Monday, February 3, 2014

Commerce at the Heart Of Cross-Cultural Exchange

The wheels of commerce have been turning since humans started agriculture and by 500 CE trade was at the center of the networks connecting humanity across large geographic areas. Free enterprise continued to dominate, acting as the hand lifting the curtain for the dawning of true globalization at the turn of the 15th Century. The companion on commerce’s journey was organized spiritual beliefs that functioned as ethical codes. This duo traveled far and wide as the catalyst of cross-cultural interaction.

The influence of the classical world was powerful. Mesopotamia, and later Egypt, classical Rome, the Qin and subsequent Han empires of China, the realms of the Indian subcontinent and the Greek city-states need to bear mention. At their heart is the state – which is the system of how humans organize themselves. The glue that keeps the state together is free enterprise. This endured into the period of 500 to 1500 CE, and continues to do so until this day.

The world of 500 CE had to pick up the pieces after the powerful classical states had gone. In one example, the Byzantine Empire was a continuation of Roman rule in the southeastern Mediterranean, but was different from the classical empire as the new rulers had a worldview rooted in Christianity. It is here where an important cross-cultural distinction manifested within a schism in Christian belief. The Byzantine church conducted its affairs in Greek while the western church held onto Roman influences by using Latin. Two earlier classical societies, Greek and Roman, produced a cross-cultural influence that resulted in a polarization of power between Rome and Constantinople, dividing Europe longitudinally. An enduring legacy of this situation is how western Europeans use the Latin Script while many eastern Europeans use Cyrillic writing.

It wasn’t easy being a serf in either part of Europe. Rome held onto its power not through a central state but with the appeal of Christianity. It could offer salvation to working people who held onto little else in their service to retainers who lorded over them. If this world was toil, the promise of a satisfying afterlife was a powerful draw. In reality, Byzantine Christianity was buckling under the invasion of another monotheistic religion – Islam. In 1095, Catholic Pope Urban II urged Europeans rich and poor to take up the cross, or in other words, to crusade against Muslims. This rival religion born in Arabia was pushing into Europe and ruling over important Christian religious sites in the southern Mediterranean. Ultimately, the resulting clash between Christianity and Islam created profound benefits in European education, science, technology, food production and commerce in general.

Christianity as an institution had an impact on Europe, while Islam was the driving force behind the “Caliphs”, a word meaning deputies of the prophet Muhammad, to points in the east. Starting with the Umayyad dynasty and then the Abbasid family, the Islamic Caliphate hit its peak of expansion; starting in the west with the Iberian peninsula, encompassing the entire southern shore of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, moving west into Persia and reaching the Indus river. Northern Indian regions of Sind and Bengal were under the influence of the Caliphs. The prophet Muhammad was a merchant himself and this knack for trade was at the center of the expansive dar-Islam. 

On the sea, or over land, the wheels of Islamic commerce rolled to all corners of the eastern Hemisphere. Crops from certain areas found their way to regions were they could grow well. Produce that is common on our tables today such as sugar, bananas, spinach and wheat were first brought out of their natural areas to spread within in the dar-Islam. The proliferation of the cotton plant during this time has influenced history well beyond 1500.

Merchants from the dar-Islam could be found in every port, and the realm neighbored the Indian subcontinent, a central location that took advantage of being the crossroads between east and west. The Hindu kingdoms of southern India utilized the subcontinent’s vast shoreline. Hindu and Muslim mariners knew how to use seasonal monsoon winds for the speedy transport of commerce. It has been said that commerce is about “location, location, location” and the subcontinent proves this with the vast emporium centers where goods were exchanged. I can only image the romantic bazaar scenes with hawkers pushing fine porcelain from China, glass from Europe, Indian spices and Egyptian cotton among other wares. 

Commerce was not alone sailing the monsoon winds, ideas about life and the world also hitched a ride. Islam, Christianity, Manichaeism, Buddhism and Hinduism spread along the trade routes of Southeast Asia. Of these spiritual beliefs, it was Buddhism that had the farthest reach in the east. The teachings of Indian born Siddhartha Gautama arrived in China well after the fall of the classical Chinese states. Nomads from the north brought in Buddhist thought, as did missionaries from India. As political order returned with the Tang and subsequent Song dynasties, it was Buddhism that played a role in these new states / societies. While Chinese were attracted to the spiritual elements of these Indian ideas, local Buddhist monasteries wove their way into Chinese culture in practical ways by providing social services to people in need. This is an example of how commerce can tend to leave some people behind. It was Buddhist charity work that picked up the slack. Being so far from India, and with the Chinese having a longstanding cultural identity, a version of Gautama’s teachings with local characteristics known as Chan Buddhism emerged. Buddhism also influenced the cultures in Viet Nam, Japan and Korea.

Trade wove its way into Africa. It was on this vast continent of resources where Christianity and Islam took hold. Similar to how local culture shaped Buddhism in China, Christianity and Islam took on an African flavor. Traditional African beliefs in natural spirits were synthesized into these imported monotheistic beliefs. This manifested with devotees carrying charms to ward off evil spirits. 
The western hemisphere developed its own societies once agricultural practices were developed. There are remarkable similarities with the east in social stratification that took hold with the need for an ordered society. The sheer distance between the two worlds made for hardly any contact. A “new world” of resources brought eastern people to the Americas looking to add to long established markets in the east. Commerce set the stage for Spain financing Columbus’ journey west resulting in true globalization.

Trade carried people away from their homes towards economic opportunities. Individuals then experienced different cultures and learned from them. Or, the trader could carry their ideas with them abroad. A merchant might not only return with a trunk full of goods. There was a mind full of ideas that were established in other places. Like a garden full of various plants and flowers, local cultures blossomed with diverse ideas that improved the lives of people.


  1. Dear Krist! I love your wonky politics! I hope you've heard of the movement in Seattle to raise the minimum wage to $15/hr. We are having a huge rally--a day of music, education, and organizing on Feb. 15, and we would be deeply honored if you could play a song or two for us, most likely in the 3:00 hour. Through Skype if necessary. Our first kickoff rally already had a turnout of 400 people! So what do you say?