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The difference between Classical Athens and Han China

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AP World History, 3rd period

Classical Athens and Han China: How Great Were the Differences? As the young Rudyard Kipling once wrote, “Oh East is East, And West is West, And never the twain shall meet”. Right you are, good sir. In this case, our east is the great Han China with Athens being our west. Winter and summer, black and white, the differences of the hilariously outweigh the similarities. While both were grand societies, (specifically) they were quite different politically, artistically, socially and in terms of class distinction. So, Han China and classical Athens were different in terms of politics mainly by their types of government. Classical Athens had a democracy, stated in document four. As Pericles put it, “its administration is in the hands, not of a few, but of the whole peoples [Doc. 4]”. Any citizen of Athens was allowed into the Athenian Assembly, in which members may speak of anything they wish (provided they could handle and control a crowd). But, when they say ‘citizens’, they mean free men at least 18 years of age whose parents were also citizens [Doc. 8]. These citizens made up a sixth of the Athenian population, well around 50,000 people (who were mainly landowning farmers) [Doc. 2].

I digress. Back to the subject of public assemblies, said-assemblies were held in a natural amphitheater called The Pynx. In the Pynx, members would discuss what they wish, but still followed an agenda prepared by a council of 500 other men, all of them over the age of 30. Within this council was an inner council of 50 men called the Prytany who met every day. To prevent a possible tyranny, the chief executive position was changed every day so that no one could be in power too long [Doc 5]. This obviously showed that the people of classical Athens were able to participate in political issues, unlike those of Han China, of course [bias]. On the other hand, classical China had a bureaucracy, in which important decisions are made by state officials rather than by elected representatives. First off, the emperor was given the right to rule not by the former ruler, but by Heaven (so they believed) [Doc 6]. The emperor would then have highly skilled bureaucrats govern each district of his empire, who exercised military and legal powers in his name. The leaders of Han China made up 0.2 percent of the population, about 130,000 people [Doc 3]. So, the citizens couldn’t really participate in political issues the way Athenians could. Now, these two civilizations were different at a social level as well. In Athens, a ‘good citizen’ is said to be interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well, [Doc. 8] as said by Pericles.

In modern terms, the Greek statesman would say something along the lines of ‘If you’re not interested in political issues, then get out of Athens,’ or ‘You should be ostracized for your lack of political participation,’ in which I would gladly agree with [POV]. Alongside Pericles, Socrates also supported the welfare of the state. As he was found guilty of ‘corrupting the youth of Athens’, he still agreed to drink the poison he was given. I believe Pericles would approve of Socrates’ morality, in which he believed that citizens should trust in the judgment of the state, no matter how harsh or unjust it may seem [Doc 9]. Meanwhile, in Han China, document 10 states that ‘simply by being a good son and friendly to his brothers a man can exert an influence upon government.’ Confucius then agrees with this quote from ‘The Book of History’ [Doc 10]. In a way, Confucius believes that one does not need to actively participate in the government to influence the government (Haha, paradox). Finally, a good dissimilarity in the two societies would be their artwork. Take a look at document 11, a painting of Channing Tatum throwing a discus, nude.

This is an image of the ideal man (according to the Greeks): prominent muscles, athletic and obviously young and handsome [POV]. In addition, Socrates quotes ‘The world is full of wonders, but nothing is more wonderful than man [Doc 11]. All these lead up to an obvious assumption, that the Greeks were quite moved by the wonders of MEN. Sculptures and paintings made in Greece would praise man and his athleticism, and usually, always in the nude. Now, look at document 12. It shows a meticulous Chinese landscape painting, most of the detail is in the trees and nature. The bottom shows a quote by Lao-tzu which reads, ‘Each separate being in the universe returns to the common source. Returning to the common source is serenity [Doc 12]’. In the painting, there is a man, clearly some type of working peasant, who is dwarfed by the careful detail of the trees. The Chinese quite evidently find nature rather important to their art, unlike the Greeks, who would find paintings and sculptures of athletic men with rippling pectorals more superior [Hilariously Biased]. Now, among these documents, I found one small, yet still noticeable difference: the classes.

Han China has specific classes in their hierarchy. You’ve got the emperor and appointed officials, then the bureaucrats, followed by farmers, merchants and lastly, the ‘mean people’ (which would include unskilled workers, street artist and a few household slaves) [Doc 3]. But in the data concerning Athens, the ‘classes’ were free male citizens, free male non-citizens (basically all the teenage Athenians and residents without Athenian parentage), females and slaves. This supports the idea that Athens does not care for your social rank, but rather if you are a citizen or not, quite the contrary with Han China, though. Furthermore, I believe an additional document that contains the perspective of a foreigner in either Han China or Classical Athens would be rather accommodating. To better explain, it could be a journal entry of a Chinese traveler in classical Athens (if he could even get over there in the first place), or vice versa, an Athenian traveler in Han China.

They would constantly be comparing the new society to their own, writing things such as ‘Oh, back in China, we would never have to go to these ‘assemblies’, how odd.’ Or in the perspective of an Athenian, ‘Such strange paintings they have here. The easterners pay careful attention to the detail of nature in their art.’ It would be much simpler to see the differences in the two societies with the narration of the first person view. To conclude, we see the evident difference of the great Han China and Classical Athens. The individual and the State, Democracy vs. Bureaucracy, the specificality of classes, the Athenian art of men and the Chinese paintings of nature all show the great difference of these two societies. Greece and China are clearly different, but both are, in my opinion, the most successful and famous of all early civilizations that we have come to know.

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