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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Étienne de Silhouette, a pupil of the Jesuits, wrote
in his Idée générale du gouvernement... des Chinois
(Paris, 1729) that the controversies over the Chinese
Rites “have given rise in the minds of everyone to a
desire to know China” (Rowbotham, p. 145). He might
also have observed that the question of the Rites and
the religious, philosophical, linguistic, and social ques-
tions linked to it, had long been of deep interest and
concern to intellectuals both inside and outside the
Society. The compilation of Athanasius Kircher, China
(Amsterdam, 1667), an important work by
a Jesuit scholar who had never been to China, inaugu-
rated for the last generation of the seventeenth century
the European age of erudition on things Chinese.
Kircher's huge tome, with its numerous illustrations,
was quickly reissued in Dutch, English, and French
translations, and it thereafter became the starting-point
for those who wrote or thought about China. Kircher's
distinction as a scholar, his interest in the comparative
study of languages, his analytical presentation of the
Nestorian monument, his perceptive comments on flora
and fauna, and his incorporation of authentic and nu-
merous engravings of Chinese persons and scenes all
combined to produce a work of enduring value and
persistent influence.

The Chinese language with its peculiar system of
characters had intrigued the earliest commentators.
Sample characters began to appear in European publi-
cations of the late sixteenth century. While a practical
knowledge of Chinese was acquired by most of the
missionaries to China, the scientific study of the
Chinese language in Europe emerged in the seven-
teenth century through diverse routes. Jacob Golius in
the Netherlands first became interested in the Chinese
language by way of his Arabic and Persian studies.
Students of Near Eastern languages were given an even
better starting-point when Kircher published parallel
columns of Syriac and Chinese (also Romanizations)
copied from the Nestorian monument. Andreas Müller,
the provost of Berlin and a student of Near Eastern
languages, was one of the first to use the Nestorian
inscriptions and other available materials in his fruitless
efforts to produce a key for the easy understanding
of Chinese. His contemporary in England, John Webb,
published in 1669 a book in which he sought to prove
that Chinese was the primitive language spoken from
the time of Adam to Noah, and that it had remained
in a petrified condition ever since.

When Father Philippe Couplet brought two Chinese
converts to Europe in 1685, the Jesuit and one of his
charges were quizzed by linguists at Oxford, Berlin,
and Vienna about the nature of the Chinese language.
Another Chinese convert remained in Paris to work
on a dictionary that the French Jesuits were preparing
as a tool for missionaries in the field. By 1700 European
scholars had learned from their investigations of
Chinese something about the differences between the
literary and spoken languages; the tonal system and
dialects of the spoken tongue; the monosyllabic nature
of the characters; the absence of grammar and inflec-
tion; the historical evolution of the characters; and the
various styles of calligraphy. They were not able, how-
ever, to produce the key either to Chinese or to the
hieroglyphs of Egypt, which a number of them vainly

European interest in the Chinese language was orig-
inally linked to the general Renaissance concern with
Hebrew and Egyptian as primitive and emblematic
languages; to the efforts of the rationalists to discover
the primitive language from which all others were
supposed to derive; to the hopes of certain optimists
who sought to find a language more universal than
Latin, and to the ambitions of others to construct an
artificial and perfected philosophical language for use
in the arts and sciences. Chinese appealed to language
theorists because the characters, they believed, were
based on concepts rather than arbitrary sounds.
Seventeenth-century linguists thought this conceptual
basis essential to the construction of a universal lan-

Some interested scholars thought of Chinese as the
lost language of Noah, or as the primitive language
of all mankind; others persisted in holding the belief
that the revival of Chinese would restore the languages
of the world to that perfect condition which had ob-
tained before Babel. Leibniz hoped to use elements
from Chinese in developing a philosophical language
that would replace Latin and help to make direct
communication possible among the intellectuals of the

Closely related to the confusion of tongues was the
problem of China's antiquity and history, and its rela-
tionship to orthodox Christian and Western beliefs in
monogenesis. The publication of Martini's Historiae
(1658) set the stage for a fundamental contro-
versy over historical chronology which was finally to
shatter Western concepts based upon the Bible. Issac
Vossius, an eminent Dutch scholar who was avowedly
an ardent admirer of the Chinese, published his Disser-
tatio de vera aetate mundi
... (The Hague, 1659), the
first essay to examine the implications of Martini's
historical data for Western thought. Martini's book,
according to Vossius, showed that China's history


antedated the universal deluge, that its civilization was
continuous, and that its historical records took no
notice of the Flood. Vossius, casting Christian tradition
aside, proceeded directly to the conclusion that the
history of man was fourteen hundred and forty years
older than it was commonly supposed to be. The reason
for the error in the West was the tendency of the
Christian chroniclers to rely upon Hebrew texts rather
than upon the Septuagint version of the Old Testament.
Vossius likewise concluded that, because the Flood is
not mentioned in the Chinese annals, the probability
is that it was not universal but simply an event in the
history of the Jews. Vossius, on the basis of his faith
in the Chinese annals, thus reduced the Bible to a book
of local history (Pinot, p. 205).

The critics of Vossius, especially Georg Horn,
stressed his rashness in accepting uncritically the evi-
dence of the Chinese annals. They also attacked the
authenticity of China's historical traditions and the
accuracy of Martini's chronological calculations. A
tendency gradually developed, however, to effect a
reconciliation of Chinese and biblical history through
numerous elaborate devices, including the use of the
Septuagint chronology suggested by Vossius. The
Chinese annals were thought to be at best distorted
renditions of the events related in Genesis. The
Chinese, it was surmised, could recall their antedilu-
vian history through remembrances preserved for them
by Noah's family. The sage emperors of China were
identified with Adam, Cain, Enoch, and Noah. Once
such identifications had been established, it became
possible to argue that the Chinese annals provided
verification for the historical authenticity of Genesis.

The Jesuits, in part because of their position in the
Rites Controversy, were compelled to uphold the
veracity of the Chinese annals. In 1686 Philippe
Couplet published a Tabula chronologica monarchiae
... (Paris), an effort at reconciling Chinese and
Christian chronologies by trying to show that concord
existed between the Septuagint and the Chinese
records. In so doing he added fourteen hundred years
to the period between creation and the life of
Abraham. But this solution failed to satisfy either the
intellectuals of Europe or the missionaries in China.
The Bible was hereafter used historically by the mis-
sionaries in China mainly for the purpose of filling in
gaps or of explaining obscure references in the Chinese
annals. In Europe the Bible as a source for world
chronology increasingly fell into desuetude. Even in
the 1970's we are required to use concordances to
reconcile Chinese and European dates.

In their conception of the beginnings of the world
the Europeans were committed to a search for common
origins. The ancient civilizations of Persia and Egypt
were familiar to the writers of antiquity and the Bible,
and so could be brought into universal history through
these channels. China raised an almost insoluble prob-
lem because its civilization developed in isolation, its
history was uninterrupted, and its chronology con-
flicted with Western conventions based on the Bible.
Theories had to be devised consequently to account
for the repopulation of China after the Flood. Egypt,
because of its antiquity and the affinities of the hiero-
glyphs to Chinese characters, was identified by some
as the center from which the great postdiluvian migra-
tion to the East began. The people of Pre-Columbian
America, who likewise wrote in pictographs, were
thought to be descendants of the earliest wave in the
great eastward migration. But such a theory of devel-
opment upset the traditional periodization of the world
based on the “four monarchies”: Chaldean, Persian,
Hellenistic, and Roman. In the light of the new knowl-
edge this old geographical and political scheme of
periodizing gave way completely, and was supplanted
by periods based entirely on chronology, i.e., ancient,
medieval, and modern. It was only by this device that
China's history could be correlated with classical and
later Western historical periods.

The most ingenious and tortuous effort to reconcile
Judeo-Christian and Chinese traditions was advanced
by a small group of Jesuits in China who have been
called “Figurists.” They claimed to find evidence in
the Confucian classics and in other Chinese works that
would support a theory of the common origin of man-
kind and the law. The Figurists held that the Ancient
Law given by God to man was originally in the hands
of a supreme lawgiver: Enoch in the Hebrew tradition,
Zoroaster in Persia, Fu Hsi in China. Shem, the son
of Noah, carried the pure Logos to China after the
Flood. Fu Hsi, following the precepts of Enoch, pro-
mulgated the law in three forms: pictographic concepts
and folk heroes for the simple people, more complex
symbols for scholars and religious leaders, and mystical
symbols for the sages. A source of mystical symbols
of great import was thought to be the I Ching (Book
of Changes
), one of the most cryptic of the Chinese
classical books. Once they had concluded that the
mystical figures (trigrams and hexagrams) of the I Ching
were symbols of eternal verities they tried to decipher
them. While nothing came of these attempts at
cryptography, the Figurists by their enthusiasm and
ingenuity did help to elevate China and its civilization
to a place of primary importance in the deliberations
of those intrigued with theories of common origin and
universal kinship.

The first and greatest of the European thinkers to
come under the spell of Figurist ideas was Leibniz.
The German philosopher, who had long been fasci-
nated by the revelation of China's great civilization,
became a correspondent of Father Joachim Bouvet, one


of the leading Figurists. Around 1701 Leibniz was won
over to the idea that the “hieroglyphics” of the I Ching
were the creations of Fu Hsi and were mystical symbols
that represented the Infinite and the Chaos from which
God had rescued mankind. For a time he himself ex-
perimented with the trigrams, and sought through the
analytical use of his binary arithmetic to show that
they had a coherence and order about them which
indicated that they might be a key to all the sciences.
A successful deciphering of these symbols might lead,
Leibniz thought, to the establishment of a firm scien-
tific basis for the story of Creation and for the history
of the antediluvian epoch. André-Michel Ramsay and
Montesquieu were also intrigued by the ideas of the
Figurists, but they made no serious efforts to help the
Jesuits document their fantastic claims. However, they
were impressed, as Leibniz was, by the Chinese Classics
as sources which provide evidence for the homogeneity
of human thought and for the objective existence of

European religious and lay thinkers of the seven-
teenth century, under the influence of the debates
attending the Rites Controversy, began to speculate
as to whether the Chinese were materialists or spirit-
ualists, atheists or deists. The freethinker François La
Mothe le Vayer in his De la vertu des payens (Paris,
1642) placed Confucius in Paradise with other great
pagan thinkers. He also asserted that the Chinese, from
time immemorial, have recognized but one God, and
he then deduced that the Chinese ethical system is
based on reason and the law of nature. Pascal believed
that the Chinese were God-fearing people whose reli-
gious beliefs could be understood only allegorically.
In the Pensées (1670) he wrote: “China obscures, but
there is clearness to be found; seek it.” Pierre Bayle
suggested that Spinoza's pantheism owed a debt to
Confucian concepts of God. But Bayle, while praising
the tolerance of China, like many other rationalists
unhesitatingly branded the Chinese as atheists, and his
opinion was to have influence well into the eighteenth
century. Herbert of Cherbury, a precursor of the
English Deists, looked upon the Chinese as proponents
of natural religion. Antoine Arnauld, the Jansenist
lawyer and articulate foe of the Jesuits, saw nothing
but iniquity in the Confucian ideas. Christian
Thomasius, the Protestant educator of Halle, viewed
Chinese religion as blind faith in the authority of
dogma. Malebranche, the Oratorian philosopher, in his
Conversation between a Christian Philosopher and a
Chinese Philosopher on the Existence of God
tried to refute the Chinese idea that matter is eternal.
He, like Bayle, saw points of similarity between
Spinoza's philosophy and Chinese thought.

Leibniz was the only secular philosopher of the later
seventeenth century to support the Jesuits in the Rites
Controversy and in their interpretation of Chinese
religion and thought. In his diverse writings Leibniz
shows himself to be convinced that the ancient Chinese
were monotheists who conceived of God as being both
spirit and matter. This Chinese God he sees as an
entelechy similar to his own Supreme Monad. In the
practice of their religion the Chinese worship God in
the virtues of particular objects. But they are not idol-
aters, for they worship the spiritual rather than the
material essence. In ancestral worship, he contends,
there persists a concept of the immortality of the soul;
rites are performed before the ancestors to remind the
living to act so as to deserve the recognition of poster-
ity. Leibniz' interpretation of Chinese religion was
more than faintly reminiscent of the leading ideas in
his own Monadology.

Like the Jesuits themselves, Leibniz rejoiced openly
in the edict of toleration for Christianity promulgated
in 1692 by the K'ang-hsi emperor. He congratulated
the Jesuits on this success and heralded it as a vindica-
tion of their understanding of how best to reconcile
Christian and Chinese thought. In 1697 he published
his Novissima Sinica as a call to Protestants to emulate
the example of the Jesuits and to dispatch a mission
to China. He was even encouraged to hope, after the
conclusion in 1689 of the Treaty of Nerchinsk between
Russia and China, that the land route to Peking might
be reopened and regular communications established
through Russia between learned groups in China and