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UNIT 12: Transmission of Traditions



Beginning with the earliest human communities — who moved with their animal herds or settled in places to gather, hunt, fish, or farm — people have discovered many different techniques and forms to transmit their traditions (such as language, history, customs, and religion) to the next generation. Art, architecture, music, dance, ritual, and writing are some of the means by which traditions can be transmitted over time and across space.

This unit explores the mechanisms by which traditions were transmitted and preserved in Islamic Spain, Korea, and West Africa between 500 and 1500 CE. The identities of peoples on the Iberian and Korean peninsulas were shaped by imported religious traditions (Islam in Spain and Buddhism in Korea). Institutions such as the Arabic translation school in Toledo and the Korean "Hall of Assembled Worthies" transmitted traditions — Greek and Arab medicine, mathematics, science, philosophy at Toledo and Chinese learning at the Korean court — across cultures that had profound impacts on world history.

The technologies that supported transmission — paper and printing, in particular — had themselves been transmitted across cultures. In West Africa, oral tradition and musical performance were the primary ways in which culture was transmitted over time, especially through specially trained historian/storytellers called griots.

Whether transmitted through print or oral tradition, however, all traditions are selectively re-created. Moreover, the transmission of tradition is linked to the questions each generation asks about the past — questions that are considered relevant to the times. A world historical perspective will be concerned with transmitting a past that will be useful in constructing an inclusive global identity.


Time Period: 500-1500 CE

The millennium between 500 and 1500 was a period of major readjustment and change in regions all over the world. The early centuries CE had been a period of instability in most of the classical societies, including China, the Mediterranean, India, and southwest Asia. After about 500 CE, these societies were faced with the necessity of restoring political and social order. With the restoration of order, these post-classical societies were able to re-establish and revive old networks of trade and cross-cultural exchange. Islam also first appeared in the post-classical era, and quickly spread from the Arabian Peninsula to India, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula. Buddhism continued to spread in this period, along with Confucianism from China to Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Christianity, meanwhile, gained ground in Northern and Western Europe. After 1000 CE, the pace of cultural change quickened around the world, as states and kingdoms became even more centralized and cultural interactions increased. Indeed, the period 1000 to 1500 saw the development of the Mayan, Andean, and Mississippian cultures in the Americas; the European Renaissance; the creation of the Mongol Empire; and the establishment of empires and centralized states in East Asia, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.

AP Themes:

  • Examines interactions in economies and politics by focusing on exchanges within the Islamic, East Asian, and West African worlds through trade, conquest, and diplomacy.
  • Explores change and continuity by examining how regional cultures were changed and shaped by exposure to new cultural influences.
  • Discusses cultural and intellectual developments because regional cultures in the Iberian Peninsula, Korea, and West Africa were altered as a result of exposure to new ideas and traditions.


  • Question 1: What are the means by which cultures preserve and transmit traditions?
  • Question 2: In what ways can technology aid the transmission of tradition?
  • Question 3: What kinds of historical forces propelled Islamic, Chinese, and Mande cultures to spread across Eurasia and Africa?
  • Question 4: How do traditions interact with cultures into which they are introduced?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

When traditions are preserved, retold, and transmitted within cultures over time, they help integrate peoples through a sense of shared identity.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

When traditions are transmitted across cultural boundaries, they can contribute to an increased sense of difference by introducing new religions, customs, and cultures.

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