As a beginning student of Chinese I am also learning a bit more about Chinese history. As such I am more and more impressed by the quality of thought that has been left behind by Chinese philosophers from the Hundred Schools of Thought period (770 to 221 BC) during the Era of Warring States , i.e. Confucius (551–479 BC), Laozi (6th century BCE), Zhuangzi (369–286 BC), etc. So many main lines of contemporary philosophic thought seemed to be alive and mature already at that remote time.

Pre-Socratic and later Hellenistic Philosophy began in Ancient Greece also in 6th century onward with Plato (428-347 BC), Socrates (469-399 BC), Aristotle (384-322 BC), Epicurus (341-270 BC), Zeno (c. 334 BC – c. 262 BC), etc.

What do we know about possible historic influences from China on developments in Greece (or the other way around). I am aware of one book (Thomas C. McEvilley: The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies) whose title and table of contents seem relevant to influences from India, but have not read it yet. I would also be interested in historic influences for religious thought (from Buddhism, say).

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    If you research a bit about this, you'll inevitably end up on one of Theresa Mitsopoulou's theories, a Greek archaeologist (amongst other things) who claims a direct link between the two civilizations. I'm not linking to anything she's written intentionally, her various theories have been widely discredited, and are commonly based on, well, non existent evidence.
    – yannis
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 10:07
  • @Yannis Rizos I almost expected that you would be able to contribute as sb. based in Greece. Thx & +1.
    – Drux
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 10:56
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    We are dealing in theory here, not historical fact, but I strongly doubt China had any influence on ancient Greece at all. In fact, the evidence is that India had an influence on China (Buddhism), not the other way around. There is no evidence of, for example, Confucius influencing India. If China did not influence India, it is hardly possible it would be influencing Greece. Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 4:13
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    Greece was aware of Buddha around the time of Christ and he is mentioned by Clement (c. 200 AD), but just as a foreign curiosity. There is no evidence of Buddha's teachings having made the journey. Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 4:19
  • You may also be impressed when breaking down the schools of thought in India around the same time. I ended up starting a series of spreadsheets to work it all out. Commented Mar 21, 2018 at 18:53

3 Answers 3


Looks like you've rediscovered Jaspers's concept of the Axial Age. However, if I understand correctly he did not posit that the Chinese and Western cultures influenced each other, but rather that they arose simultaneously under similar circumstances. Nevertheless, this might be a good starting point to explore from.

  • Thx for this reference.
    – Drux
    Commented Dec 8, 2012 at 15:11

There probably were limited contacts between the Greeks and the Chinese, as the Hellenistic Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (250 - 125 BC) expanded in the Tarim Basin in northwest China. Strabo (64/63 BC – ca. 24 AD), quoting Apollodorus of Artemita (c. 130–87 BCE), mentions:

As for Bactria, a part of it lies alongside Aria towards the north, though most of it lies above Aria and to the east of it. And much of it produces everything except oil. The Greeks who caused Bactria to revolt grew so powerful on account of the fertility of the country that they became masters, not only of Ariana, but also of India, as Apollodorus of Artemita says: and more tribes were subdued by them than by Alexander—by Menander in particular (at least if he actually crossed the Hypanis towards the east and advanced as far as the Imaüs), for some were subdued by him personally and others by Demetrius, the son of Euthydemus the king of the Bactrians; and they took possession, not only of Patalena, but also, on the rest of the coast, of what is called the kingdom of Saraostus and Sigerdis. In short, Apollodorus says that Bactriana is the ornament of Ariana as a whole; and, more than that, they extended their empire even as far as the Seres and the Phryni.

"Seres" was the contemporary name for the inhabitants of eastern Central Asia and it means "of silk", or people of the "land where silk comes from." Alexandria Eschate was probably the first major Hellenistic outpost that came into contact with the Chinese, and the Dayuan that are mentioned in Zhang Qian's reports were probably descendants of Greek colonists.

These interactions were crucial in paving the way for the silk road. Though records of direct philosophical and religious exchanges between Greeks and Chinese don't exist, the two civilizations certainly came into contact, even if only indirectly via their respective contacts with civilizations of the Indian subcontinent. Buddhism spread towards the west was mainly because of the silk routes, and the various Indo-Greek kingdoms that followed the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom influenced it immensely, and Greco-Buddhist artistic elements can be traced in Chinese and even Japanese Buddhist art.

  • A chain of Wikipedia articles leads from Zhang Quian (2nd century BC) to Seres to Ctesias of Cnidus who apparently just may have conferred a brief reference to the Chinese already in the 5th century BC. The 3rd article is an almost-copy from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, which (and only which) qualifies "much controversy as to the worth of [Ctesias' magnum opus] both in ancient and modern time" as distrust opposite a book that was seen as based on Persian sources. On the topic of China such bias could also have helped (closer proximity) ...
    – Drux
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 16:43
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    @Drux: Ctesias was known to have made up some of his facts (don't have specific example at hand, but read it in a number of books), so doubts as to his worth are understandable. Nevertheless, I think that the modern view is to accept his testimony, with some reservation. Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 0:40
  • @FelixGoldberg yep, that's consistent with what I've read so far.
    – Drux
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 2:04

There was no influence from China to the culture of Greece. Nor other way around. No Greek writer ever references a Chinese source, neither the opposite. Even more, the countries hardly could know anything substantial about each other.

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    Basically yes, but the topic is actually slightly more nuanced than that: the Greeks did have a bit of (probably second-hand) knowledge of the Indians, partly stemming from Alexander's conquests (but too late, of course, to affect Greek philosophy). See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clearchus_of_Soli for one rather mysterious example. There was also some interaction between the Romans and the Chinese: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romano-Chinese_relations. But overall, you are right: short of some revolutionary discovery to be made, Greek and Oriental thought have developed independently. Commented Dec 9, 2012 at 14:28
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    This is wrong, actually, Strabo mentions China.
    – yannis
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 11:02
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    @FelixGoldberg "There was no influence from China to the culture of Greece. Nor other way around." This bold (and unreferenced) claim is more what I was protesting. As for writers, the 2nd century BCE Han Dynasty explorer Zhang Qian mentions several exchanges with the Dayuan, so even if Strabo doesn't qualify, the "no writer" claim is also incorrect.
    – yannis
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 12:08
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    "Even more, the countries hardly could know anything substantial about each other." Zhang Qian provides an accurate, though limited, report of the customs and culture of the Dayuan (so, here's your writer, and proof that there was direct contact between the two civilizations). Furthermore the influence of Greco-Buddhism in Chinese Buddhism is more than evident, all you have to do is a bit of research. This is a sub par answer, three strong - but unsupported - claims, and you don't even attempt to provide any reasoning for your claims, you state them like they are fact. Well, they are not.
    – yannis
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 13:37
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    Downvote: sorry, Anixx, Yannis has got a point. Do you want to edit the answer, perhaps, to improve it? Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 0:41

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