Sino-Italian Understanding Beyond the Passage of Time

02/24/2015 03:07 pm ET | Updated Apr 24, 2015

We have entered the year which marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Italy and China. While U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and China's Premier Zhou Enlai were negotiating the terms of Nixon's historical meeting with Mao Zedong, Italian Foreign Minister Pietro Nenni was making the arrangements for Rome and Beijing to normalize their relations.

6 years after Gaullist France's decision to recognize the People's Republic of China but 9 years before official ambassadors could organize the diplomatic exchanges between Beijing and Washington D.C., Italy and China opened, in 1970, a new chapter in the rich history of their interactions.

The numerous observations on the growing weight of the Sino-German economic exchanges, on the political significance of the Sino-French or Sino-British relations, contrast with the scarcity of comments on the highly meaningful features of the Sino-Italian relations even if they constitute a fundamental element of the Sino-European relations.

But a look into the Sino-Italian relations is an invitation to go beyond quantitative analyses. Trade between the world's second and ninth economy is important, the Italian Peninsula is the home of the largest Chinese population in Europe, but it is the combination of historical and intellectual themes which makes the uniqueness of the relations between two genuine cultural superpowers.

It is with a reference to silk that Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833 - 1905) named the ancient network of routes which connected the two edges of the Eurasian continent, and by doing so, he highlighted the links between the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) and the Roman Empire. In love with silk, the ancient Romans imagined a Far East - Serica and its inhabitants the Seres - as the land of the precious fiber and co-created with the Parthians and others a Eurasian axis of trade, known since Richthofen's studies as the Silk Road.

The West was certainly fascinated by the treasures of the East but the classical Chinese use of Da Qin (大秦) to name the Roman Empire was a recognition of Rome's prestigious status in the eyes of Imperial China. Da Qin (大秦), Great Qin, was a highly respectful denomination since it contained a mention to the Qin (秦), China's first dynasty established in 221 BC by Qin Shi Huang.

It is true, as Henry Yule noticed that "even the rest of the nations of the world which were not subject to the imperial sway were sensible of its grandeur, and looked with reverence to the Roman people, the great conqueror of nations. Thus even Scythians and Sarmatians sent envoys to seek the friendship of Rome. Nay, the Seres, came likewise" - Cathay and the way thither (1913).

Sent in 97 on a mission to Rome by the general Ban Chao (32 - 102), Gan Ying never reached the center of the Imperium Romanum and one can only imagine what could have been an encounter between the Chinese envoy and the Emperor Nerva or Trajan.

Having what has become a rich metaphor for the Sino-European exchanges, the Silk Road, as a common collective memory, contemporary Rome and Beijing are ideally positioned in the 21st century to play a key role in what the Chinese President Xi Jinping chose to call, in reference to the ancient trans-Eurasian routes, the New Silk Road.

If silk, like porcelain or tea, has been a powerful connector, it is Marco Polo (1254 - 1324) who first truly reduced the distance separating China and Europe. The Description of the World, or The Travels of Marco Polo - known in Italian as Il Milione, The Million --, written by Rustichello da Pisa but inspired by the impressions of the Venetian merchant traveler following a grand Eurasian tour of 24 years, expressed a constructive tension between what were depicted as the most exotic customs of far away regions and the fact that they had become accessible.

From Coleridge's Kubla Khan to Orson Welles' Citizen Kane or Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Marco Polo's record of Cathay and Manji, the Chinese space of the Yuan dynasty (1271 - 1368), shaped Western perception of the Orient, and the very name of Marco Polo embodies the West's endless quest of the East.

The Travels had also a profound impact on European representation of the world and it triggered indirectly Christopher Columbus' great discovery of the New World since the Genoese explorer, following Toscanelli's suggestions, was first convinced that it would have been by sailing West that he could have reached more rapidly the extraordinary lands mentioned by Polo. It is on what he believed to be a journey to Polo's Cathay, that Columbus jumped into America and put world history into another course.

Marco Polo's vivid depiction of Cathay and Manji excited Europe's imagination, but it is Matteo Ricci's 28 years in the Ming dynasty which really brought the European and Chinese civilizations closer to one another. If the four Chinese characters for Marco Polo, 马可.波罗 - Ma Ke Bo Luo -, are mere phonetic transliteration, it is by his Chinese name of 利玛窦 - Li Madou - that the Jesuit priest of Macerata is still remembered in the Chinese world.

Less spectacular than the adventures of Marco Polo, the patient work of Matteo Ricci (1552 - 1610) stands as a symbol of the scientific and intellectual exchanges between civilizations. From mathematics - translation of Euclid's Elements of Geometry - to geography - in 1602 he published the famous "Kunyu Wanguo Quantu", "A Map of the Myriad Countries of the World" - Ricci took to China the fundamental elements of the European civilization.

Defining a friend as "a second me" in his 1595 Treaty on Friendship addressed to the Ming literati in classical Chinese, the Jesuit priest found the rare wisdom to strike the perfect balance between otherness and sameness.

In his approach of China, Ricci was not only inspired by European humanities and the Christian tradition but he also integrated the Chinese thinking of Yin and Yang in which inclusive opposites permanently balance each other.

405 years have passed since the death of Matteo Ricci in what was the capital of the Ming dynasty, Beijing, but despite the vicissitudes of two long dynasties, the tragedies of wars and civil wars, the revolutionary founding of two republics and the furor of the cultural revolution, his tomb, like his name and his works, has been preserved at the heart of the People's Republic of China.

45 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Italian Republic and the People's Republic, the absence of diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Beijing contrasts with the quality of the interactions between San Marino, the microstate of 32 000 inhabitants situated on the Italian Peninsula, and China. However, everything indicates that Pope Francis, who as a Jesuit is especially aware of Matteo Ricci's legacy, could find with Xi Jinping a compromise which would allow the Catholic Church and China to renew a dialogue which has been for the world of the highest intellectual and spiritual significance.

Less known than Marco Polo and Matteo Ricci, it was Matteo Ripa (1682 - 1746) who served as a painter and copper-engraver in the court of the Emperor Kanxi between 1711 and 1723 who founded Naples' "Collegio dei Cinesi" - the Chinese College - in 1732, Europe's oldest school of sinology. This was 82 years before the Collège de France established for Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat France's first chair of Chinese language.

Liang Qichao (1873 - 1929), born twelve years after the unity of modern Italy was achieved, is certainly among the personalities which marked the history of the Chinese perception of the Italian Peninsula. In his biographies of Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi he was looking at 19th century Risorgimento - the Resurgence - as a source of inspiration for the rebirth and modernization of the Chinese nation.

Reminiscent of the Italian renaissance, the Middle Country rightly sees itself as being embarked on its own process of "renaissance" (复兴, fuxing). By definition, any phase of "renaissance" follows a period of decline, and it is in the strong awareness of this fundamental principle of long-term alternation that a junction can be made between Italianness and Chineseness.

No other countries in the world, indeed, have experienced so many falls and rises, the relativity of collective greatness - or of its opposite - is more evident along the Tiber or the Yellow River than in other younger political constructions.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa painted the end of a world in his Il Gattopardo - The Leopard - as much before him Cao Xueqin anticipated in his Dream of the Red Chamber the fall of an order. The cyclical return of exhilarating moments of ascent after painful periods of decay has become familiar to the Italian and the Chinese minds which, used to worldly transience, have become more modest, more practical but especially apt also to capture the beauty of ephemeral instants.

Generally not misled by grand illusions nor the calls of nihilism, the Chinese and Italian minds comprehend with an unparalleled acuity the interconnected ups and downs of historical cycles and fully appreciate, when it manifests itself, the sign of genius unaffected by the passage of time.

In his Two Travelogues of Eleven European Countries, Liang Qichao's master, Kang Youwei (1858-1927), beautifully connects Raphael's divine sprezzatura and the works of three Chinese masters unaltered by the vicissitudes of human history: "Every time I enter a gallery, I always linger in front of Raphael's painting; his vital fragrance and marvelous tones are peerless. This is like the calligraphy of Wang Xizhi, the poetry of Li Bai, the lyrics of Su Dongpo - the crystalline waters gleaming on hibiscus - not the work of mere mortals".

It is in this aesthetic emotion and the timeless correspondence it opens that one might find the uniqueness of the relations between the two most ancient living cultures.

David Gosset is director of the Academia Sinica Europaea at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), Shanghai, Beijing & Accra, and founder of the Euro-China Forum.