China's influence on the European Age of Enlightenment
This is a PC-academic source that obviously seeks to glorify China in a multicultural spirit, but this is still a pretty informative presentation. This shows that anti-Christian Western progressives have been idealizing other cultures at the expense of their own civilization for a long time already:
CHINESE IDEAS IN THE WEST
Prepared by Professor Derk Bodde for the Committee on Asiatic Studies in American Education
Reprinted with permission in China: A Teaching Workbook, Asia for Educators, Columbia University
China and the Age of Enlightenment
As time wore on, various Chinese inventions such as printing, gunpowder, and the mariner's compass gradually found their way to Europe, also via the Arabs, who for centuries were the leading travelers and traders between East and West. Prior to the seventeenth century, however, the purely intellectual influence of China remained slight, perhaps because it was only then that Europeans themselves began to travel to the Far East in significant numbers. The new era of Chinese-European contacts started in the year 1601, when the famous Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), arrived in the Chinese capital, Peking, and established there a Catholic mission. For the next two centuries the Jesuits, as well as members of other Catholic orders, remained in close touch with the Court of Peking. By 1700 they were said to have converted approximately two hundred fifty thousand Chinese to Christianity. Because these Europeans were highly educated men, they gained the respect of the Chinese, who have always placed a premium on scholarship. Many, indeed, were given important positions in the Chinese government. The Board of Astronomy, for example, was placed under their charge and remained a Christian stronghold until 1838.
Fascinated by the ancient and impressive civilization in which they found themselves, these Europeans wrote home detailed accounts of what they saw. Their letters provided material for a long series of books on China, written usually in French or Latin and published in Paris, the European center of Jesuit activities. Among them were such works as Confucius, the Philosopher of the Chinese (1687); the Description of China (1735), in four volumes; the long series of Edifying and Curious Letters, in 34 volumes (1702-76); the General History of China, in 13 volumes (1777-85); and the lengthy Memoirs on the History, Sciences, Arts, etc., of the Chinese, in 16 volumes (1776-1814).
These writings gave Europeans a for more detailed and accurate picture of China than they had ever had before. They generated a tremendous enthusiasm for China and things Chinese — an enthusiasm that reached its peak in the early years of the second half of the eighteenth century. Materially, this enthusiasm powerfully influenced such fields as painting, architecture, landscape gardening, furniture, and the newly developed manufactures of porcelain and lacquer ware — the well-known and charming chinoiseries, of the eighteenth century. It also left a strong imprint on literature and on the thinking of some of the most famous intellectual figures of the period.
The timing of this impact from China was of particular importance. It reached Europe during a period of tremendous political and intellectual ferment. The Renaissance had brought to Europeans a renewed consciousness of their great classical heritage from the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. This consciousness widened men's horizons. It helped to free them from the mental limitations that had been imposed during the Middle Ages by the dogmas of the church. Some began to question a spiritual authority that still taught that the sun and the rest of the universe revolve around the earth, well after Copernicus and Galileo had proved the reverse to be true. They were beginning to raise objections to the theory of the "divine right of kings" that permitted monarchs to rule as they pleased, without regard for the welfare of their people; to express doubts regarding the justice of a social system that allowed feudal aristocrats to lead lives of luxury while their peasant serfs starved; and to urge that men of education be given an increasing voice in public affairs.
Such ideas, gaining strength in the seventeenth century, led in the eighteenth to what was known as the Age of Enlightenment. Leaders of this movement, such as the Frenchman, Voltaire (1694-1778), believed that any human problem could be solved if men would only consent to live with one another on a basis of reason and common sense. Ideas of this sort culminated politically in the French Revolution of 1789. Socially, they gave a new dignity and freedom to the individual. Intellectually, they created a new, scientific method of thinking, based upon objective experimentation and observation, in place of the old, blind acceptance of unverified tradition. Thus were made possible the tremendous material advances that were to come later with the Industrial Revolution.
To men infected with these new ideas, China provided a powerful stimulus. For in China they saw a great civilization that had evolved quite independently of, and earlier than, their own. Although not a Christian nation, it had nevertheless developed in Confucianism a high system of morals of its own. And, unlike Europe, it had done so without permitting a priesthood to become so powerful as to challenge the state's authority. The emperor of China, furthermore, though seemingly an absolute ruler, was in actual fact limited by the teachings of Confucianism, which declared that "the people are the most important element in the state; the sovereign is the least." Particularly was China admired as a land where government did not rest in the hands of a feudal aristocracy, as in Europe. Instead, it was managed by the mandarins — a group of highly educated scholars — who gained their official positions only after proving their worth by passing a series of state-administered examinations. We know today that this highly favorable picture of China was somewhat overpainted. Yet there is little doubt that the China of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was, both politically and economically, in many ways ahead of Europe. The story of how European thinkers of this period reacted to Chinese thought is a fascinating one that can only briefly be told here. The most striking example in the seventeenth century was the German philosopher, Leibniz (1646-1716), one of the most internationally minded men who ever lived. He read extensively on China, corresponded with Jesuits who had lived there, and wrote on Confucian philosophy. In a letter written in 1697, he announced: "I shall have to post a notice on my door: Bureau of Information for Chinese Knowledge."
Leibniz found in the mystic symbols contained in an ancient Chinese classic support for his own mathematical theories. There are striking parallels, too, between his philosophy and certain Confucian ideas. Above all, however, he had the dream of creating a new civilization that would be truly universal. This could be done, he believed, by consciously selecting and bringing together the best elements in Chinese and Western culture. This dream he expressed in a little book of 1697, Novissima Sinica or Latest News from China, in which he wrote: "I almost think it necessary that Chinese missionaries should be sent to us to teach the aims and practice of natural theology, as we send missionaries to them to instruct them in revealed religion." Leibniz's dream still remains, alas, only a dream!
By many of his contemporaries, however, such theories were regarded as dangerous and revolutionary. A disciple of Leibniz, Christian Wolff (1679-1754), suffered persecution because of his admiration for China. In a lecture delivered at the University of Halle in 1721, he praised the Chinese system for successfully harmonizing individual happiness with the welfare of the state. He maintained that Confucianism was fully adequate as a way of life; that there was no real conflict between it and Christianity. For these bold words he was immediately accused of atheism, and, after a bitter attack, was forced to give up his position in the university.
Confucius as seen by the Europeans
This image, showing Confucius standing in the Chinese National Academy of Learning, is taken from Confucius Sinarum Philosophus or Confucius, the Philosopher of the Chinese (Paris, 1687). Some of the earlier translations of the Confucian writings were published in this book. Notice the Roman-style arch in the background of the picture and the non-Chinese use of perspective. The two large characters at the top read: "National Academy of Learning." Those on either side of the arch read: "Confucius, the First Teacher under Heaven." The books in the cases along the sides of the room bear titles of the various Confucian classics. Underneath them are tablets inscribed with the names of Confucius' disciples.
But the most famous leader of the Enlightenment to fall under the Chinese spell was Voltaire (1694-1778), to whom Confucius was the greatest of all sages. A portrait of Confucius adorned the wall of his library. He regarded China as the one country in the world where the ruler is at the same time a philosopher (Plato's "philosopher-king"). He praised it because it had no priesthood owning 20 percent of the land, and contrasted the religious tolerance of the Chinese, who had never tried to send missionaries to Europe, with the European habit of always forcing their own religious ideas upon other people. "One need not be obsessed with the merits of the Chinese," he wrote in 1764, "to recognize . . . that their empire is in truth the best that the world has ever seen."
In 1755 Voltaire produced a play, The Chinese Orphan, which he adapted from an old Chinese play that had been published in French translation in 1735. This play, significantly described by him as "the morals of Confucius in five acts," was written as an answer to the theories of Rousseau (1712-78). Rousseau, as we all know, wanted people to follow a back-to-nature movement, and argued that the arts, sciences, and human institutions generally, are harmful because they corrupt the simple goodness of human nature. Voltaire, to disprove these ideas, deliberately changed the original seventh century B.C. setting of his play, laying it instead in the thirteenth century A.D., when the Mongols, under Jenghis Khan, conquered China. His purpose in so doing was to prove the superiority of human art and culture by showing how Chinese civilization finally triumphed over the warlike barbarism of the Mongols.
Voltaire died only eleven years before the French Revolution. This world-shaking event, followed by the wars of Napoleon and the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, turned men's minds away from China to things nearer at home. In Europe the enthusiasm for China died. In America, however, there was at least one nineteenth century thinker who, quite independently of the European Enlightenment, fell under the influence of China. He was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), who eagerly read many translations of the Confucian classics. India, to be sure, inspired some of his more important ideas, such as the theory of the Over-Soul, and of the unreality of the world as we see it. But from China he accepted the Confucian concept of the true gentleman, the belief that good government must be based on a sound moral foundation, and the emphasis upon the responsibilities that each individual in society holds toward other individuals. These ideas still have value for us today. We call them American ideas. Few of us realize that they were expressed long ago in China.
Political and Economic Theories
It should not be supposed that all thinkers in the Age of Enlightenment were preachers of revolution. Many, indeed most, were willing to continue with the accepted institution of monarchy. In France, the center of the Enlightenment, the monarchy had reached the extreme of absolutism under Louis XIV (1643-1715). The reign of his successor, Louis XV (1715-74), however, saw signs of growing weakness, coupled with corruption and gross social and economic abuses. Many thinkers, therefore, came to realize that the monarchy could be preserved only by carrying out various drastic reforms. As a result, it became their aim to create an enlightened despotism that would rule for the benefit of the people as a whole, rather than merely for a small, privileged group. In the example of China these men found powerful support for their theories. For in China, as we have seen, Confucianism, though it accepted the idea of an absolute ruling power, at the same time set certain moral restraints upon the abuses of that power.
Most prominent among the men who voiced such ideas was a group of French political economists known as the "Physiocrats." They came into existence shortly after 1756 under the leadership of Francis Quesnay (1694-1774), who was a doctor at the French Royal Court.
Quesnay and his fellow Physiocrats maintained that government, if enlightened, must operate in conformity with certain economic and social laws, which they called the "Natural Order." Basic in this Natural Order, they believed, was the principle that the entire wealth of any country comes, in the final analysis, from that country's land, as a result of such activities as agriculture, mining, and lumbering. Manufacture and trade are secondary activities, since they concern themselves merely with the raw materials derived from the land. Hence, the manufacturer and merchant, though performing useful functions, were, according to Quesnay and his group, "sterile" and nonproductive. The state should, therefore, give special encouragement to all activities, such as agriculture, that increase the land's productivity. It should not, on the other hand, aid the "sterile" processes of manufacturing and commerce by offering them tariff protection or permitting the creation of great private monopolies, for this, in their opinion, would interfere with the natural processes of distribution and violate the Natural Order.
Since the revenue of the state, like the wealth of its people, comes ultimately from the land, they believed that the only really fair form of taxation is a single land tax levied upon the land's productive capacity. This doctrine was an attack upon one of the greatest abuses in the France of Quesnay's time: the existence of great land estates, owned by feudal aristocrats, who paid in taxes only an insignificant part of what their land produced.
The Physiocrats also argued that education should be separated from the church and made universal, for only in that way could the best available talent of the country be brought forward and trained for public service.
Most of these ideas bore an amazing resemblance to those found in Confucian political and economic philosophy. For thousands of years the Chinese had believed that there can be good government only when a perfect harmony exists between the "Way of Man" (governmental institutions) and the "Way of Nature" (Quesnay's Natural Order). China had always been a predominantly agrarian country, in which industries and trade played only a minor part. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Chinese regarded agriculture as "primary" and worthy of intensive government support, while commerce was looked upon as nonproductive and, therefore, "secondary." For this reason they traditionally ranked the merchant near the bottom of the social ladder, well below the honored place they gave the farmer.
The Chinese government even went so far as to place restrictions upon the development of private trade. Herein lies the major point of difference between Chinese theory and that of the Physiocrats. Though Quesnay and his group thought that the government should do nothing that would encourage trade, they at the same time believed in the doctrine of laissez faire — that trade should be permitted to operate free from government restrictions.
In their educational theories the Physiocrats were also clearly influenced by the example of China, with its famous examination system that ensured the admission of men to government service on the basis of education rather than rank.
The tremendous debt of the Physiocrats to China is evident in Quesnay's book The Despotism of China (1767), in which he presents his ideas of what a truly enlightened despotism means. In its first seven chapters he paints a glowing picture of Chinese political and economic conditions, drawing his material directly from Jesuit writings on China. In the eighth, and final, chapter he develops his own theories along the lines described above, linking them directly with the example of China.
Turgot was an able and sincere man who tried earnestly during his period of office to put the Physiocrat doctrines into practice. These doctrines, however, while well suited to an agrarian economy such as that of China, proved to be ill-adapted for France, where a modern system of capitalism was already beginning to develop. The forces of corruption and reaction ranged against Turgot were too great, and he was forced to resign. His attempt to reform France from the top failed. The attempt that was to succeed came violently from below some years later. It was the French Revolution in 1789.
Though the Physiocrats failed in the practical application of their doctrines, their impact on later economic theory was strong. This influence is particularly evident in the ideas of Adam Smith (1723-90), author of the classical economic work of modern times, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Thus the Physiocrats may truly be said to rank among the founders of modern Western political economy. And, in their insistence upon the need for universal education, they led the way in a movement that in the nineteenth century was to become a standard practice in Western democracies.