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At different times China was called the Middle or Central Kingdom, implying its superior role, the Centre of Civilisation or even the World. With such self confidence and collective sentiment China was prone to isolation. Partially because of this inward-looking attitude it failed to modernise sufficiently in the 19th century to confront the aggressive industrialising European powers, the United States and Japan from its position of strength.

But, although occasionally reclusive, the Middle Kingdom projected an astonishing influence on Old World cultures as far away as Europe and north and east Africa, as well as closer to home on Indonesian Islands and even Australia. The prime example is Chinese silk – a highly refined fabric – that found its way to ancient Egypt over 3,000 years ago. Since the beginning of the Common Era silk and other goods were traded regularly, along the Silk Route, across the vast Asian continent to India, central and western Asia and the lands around the Mediterranean Basin.

The counterpart of the overland trading was the maritime Spice Route which extended from south China to the Indonesian islands, and via the Strait of Malacca to India, Sri Lanka and further to Persia, Arabia, east Africa, and via the Red Sea and Egypt to Turkey and southern Europe. Maritime trade through Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean has a long history.

Through these routes, and typically intermediary traders, China provided other civilisations with original goods or technical inspiration. Among these goods and know-how were paper and the printing process, the compass and seismometer, gunpowder and firearms, the metal bell and banknotes. 1,000 years ago China was the biggest and most developed economy in the world. Since the 16th century Europeans were eager to obtain mostly silk, tea and porcelain; and they paid with a large volume of silver because they had no other goods that China wanted. At that time 40 per cent of world silver was making its way to the Middle Kingdom. Eventually, in the 19th century, the British produced large volumes of opium in India and traded it, illegally, to China at a hefty profit.

The Australian Museum’s collection of Chinese artefacts is very small and reflects not ancient civilisation but rather snippets of Chinese culture, at home and abroad, mostly in the 19th and 20th century.

Explanatory note:

Common Era indicates the period of time between year one and the present in the Western Calendar.