Italian scholar examines history of the West from a Chinese perspective

By Li Qian Source:Global Times Published: 2019/7/3 18:38:40

Tourists visit the Colosseum in Rome. Photo: VCG

Having lived in China for more than 30 years, Francesco Sisci is typical of what people call a "China hand," but is actually much more than that.

An Italian scholar who sees China as a second home, Sisci has taken upon himself the challenge of bridging the communication gap between the peoples of the two nations, which is perfectly reflected in his new book, A History of Italy with Chinese Characteristics. One chapter of the book is being released every week, and so far the first 12 chapters of a total 16 have been made available for readers in the Chinese language. 

The title tells you what the book is all about. From the very beginning of this book, his writing was targeted at Chinese readers. 

In 2004, when Sisci was the cultural counselor at the Italian Embassy in Beijing, he was struck with the idea of writing a book about Western history in a way that was accessible to Chinese readers.

As an intercultural communicator, he saw at that time a complete lack of publications on that subject that appealed to Chinese.

Sinicized culture

There is a great need for Chinese people to know about the West, Sisci said, as China is pursuing modernization of the country, and he believes that modernization in the current era is to a large extent the same as saying "Westernization" in science and technology, if not other fields.

"If we are clearer of the West's history then we are clearer about what is at stake today when the whole world wants to be modern, hence 'Westernized,'" he told the Global Times.

And in many fields, Italy was the origin of Western civilization, which is why he eventually narrowed his writing project down to focus on the history of Italy.

Interestingly, he said, "I think that part of what made the West modern, and thus what it is now, was the massive influence of Chinese culture in the 16th and 17th century through the work of the Jesuits." So in a way, part of this "modern" Western culture is also partly Chinese, and historically, Chinese culture contributed greatly in history to this. "In a way, today's West had already been Sinicized," said Sisci.

And this scenario can also be found in his online book.

Today, regrettably, there is not just the need for China to know more about foreign history, as Sisci believes that there is a lack of mutual understanding between the East and the West, which may be deepening as the two sides have more contact, "just like some couples who understand less and less of one another the more they live together."

"Perhaps Chinese know better some elements of the West, as they speak more English than Westerners speak Chinese, and more Chinese have lived in the West than Westerners have lived in China," he admits.

Comprehensive timeline

The online book is comprehensive, starting from ancient times and covering every era up until contemporary Italy. The writer uses the chronological style because "Western history has continuity."

In order to present a true and understandable picture of Western history to Chinese, Sisci tried to think the Chinese way when structuring the book.

There is a very strong cultural tradition throughout Chinese history that sees different strings of culture fused into one another in the "Chinese world," said Sisci, which gives us a strong lens through which we can see and interpret China today. But the West has no such tradition, and histories of the West are partial from different countries' perspectives. "Then how can one see the West, if he is not a Westerner? What makes the West 'West?'"

"So I tried to look at the West as if I were a Chinese scholar bringing many separate strings together," Sisci said, which also provides a tool for Chinese readers to gain a better understanding of the ongoing history of China.

In practice, he highlighted major elements of Western culture in the book, including the history of the Catholic Church, which he said is a very important part of Italy's history. And just like Chinese history books highlight the ancient "four great inventions" by the Chinese nation, Sisci's book enthusiastically explains the invention of cement and glass in Italy to help readers understand the country's technological and cultural significance.

Xuexi Shibao, or Study Times, an official publication of the Party School of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, has published the preface of this book.

So far, Sisci said, many Chinese readers have said that they like this Italian history with Chinese characteristics. However, he said Westerners have found the book "awkward."

Perhaps this is because Chinese readers could relate to this way of relating Western history, which proves the success of this book's Chinese perspective.

For Westerners, it may be like when one is used to seeing himself through a certain mirror. Once the mirror changes, you don't quite recognize yourself, said Sisci.

Newspaper headline: Reflections on the West


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