Short Teaching Module: Cultural Exchange Before Modern Times

Litian Swen


Cultural exchange is an integral part of human history and change over time. As cultures have interacted and traded with one another, ideas and goods have spread, wars broken out, and information shared. One way this patterning can be studied historically is by tracing the spread of objects over time. This teaching module focuses on the Silk Road and resulting exchanges between Asia and Europe, and how those exchanges affected the perceptions of those areas by the other.


Cultural exchange was not an intended action through most of human history, but rather a byproduct of interactions for other purposes. For a long time, it was carried out through trade, in which merchandise was the medium between cultures. The Silk Road is one widely studied example; merchants not only carried foreign treasures, but also hints of the mysterious cultures embodied by them. Wars facilitated cultural exchange. The expeditions of Alexander the Great from Europe eastward to the Himalayas in India, and the Mongol Empire expanding from the north China steppe westward to Europe are well known cases of wars and conquests advancing exchanges among different cultural areas.

Tracing the spread of a single object across cultural areas can furnish fascinating details on how in fact cultural exchange took place. For instance, the spread of paper offers multiple angles to observe cultural exchange. Paper was invented in the first century in China, and developed further in later centuries there. In 751, the Baghdad-based Abbasid Caliphate together with the Tibetan empire clashed with troops of China’s Tang dynasty in the Talas region (in today’s Kyrgyzstan) in Central Asia. Chinese troops were defeated, and Chinese craftsmen who were captured in the war brought papermaking technology to Arabs, who then passed it to Europeans. Paper was the material medium, but stories of cultural exchange accompanied its spread. Cultural exchange does not need to involve something significant, and stories behind things that are part of everyday life often raise the interests of a wide audience. Porcelain, silverware, glassware, tea, and spices all have intriguing stories behind them that involve cultural exchange. Tracing the spread of a single object can be a manageable project for students to conduct their own research with the theme of cultural exchange.

Beyond wars and material objects, the main actors in the history of cultural exchange, at least before the twentieth century, were merchants and missionaries. Merchants went far for profit, and missionaries for conversion. In contrast to merchants whose transactions were relatively straightforward, missionaries after reaching foreign places had to go through a prolonged interaction process, which involved learning, understanding, accommodating, and sometimes adapting to new cultures. Notes, letters, and diaries that missionaries wrote about their experiences are all vivid first-hand observations of new cultures in their mind. Many times, those accounts were written from a perspective of cultural comparison, which make them an ideal source for teaching cultural exchange. In Asia, Buddhist monks left abundant accounts in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. After the sixteenth century, Christian missionaries who benefited from European maritime power reached North and South America, Africa, South Asia, Japan and China, and they sent back to Europe countless different kinds of writings about their new places of residence. Some of these writings were selected, edited, and published to entertain general readers and raise donations. These published writings are easily accessible, and many have now been translated, making them a good resource for students who want to use written primary sources to study cultural exchange.

The two best-known successful cases of the spread of religion are probably Christianity within the Roman Empire, and Buddhism to China in the Han dynasty. It has long been noticed that many elements of both religions became central to each of these cultures. However, many unsuccessful cases of the spread of religions might also be valuable cases to observe cultural exchange. For example, Nestorianism, a variety of Christianity that other Christians considered a heresy, reached China from Europe in the seventh century and declined in the tenth century, but then re-entered China in the thirteenth century and totally disappeared in China after the fourteenth century. Jesuit missionaries were successful in their efforts at conversion in many places in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but had difficult times in major Asian countries like the Mughal Empire in India, the Qing Empire in China, and Tokugawa Japan. The Jesuits’ lack of success has been seen by some scholars as a result of cultural conflicts. If one can agree that unsuccessful exchanges are still one kind of exchange, then the factors that made exchanging unsuccessful are important to look at as well. In many cases, students could also do this through studying published writings that point to frustrations and difficulties. Technological progress is another important topic related to culture exchange, as it determines how the exchange will take place. For example, land-based exchange in the pre-modern period was limited in terms of distance as well as restricted by political powers. Thus what we call the Silk Road was not really a single road, but a network connecting many trading cities. Most merchants and missionaries only travelled relatively short distances to nearby cultural areas to do their work. The progress of maritime technology provided direct long-distance access, which changed the pattern of cultural exchange. By boarding ships, Europeans could not only explore lands new to them in both North and South America, but could also bypass Muslim countries as well as Russia to directly reach countries in South Asia and East Asia. All new technologies of interactions, such as ships capable of sailing around the world, airplanes, and the Internet, have started new eras of cultural exchange. Projects involving the impact of technology on cultural exchange are ones that might interest many students.

Because cultural exchange in the pre-modern world was a byproduct of other exchanges, imagination often played a central role in producing conceptions of foreign cultures. For example, after reading works written by Jesuits in Asia, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) thought that he had found enlightened despotism in China and elaborated on Chinese political culture in Europe. He did not travel to China to confirm his ideas, nor did he really think much about how the fact that his sources were from missionaries who had their own perspective and special interests in providing information. Such practices did not end in the eighteenth century. Edward Said’s important book Orientalism pointed out that Europeans'; ideas about the East in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were in fact products of Europeans’ own imagination and invention, as were those of Americans. Cultural exchange has continued to involve subjective processing, digesting and reconstructing, as, for example, Europeans viewed and imagined other cultures and were, in turn, imagined by them. How imagination and invention shaped cultural exchange in the past--or in their own lives--is another topic for student research. Many contemporary issues continue to be discussed within the framework of cultural comparison, which means the history of cultural exchange is in fact closely connected to a wide array of ongoing modern as well as pre-modern (and post-modern) topics.

Primary Sources

Edifying and curious letters of some Missioners of the Society of Jesus from foreign missions

After reaching and residing in foreign places, Christian missionaries sent different kinds of writings (letters, reports, notes, etc.) back to Europe. These writings, based on different Church orders to which missionaries belonged, are normally stored in different archives (most in Rome). Among these writings, Lettres Édifiantes Et Curieuses, Écrites des Missions Étrangères was probably the most famous and widely read collection (edited and published from 1702 to 1776). This collection included the letters sent to Europe by Jesuit missionaries in China, India, America etc. Some letters of this collection were translated to English and published in London as a two-volume book with the title Edifying and Curious Letters of Some Missioners of the Society of Jesus from Foreign Missions. The full text can be found here. This source is a part of the Cultural Exchange Before Modern Times teaching module.

Buddhist Records Of The Western World

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Xuanzang ( or Hiuen Tsiang) was a Chinese monk ( 602-664) who went to India to study Buddhism. After he went back to China, he told his 17-year journey to his disciple, Bianji, who edited and wrote it in Chinese and published it with a title: da tang xi yu ji (the meaning of the title is the records regarding the western area of the Great Tang dynasty). It remains a very valuable resource to know the countries, customs, and products of the wide-area Xuanzang traveled. Because many parts of the book were written from a cultural comparison perspective, it is a useful resource for anyone interested in themes of cultural exchange and cultural comparison. Samuel Beal translated the records into English in the nineteenth century.  The English version is freely available online: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/100895376   On a side note, the popular cartoon Monkey King comes from the sixteenth-century Chinese novel The Journey to the West. This novel is based on Xuanzang’s journey to India, where the Monkey King is an imaginary character who has magic powers to protect Xuanzang from all kinds of danger on the road. This source is a part of the Cultural Exchange Before Modern Times teaching module.

Map of the Travels of Xuanzang (629 AD - 645 AD) Journey to the West

This Schematic Map shows the entire "Journey to the West" as made by the Chinese Monk Xuanzang (Hsüan-tsang) on the Silk Road between China and India in the years 629 AD to 645 AD. The Path of the Journey to led from the Chinese Capital in Shaanxi Province of China acros the Yellow River to the westernmost pass of the Great Wall of China. Via Xinjiang it continued into Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The Return Journey led through current day Pakistan and Afghanistan to reach Kashgar in current day Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. Because the (Han) Chinese Cultural Zone during the Tang Dynasty Era only reached as far as Dunhuang, where the Great Wall of China began, Xuanzang had to travel south-east from Kashgar via Yarkant and Hotien (Khotan) along the South Route around the Taklamakan Desert to finally return to his native China in 645 AD. Xuanzang died as a National Hero in 661 AD. This annotation comes from The China Report. This source is a part of the Cultural Exchange Before Modern Times teaching module.


Litian Swen, a Ph.D. from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is the author of Jesuit Mission and Submission: Qing Rulership and the Fate of Christianity in China, 1644-1735 ( Brill, 2021).

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Cultural Exchange Before Modern Times," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-cultural-exchange-modern-times [accessed February 23, 2024]