FARAVID 31/2007


Olavi K. Fält, Differences between and similarities of European and East Asian periodisation

One of the core elements of a culture’s self-image is conceptualisation of its own past. For its part, one of the most essential traits of that element is periodisation of the past. The mental image of the past, on its part, reflects the culture’s currently and priorly dominant world image. For this reason the study of conceptualisation of the past is one of the most important viewpoints through which the different aspects of the world image can be analysed. In this article I compare European and East Asian, i.e. Chinese and Japanese, periodisation at different times and thereby also look for possible differences between and similarities of Europeans’ and East Asians’ way of understanding and valuating the world around them.

In the early phase of periodisation, the Western Hellenistic model of the Babylonian, Median, Persian and Macedonian world powers, and the Eastern model of reigning dynasties that followed one another, were largely based on a similar way of thinking, i.e. political power. Again in the later phase the differences were more apparent, as the West adopted a humanistic trisection that also included theological elements: ancient time, the middle age and modern time. This was especially so since the 1800s, with the attempt to squeeze other cultures into the Western model, which was viewed as being increasingly universal. The Eastern model did not contain a similar universal inclination. On the other hand, however, despite their being China and Japan-centred, both the Chinese and Japanese models were universal already in their basic principles. China, considered a central power in relation to all other nations, had a mandate from heaven, and Japan’s emperorship descended from the goddess of the sun. Thus, they both included the idea of superiority in relation to other nations.

From the viewpoint of the world image, the similarities are significant. Both systems reflect the primary importance of political power as a decipherer of the world image and a social value. Likewise, both systems reflect the major significance of religion and the view of one’s own culture being superior in relation to other cultures. Thus, although the differences are apparently clear, the similarities depict how similar basic elements play a central role in the world images of different cultures. In the end, the differences are so superficial that, regardless of time and place, we can speak more of the similarities of cultures than of their differences.


Faravid 31/2007