There is still a conception, both in the popular imagination, and in some sectors of academia, that China has been and still is a highly xenophobic culture that has for most of its history built walls to keep the outside world at bay.

It is hard to make any generalizations about China. There is both a plethora and a dearth of information about both formal attitudes, and people's various opinions, going back thousands of years. Even if you were to take, for example, only the opinions of the educated class in the Song Dynasty, or the opinions of the merchant class during the Tang Dynasty, you would have many a doctoral thesis possible. While it is safe to say that most cultures are chauvinistic, and a culture as accomplished as the Chinese more so than most; the term xenophobia is perhaps going too far. I would like to hear further aspects and experiences by both scholars and people who have travelled in China discussed, but I will confine myself to one very obvious facet.

It could be argued, and has been argued, that through government control, and by the common people's fear; that the Chinese deliberatly, at great effort, fought to keep the outside world at bay. This is symbolized, of course, in the Great Wall of China. However, the Great Wall (which was not always playing a very important role anyway) was not built over the centuries as a barrier against some type of symbolic threat of cultural contamination. It was a part of China's defences for the very practical reason of making it harder for marauders to return North with booty. However, for the most part, the Chinese didn't have to struggle to seal off the outside world. The rest of the world was naturally sealed off. To the East of China is the Pacific Ocean, meaning that there was very little cultural contact possible over the thousands of miles separating China from the Pacific Coast of North America. To the North of China we find various nomadic tribes (who played a very complex role in Chinese culture and politics), and then nothing but a thousand miles of taiga and tundra, mostly uninhabited. To the West, the plains of China turn into hills, followed by mountains and deserts. Only by negotiating a long road leading through the deserts and mountains of Afghanistan and Iran could a traveller finally reach the next center of civilization, in Mesopotamia. To China's south and west are the Himalayas. Those too, provided a better barrier than xenophobia would. To the south of China is Vietnam and the other Southeast asian nations, areas that the Chinese traded with openly, and were not treated in a xenophobic manner.

The only real cultural contact the Chinese had, up until the Age of Exploration, when European explorers came in by boat, was through four paths:

  • The tortorously long silk road, with which the Chinese were happy to trade both culture and material with, when they could.
  • The surrounding states that became Sinicized, (Korea, Japan and Vietnam) which were treated with a good amount of arrogance, but not xenophobically.
  • The nomadic tribespeople of the Northern and Western borders, who the Chinese did fear, due to their habit of raiding and conquest. (Of course, these groups also became sinicized, and often ruled China.)
  • In the only true exchange with a culture of similiar history and complexity, the Chinese absorbed Buddhism and other aspects of Indian thought from India. Although the attitudes of the Chinese towards India were not always positive, they also could hardly be called xenophobic.

So, while many different arguments and observations could be made on the possible xenophobia of the Chinese people; I would say that these theories must take into account that much Chinese ignorance of the outside world must be based not on a willful act of the Chinese people, but rather on very obvious geographical factors.

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