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European philosophers’encounter with ancient China

YE TINGFANG | 2019-04-01
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Matteo Ricci (left) with the Chinese government official Xu Guangqi (right) From Athanasius Kircher’s China Illustrata, 1667 Photo: FILE


Before the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), for people in the West, all they knew about China was that it was the place where silk came from. So they called it Sēres, an ancient Greek and Roman name for the northwestern part of China and its inhabitants. It meant “of silk” or “land where silk comes from.” Between the early 10th century and the 12th century, northern China was dominated by the Khitan ethnic group. The name Khitan became associated with China. It is still unclear when China got its English name that is used today.

Several alleged Roman emissaries to China between the 6th and the 7th centuries were recorded in ancient Chinese documents. In Europe, however, there is no evidence of direct contact between these two empires at that time. Nevertheless, Europeans didn’t know the exact existence of China until Kublai Khan’s hordes swept across Europe during the 13th century. After then, missionaries were sent from Europe to China, and they began to translate Chinese classics.


Pioneers to China
Marco Polo’s travels to China from 1271 to 1295 reflect Westerners’ initial interest in this oriental country. However, it was in 1583 that official contact was granted by Emperor Wanli (1563–1620) of the Ming Dynasty. During these centuries, Portugal, France and Italy constantly sent missionaries to China. Among these pioneers, the Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) was most successful.

Ricci arrived at China in 1583. By adopting the language and culture of the country, he had a wide circle of acquaintances in the court and became the first European to enter the Forbidden City of Beijing in 1601 when invited by the Wanli Emperor. Ricci died in Beijing in 1610, leaving the work De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas (China in the 16th Century: The Journals of Mathew Ricci) about the country, people, religion, rites, arts and more. During his days in China, Ricci became acquainted with Confucian learning. By 1593, he had translated the major part of the Four Books of the Confucian canon (Great Learning, Doctrine of the Mean, Analects and Mencius) into Latin and submitted them to the Pope. Later, his successor Nicolas Trigault (1577–1628) translated most of the content of the Five Classics (Classic of Poetry, Book of Documents, Book of Rites, I Ching and Spring and Autumn Annals) into Latin and published them in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province. They are the earliest translation of these ancient Chinese works.

The full translation of the Four Books and the Five Classics were done in the early and middle Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), when Emperor Kangxi (1654–1722) and Emperor Qianlong (1711–1799) allowed Western missionaries into China and even communicated with them. These missionaries had engaged in translating for generations, and  they finally completed the full translation of Confucian classics.


European philosophers
The wave of learning from China reached its peak in Europe between the late 17th and the middle 18th centuries. This period is generally regarded as the golden era of modern philosophy in the Western world.

The older years of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), a prominent German philosopher, coincided with the first major European encounter with Chinese thought and civilization. Leibniz had a life-long interest in China and began to study its civilization at the age of 21. Different from Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), who criticized the Chinese for their poor courtesy, Leibniz focused on China’s status in the world and its potential. His general view of China is summed up in his work, Writings on China. From Leibniz’s perspective, China and Europe represented “the two extremes of our continent.” Each had its own merits and demerits. The Europeans were good at thinking while the Chinese were good at observing. He listed some matters that the European excelled in and then said, “But who would have believed that there is on earth a people who, though we are in our view so very advanced in every branch of behavior, still surpass us in comprehending the precepts of civil life? Yet now we find this to be so among the Chinese, as we learn to know them better. And so if we are their equals in the industrial arts, and ahead of them in contemplative sciences, certainly they surpass us (though it is almost shameful to confess this) in practical philosophy, that is, in the precepts of ethics and politics adapted to the present life and use of morals.” He believed that “by their own doing men suffer the greatest evils and in turn inflict them upon each other.” He further stated that “man is a wolf to man.” Then he came up with a solution—“What harm, then, if some nation has found a remedy [for these evils]? Certainly the Chinese above all others have attained a higher standard.”

He supported his inference by what he knew about China—“In a vast multitude of men they have accomplished more than the founders of religious orders among us have achieved within their own ranks. So great is obedience toward superiors and reverence toward elders, so religious, almost, is the relation of children toward parents, that for children to contrive anything violent against their parents . . . As our people have noticed in amazement, the Chinese peasants and servants, when they bid farewell to friends, or when they first enjoy the sight of each other after a long separation, behave to each other so lovingly and respectfully that they challenge all the politeness of European magnates.” Although not all Leibniz’s ideas about China were accurate, he inferred that different countries should learn as much as possible from each other through exchange in the spirit of seeking improvement. For this reason, he supported trade missions to China—“[I hope] you will remember the great business that has been given to you, promoting commerce between two such widely separated spheres. A commerce, I say, of doctrine and mutual light.”

One of Leibniz’s students, Christian Wolf (1679–1754), inherited his teacher’s interest in China, continuing to publish information and deliver speeches everywhere. Because of this, he lost his job and was ordered by King Frederick William I to leave Prussian territory or be hanged. His thought also influenced his student Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), but Kant didn’t indulge in the fascination with China. He saw both sides of the coin regarding matters of the country.

As Europe entered the age of enlightenment, people started to see the rise of advanced ideals such as reason, liberty and the scientific method. In the mid-18th century, Paris became the center of an explosion of philosophic and scientific activities, challenging traditional doctrines. The philosophic movement was led by the encyclopedists, who argued for a society based upon reason rather than faith and Catholic doctrine. The encyclopedists knew China from missionaries and found that the country obeyed a civil order based on natural law, which was just what they proposed.

One of the core figures of the encyclopedists, Voltaire (1694–1778), demonstrated his high regard for China and saw it as a good model of human society. If, argued Voltaire, the Chinese really were so moral, intelligent, ethical, and well governed and if this was largely attributable to the influence of Confucius, it followed that since Confucius had not been a Christian it was obviously possible for a country to get along admirably without the presence of Catholic clerical power. Voltaire praised the Chinese recording of their history based upon reason rather than superstition and fanaticism. He saw Confucius as the ideal Deist and representative of Deism, which he presented as a substitute for revealed religion. Another encyclopedist, Baron d’Holbach (1723–1789), considered China the only country to incorporate morals with politics. The long history of China, he said, had convinced its rulers that morals were crucial to the prosperity of the country. Therefore, he proposed to rule by virtue and called on European governments to learn from China.

In addition, the encyclopedists were inspired by China’s civil service examination system, under which civil servants did not inherit their position, but were trained to get it, with strict examinations. In their eyes, China was an example of how Europe could manage without a nobility.


This article was edited and translated from Guangming Daily. Ye Tingfang is a research fellow from the Institute of Foreign Literature under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

edited by REN GUANHONG
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