China - Greece: Ancient Peoples, Changing Worlds


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Greece and China lie far from one another on the globe, but they make a profoundly interesting pair.

Of course there are vast differences in population and land area. But put those aside. These two peoples have made greater contributions to the foundations of world civilization than the next 10 nations put together. And each has had a continuity of language and culture going back more than 3,000 years – still planted on their native, historic soils.

In the past 50 years both have undergone rapid and dramatic change. It is this sense of change that we have tried to capture in the images.

China has a population more than 125 times that of Greece, and a land area 75 times greater. Yet Greece stands tall in its contributions to art, to science, to philosophy, to mathematics, to technology, to architecture, to medicine, to music, to literature. Travelling in China, if you say you are from Greece, you are often shown an extra measure of respect, coming from another ancient civilization.

Both peoples have produced extraordinary works of art – and utility – in ceramic, bronze, stone, and terracotta. The masterworks of both are revered and studied around the world. Premier Wen Jiabao, speaking to the Greek Parliament, put it memorably when he described China and Greece as “two shining pearls” in the East and West, that have each made major contributions to world civilization.

There are interesting, sometimes intriguing, parallels. The two developed a written form of their language at about the same time, around 1400-1200 BCE, Chinese with Oracle Bones and Greek with Linear B.

China had the Warring States, and the Greek city states had their Peloponnesian War, in nearby eras. And Greece’s Alexander the Great was followed less than a century later by the First Emperor, Qin Shi-Huang. And at the same time the individualized portraits of the Terracotta Warriors were created, portraiture began to flourish in the Greek world.

The Greeks developed Greek Fire, and shortly afterwards China developed gunpowder.


Confucius and Plato came within 50 years of overlapping lives. Both had such profound and original insights on the subject of human governance that their works continue to have vitality and influence today. Too bad they didn’t meet.

Then too there was direct contact between the civilizations, through the Macedonian Greek settlements in Bactria, the spice trade, and the silk trade (until Justinian’s monks stole the secret). A few years ago I heard the eminent Oxford classicist Sir John Boardman describe how the iconic Chinese dragon evolved in parts from the representations of the Greek sea monster, the Ketos, and how one of the Indo-Greek kings became a Buddhist sage.

It is an interesting and perhaps appropriate paradox that the East should be honored with an extraordinary Asian Art Museum on the island of Corfu, which happens to be the most Eastern in tradition, and at the same time the westernmost, of all the islands of Greece. But the island has strong Homeric credentials as well, giving it roots in the foundations of Greek cultural traditions.

We have tried to select images that convey change and transformation – the lead story in both countries over the past 50 years. Some are purely documentary, like the image of the imposing Three Gorges Dam, but others I hope bring some poetry, insight, and composition to their subject matter, and to the theme.

In the case of China you see change in mid-stream, with the old and new often juxtaposed. In the case of Greece, we have selected photos which show how Greece was until very recently, before many areas were overwhelmed by mass tourism and the modernization of transport and infrastructure.

When I first came to Greece in 1954 each island had its history and culture intact. Islands had their own architecture, costumes, dances, songs, textiles, their own strengths or weaknesses in terms of farmland, minerals, or viable ports. They had evolved in semi-isolation. Car and truck ferries and airports scarcely existed, and small tenders, often braving violent seas, were the only link to that last kilometer to shore – for imports as well as exports, for visitors as well as travellers. Many young men emigrated or went to sea. Their remittances were important to those left behind, and kept populations from declining further.

Today, much has been homogenized in the soup of mass tourism. Sadly a lot has been lost.

The Chinese photographs focus on two areas of that vast country, and on the people who live and work in those areas. One is the great Yangtze River port of Wushan; the other the Old City of Shanghai, in the Yangtze delta. We did not include any images of the amazing futuristic city across from the Bund around the World Trade Center in Shanghai. Rather we have tried to show areas that might soon be disappearing under the wrecker’s ball, areas often already surrounded by new apartment buildings.

The oldest of the Greek color photographs were taken in the summer of 1957 at the request of Gil Grosvenor of the National Geographic Society, as back up for photographs he was taking for an article on the Aegean Islands. Of course Gil did not need any back up and as a result none of these photographs have been published, with the exception of two published in black and white in my earlier books. I am very grateful to the Society for the opportunity they gave me to photograph Greece in color in that magical era.

My profound thanks to Despina Zernioti, the director of the Museum of Asian Art, for the opportunity to work with the Museum and to Evia Arapoglou, who is the sine qua non of this project.

© Copyright 2016 Robert A McCabe