comprehensive survey of China‘s relations with the non-Chinese world from earliest times to the end of the twentieth century. Historian Morris Rossabi was the main instruscience and technology, the visual arts, literature, and music were some of the specialized areas of focus. Participant teachers designed units for the institute.

Teacher Resources

(Source: Curriculum from China and the World).
Comparing cultures is an important part of studying world history. It’s a skill students can cultivate in class discussion, through reading, by exploring the web, or in writing. Comparing cultures involves the ability to compare and contrast different experiences, beliefs, motives, traditions, hopes, and fears of people from various groups and backgrounds. . . . (National Center 1996: 7)

This lesson, a broad comparison between the Roman Empire and the roughly contemporaneous Han Dynasty in China, is intended to encourage the development of such skills. It discusses topics such as geography, politics, the expansion of empire, and social organization. The last section is a list of suggested sources for teachers and students.

Why is the Roman Empire important? According to Peter S. Wells, The Roman Empire is one of the world’s great unifying forces, linking peoples militarily, politically, economically, and culturally, from Northern Britain and the Straits of Gibralter in the west, to the Upper Euphrates and southern Egypt in the east. Rome’s trade connections reached even further afield – north to Finland, south to sub-Saharan Africa, and east to India. The empire’s effects are apparent in the languages, customs, and legal systems in many European countries. . . . All of the Romance languages – Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian – are descendants of the Latin of the Roman Empire. (Wells 1999: 18-19)

Studying Latin was an essential part of European and American education well into the twentieth century and, for many educated people, Rome represented an ideal. George Washington, for instance, was compared to the Roman statesman and general Cincinnatus (sixth century BCE). Legend says that, like Washington, Cincinnatus left his farm to lead Rome during a period of crisis. When the enemy was defeated, he gave up power and went back to farming.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek statesman and historian Polybius (c200-c118 BCE) said that there can surely be nobody so petty or apathetic in his outlook that he has no desire to discover by what means and under what system of government the Romans succeeded in bringing under their rule almost the whole of the inhabited world. (Histories 1.78; Kebric 2001: 1)

The center of this multi-ethnic empire was the city of Rome. Like the hub of a wheel, Rome brought together people and goods from all over the world. Even silk from China found its way there. A Roman statesman and orator living during the so-called “Golden Age of the Roman Empire” in the second century CE tells us that Around the [the Mediterranean] lie the continents far and wide, pouring an endless flow of goods [to Rome]… One can see so many cargoes from India, or, if you wish, from Arabia…, that one may surmise that the trees there have been left permanently bare, and that those people must come here to beg for their own goods whenever they need anything. Clothing from Babylonia and the luxuries from barbarian lands arrive… Egypt, Sicily, and the civilized part of Africa are [Rome’s] farms. The arrival and departure of ships never ceases, so that it is astounding that the sea – not to mention the harbor – suffices for the merchantmen… all things converge here, trade, seafaring, agriculture, metallurgy, all the skills which exist and have existed, anything that is begotten and grows. (To Rome 11-13; Kebric 2001: 2)

At the other end of the Eurasian continent, China became a unified empire when the Qin state defeated the last of its rivals in 221 BCE. The dynasty it founded lasted less than two decades. Its successor was the long-lived Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE).

In his Shiji (Records of History, c100 BCE), a book that was the pattern for later dynastic histories, the Han writer Sima Qian (145-c85 BCE) describes the early decades of the dynasty.

When the Han dynasty came to power, it inherited the evils left by Qin. The able-bodied men were all away with the army, while the old and underaged busily transported supplies for them. There was much hard work and little wealth. The Son of Heaven himself could not find four horses of the same color to draw his carriage, many of his generals and ministers were reduced to riding about in ox carts, and the common people had nothing to lay away in their storehouses. (Watson 1961: 79)

At this time China was exhausted from the rebellion that overthrew Qin and the wars that followed between contenders to the throne. Sima Qian next describes Han society in his own lifetime. Sima lived under the rule of Emperor Wu (r. 141-87 BCE), at a time when China had become prosperous and government power was expanding.

By the time the present emperor had been on the throne a few years, a period of over seventy years had passed since the founding of the Han. During that time the nation had met with no major disturbances so that, except in times of flood or drought, every person was well supplied and every family had enough to get along on. The granaries in the city and the countryside were full and the government treasuries were running over with wealth… Horses were to be seen even in the streets and lanes of the common people… (Watson 1961: 81)

During the reign of Emperor Wu, China expanded its borders north to modern-day Korea and south to what is now Vietnam. It also sought allies and alliances in Central Asia to counter the Xiongnu, its nomadic enemy along the northern frontier. This age of prosperity and expansion could be compared to the Golden Age of the Roman Empire.

One important difference between Rome and the Han period, however, centers on the question of cultural cohesion. Which society established a common culture as a result of its conquests? In the words of Patricia Ebrey, Perhaps because of the Chinese script, it is much easier to talk about a common culture among the elite in Han China than in the Roman Empire. As the influence of Chinese culture increased in frontier areas with the presence of Chinese garrisons and magistrates, members of the local population learned to read Chinese… Even if Latin became a lingua franca in the Roman Empire, other written languages continued to be used… (Ebrey 1996: 85)

One strong argument for Ebrey’s point is the continuity of Chinese civilization: Although the Roman Empire has vanished, Chinese culture still flourishes today, eighteen hundred years after the fall of the Han.

The Han dynasty is a major element in this continuity: The establishment of Chinese cultural, social, and political institutions during Han was so important and enduring an accomplishment that even today the Chinese call themselves “people of Han.”

All materials © 2001 China Institute in America. All rights reserved.

Resource Type: Curriculum Guide
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, Economics, Government, History, Science/Technology, Society, Curriculum Guide


Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.