Comparing and Contrasting Ancient China and Egypt

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Comparing two of the river civilizations. an AP World History essay.

Submitted: March 18, 2017

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Submitted: March 18, 2017




Comparing and Contrasting China and Egypt

Sitting on opposite ends of the ancient world were two distinguished civilizations, known for their contribution to the advancement of humanity and their endurance from the erosion of time throughout the ages, dynastic China and Ancient Egypt. During the time when these two empires were born, humans had just found ways to domesticate crops through agriculture, eliminating the need for every individual in a tribe to be a hunter or a gatherer. Instead, the surpluses allowed early humans to specialize in specific occupations. Freed from the time consuming task of finding food, a few major civilizations sprung up such as Egypt and China. With Egypt as the westernmost of the river civilizations, and China as the easternmost, it is inevitable for them two to have major differences due to the lack of sharing between them. However, interestingly, even though they were geographically separated and were politically isolated from each other, they had major similarities as well. These similarities, such as political organization, and irrigation technologies, and differences like artistic endeavours were as a result of surrounding environments, and religion which contributed to their longevity and survival.

Any superficial look at the two civilizations will show their most important similarity, which is the way their government was organized. In the ancient world, elaborate systems like democracy were not implemented or experimented upon. Instead, the governments were an extension of tribal leadership, with one ruler over all the peoples of each nation. In Egypt, this figure was the Pharaoh, a supposed messenger between the gods and man, which soon evolved until the Pharaoh became a god himself. Similarly, China had an emperor who had all of the de jure power. Under them were powerful scholars. In Egypt they were the priests, and in China, they were the shi, whom advised the Pharaoh or the Emperor on important matters, and kept records through writings. However, if one looks deeper, he will see that the similarities are also embedded in how these governments were rationalized and sustained. In Egypt, the power of the pharaoh was legitimized by divine means, since to the Egyptian people, he was a godlike figure. Therefore, his words, laws, and authority came directly from the gods. The same can be said about the Chinese emperor, though to a lesser extent. In China, the power of the Emperor was due to the Mandate of Heaven. The Mandate of Heaven stated that the power of the Emperor came from the heavens, and not from the people, leading to an authoritative rule. The similar use of this ancient variation of divine right had similar results in their respective civilizations. However, there is one major addition to the Chinese way of governance that the Egyptians did not utilize, which is the inclusion of a philosophy. This philosophy, Confucianism, promotes, and is based on, the service to the state. Born in a time where political chaos reigned, it is not surprising that Confucianism played a central role in the stabilization, solidification, and sustainability of China. Not only does Confucianism ensure loyalty of the people and government to an extent, but it also contributes to a further legitimisation to the centralization of power. The centralization of government, and the pyramid model of rule which were present in both Egypt and China was because of this version of divine right and for China, philosophy. Looking at the political perspectives of both nations, the reasoning for similarities mentioned above are clear, with the geographical isolation of the two being the main explanation. Egypt was completely surrounded by deserts in all directions except to the north, and China was surrounded by the Himalayas, and coasts in almost every direction as well. This means that they were naturally isolated, but it also meant that the people were not separated. Unlike Mesopotamian civilizations which were consisted of city states due to the open space and an abundance of resources, Egypt and China were confined to a closed space with the only source of resources being the rivers that they lived near. Thus, the people, rulers, and by extension, the civilizations were not scattered, but concentrated, leading to a nation easily centralized. The most important result of this centralization and legitimization of power is its contribution to the longevity. Especially for China with its Confucianist philosophies, longevity was evident with the survival and implementation of the philosophy itself in modern days being proof. Power, when separated, led to many warring nations self destructing each other, like the Mesopotamians, or the Greeks who came in later. Even China became destabilized when the essential centralization was dissolved.  Ergo, the political similarities were important to their respective survival.

Another similarity caused by the environment is the irrigation technology of both nations. As previously mentioned, the geography isolated the two civilizations from their neighbours. This was a major advantage for the centralized government, but a disadvantage for the people who needed food in order to survive, especially because the surroundings were mostly infertile. However, this does not mean China and Egypt were in a constant state of starvation. If this were true, they wouldn’t have grown to the extent that it did. The vital technology that prevented this very likely situation was agriculture and the irrigation that aided it. In Egypt, irrigation was easier than that of China due to the annual floods that occurred in a moreorless predictable pattern. For this, Egyptian made a calendar, since a pattern cannot be detected through a random observation of sunlight. Similarly, in China, an effective flood control method was devised an early ruler, who is thought to be Yu, a possibly mythical being. However mythical Yu might be, the irrigation system is quite real. Other than the Egyptian calendars and Yu’s flood control method, water was controlled through dikes, moats, and ditches.These irrigation techniques and technologies were, as aforementioned, a result of isolated geography which helped both civilization grow and sustain to the status that they are known for.

Though the daily difficulties, politics, and the use of divinity in government were similar, art, which reflects the life of those living in the civilization, were extremely different in method and in purpose. In ancient Egypt, art was primarily a form of Pharaoh worship. Many of the artistic pieces depicted the pharaoh towering over his subjects, or being judged in the underworld. These were made on stones or on papyrus. On the contrary, Chinese art was made for rituals, made on paper or by sophisticated carving techniques. This underlines two major differences between Egypt and China. The first being religious differences. In Egypt, the gods were straightforward, with each god having personalities and physical forms. Therefore, the gods were something that could be depicted. However, in China, the divinities were abstract, with mostly their will being the only tangible effects. The art reflects this since Egyptian art shows specific divine scenes, while Chinese art was made to be put to use, not just to show. The second difference is the technological advancements in art. Evidently, the Egyptian didn’t spare anytime on art, while the Chinese did. Ancient China was known for mastering carving, casting bronze, and weaving silk, unlike the Egyptian who stuck to rather primitive materials and techniques. Though superficially, art may not be an important factor to the longevity of a civilization, in this case, it was. Not only did these religious arts help enforce the stability of the kingdoms, which was vital to their survival, but they also preserved culture in a way that distinguished themselves from others, preventing a cultural takeover. In conclusion, the distinct differences in art and its purpose were a result of religious contrasts and differing priorities in technology.

Therefore, the political and irrigational similarities and artistic differences between Egypt and China were as a result of environmental and religious causes. Both civilizations enjoyed long lifespans due to these core characteristics. However, more importantly, both civilizations were extremely advanced relative to the primitive societies at the time, and all similarities and differences mentioned contributed heavily to that. Politics defined civilizations and their complexity, irrigation sustained said civilization, and art enriched it. Many other civilizations would build and expand upon the foundations and standards set by the early civilizations, including Egypt and China. Neither Egypt or China can boast the same way they could thousands of years ago, but the effects they had on humanity are the building blocks on which all nations are built on.



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