The Greco-Roman and Chinese Ancient Worlds in Comparative Perspective

In late 2019 Associate Professor Hyun Jin Kim received the highest honour for achievement in the humanities in Australia, when he was elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. To mark this occasion, PhD candidate Larissa Tittl interviewed Hyun Jin about his career as a scholar of ancient Greece, Rome and China.

First, congratulations! Your colleagues and students are immensely proud and excited for you. Can you tell us what this Fellowship means to you, both personally and as a scholar of the ancient world?

Thank you, Larissa. It is a great honour for me personally to be nominated as a fellow of the Academy. As a scholar it is also very humbling to know that my research has been recognised as worthy of consideration by my peers and colleagues both here in Australia and abroad. I am, however, in many ways happier about the fact that this honour contributes, to a certain extent, to our discipline’s concerted effort to raise the profile of Classics and Archaeology throughout the country.

What first drew your interest to the worlds of ancient Greece and Rome?

My dad, I suppose. He was passionate about ancient cultures (especially ancient Greece) and his interests also influenced me in many ways. He moved our entire family to New Zealand for the single purpose of indulging his hobby – learning Ancient Greek of all things! He initially wanted to take us to the UK for five years (for his BA in Greek), but ended up choosing the less expensive option (five years in NZ). That’s where it all began. He made me learn Latin, German and French from the age of 10 and also pushed me to pick up Ancient Greek at University. A strange Asian parent he was indeed! Later, my love of world history also impacted on my decision to choose an academic career in Classics and Ancient History.

Hyun Jin Kim

Much of your work focuses on comparative analyses of ancient Greece/Rome and China. Can you briefly outline the strengths and weaknesses of this approach? What sort of insights can comparative analyses reveal to researchers on subjects such as identity, ethnicity, gender roles and even the writing of history itself?

The comparative studies of Greece/Rome and China, is still arguably a relatively new field of inquiry. It offers, I believe, an almost inexhaustible reservoir of research topics and allows for the re-examination of many facets of Greco-Roman culture and history, which, if taken in isolation, may be interpreted in a certain fashion, but when viewed through a comparative perspective, may or may not be as distinctive or significant as we earlier assumed.

For instance, if we compare the Greek perception of non-Greeks with the Chinese perception of non-Chinese peoples, the peculiar and context specific aspects of the Greek representation are easier to pinpoint. At the same time, certain characteristics of the Greek perspective on non-Greeks, which we assumed to be a distinctively Greek way of viewing the question at hand, turn out to be a more general or widespread trait of the representation of the ‘other’ in divergent cultural settings.

The comparative research that was conducted has shown in my view that features such as ‘proto-racism’, which was thought to originate specifically from a Greek context, is also a feature found in the Chinese context. No-one, it seems, has a monopoly on xenophobic sentiments. The Greek preoccupation with identifying barbarians with political slavery, however, is a trait specific to the Greek context and finds no echoes elsewhere, certainly not in China.

History writing can also be seen in a slightly different light. In the scholarly assessment of the Greek (and Roman) historical tradition, narrative histories usually take precedence over chronicles. However, in China this is not the case and the two are often found intermingled in a single historical source, e.g., the Shiji of Sima Qian. Both the chronicle sections and the narrative sections are used equally as effectively to convey the author’s subjective political opinions and assessments. If anything, the chronicle, which appears on the surface to be a more or less dry record of objective ‘facts’, turn out to be the most subtle means of ‘distorting’ history, usually via the omissions of key details and inflation of the quantity of entries on less important events. All this is skilfully used by the historian to manipulate the impressions and perceptions of the reader. This use of chronicles in the Chinese historical tradition may allow us to rethink the value (or rather impact/purpose) of chronicles in the Greco-Roman historical tradition in relation to the more favoured and popular narrative histories.

The major weakness or, rather, difficulty faced by the comparative researcher is the need to be equally as competent in one discipline as in the other (i.e., able to read both Greek/Latin and Classical Chinese). If this proficiency is not achieved, then the research can easily degenerate into meaningless or specious generalisations, which are the logical consequences of excessive dependence on secondary sources (which the researcher, who lacks proficiency in either Greek or Classical Chinese, will not be able to adequately cross-examine and critique). The downside I suppose is that it takes a lot of time to prepare oneself for this kind of research and that may be off-putting to many scholars who have already had to deal with learning multiple languages.

Eurasian Empires in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 2017). Edited by Hyun Jin Kim, Frederik Juliaan Vervaet and Selim Ferruh Adah

What are your current research interests/projects?

I am currently writing a book on Rome and China, and their points of contact (both indirect and direct). I am hoping to finish this book this year for Routledge but, because of the disruptions caused by the current Coronavirus outbreak, I am not sure whether this will be possible.

How are you adapting your research and teaching during the current coronavirus pandemic?

Virtually no research has been possible thus far, which is frustrating. Teaching from home has also been challenging, primarily because of my two toddlers, those little troublemakers, who are constantly causing havoc all the time by interrupting lectures, cutting off recordings, hitting the computer keyboard just to annoy their father, etc. … sigh … But my wife and I are trying to make this work somehow. Wish us luck!

What advice (if any) would the ancient historians you have researched and written on – such as Herodotus (Greek) and Sima Qian (Chinese) – have for the contemporary world on dealing with global crises?

In Book One of his Histories, Herodotus says: “mankind is all chance (or disaster)”. His advice would be to stay low and avoid triggering the nemesis of the gods. I guess we are all doing that now, aren’t we? All confined and locked up, we are barely visible.

Sima Qian teaches that the world is a bleak place where if you steal a needle you are branded a thief and pay the price, but if you steal a whole country, you are hailed as its king. Talk such as this got Sima Qian in trouble and he was castrated for speaking his mind.

What can we learn from them? I guess … never lose your sense of irony and bear disasters with stoic fortitude. Not a very comforting message, but for those with historical insights I suppose pessimism is always preferable to optimism. Expect disasters to happen, be patient, and, as [Athenian statesman, lawmaker and poet] ‘Solon’ says, look to the end of all things – then you may be pleasantly surprised when things turn out better than you had originally expected. Dogged perseverance in times of crisis and suffering, is what the sages of antiquity advise. These days maybe we should take that advice to heart.

Hyun Jin Kim has published many articles and books, including (as editor) Eurasian Empires in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 2017); The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2013); Ethnicity and Foreigners in Ancient Greece and China (Duckworth, 2009); and ‘Ancient History and the Classics from a Comparative Perspective: China and the Greco-Roman World’, Ancient East and West (2015). He currently teaches the subjects History of Greece: Homer to Alexander (ANCW20022), Ancient Greek (CLAS20013/CLAS30024; CLAS10021/CLAS20016), and the Classics Honours Seminar (CLAS40035)

Feature image: Romanticised image of Attila’s Huns Plundering a Roman Villa in Gaul in the mid-fifth century CE. By George Rochegrosse, late nineteenth century. From J. Valmy-Baysse, Georges Rochegrosse, sa vie, son oeuvre, Nombreuses Reproductions (Paris: Société d’édition & de publications (Librairie F. Juven), 1910) via Nova Art Prints