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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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The Jesuits took seriously Leibniz' advice to send
more useful objects and practical information to
Europe from China. They also continued throughout
the eighteenth century, even after the suppression of
the Society in 1773, to publish detailed information
on Chinese life ranging from the history of the Jews
in China to brief essays on Chinese games. The Lettres
édifiantes et curieuses,
an intentional popularization,
were issued in printed form beginning in 1702, and
were later compiled and reissued in twenty-six volumes
at Paris between 1780 and 1783. J. B. Du Halde, one
of the editors of the Lettres édifiantes, published in
four volumes his encyclopedic Description de la Chine
... (Paris, 1735) which was translated into English and
Dutch in the following year. In following the encyclo-
pedic tradition which they helped to inaugurate, the
Jesuits published at intervals from 1777 to 1814 what
were called Mémoires concernant les Chinois (Paris).
Unlike their earlier publications, the Jesuits, who were
now generally in disrepute, here issued in sixteen vol-
umes, with but few editorial coomments, a wide vari-


ety of translations of Chinese materials. Contem-
poraneously, Father Mauriac de Mailla published in
1778 a translation in twelve volumes of the Tung-chien,
(“The Outline and Details of the Compre-
hensive Mirror”), a twelfth-century version of Chinese
history prepared under the direction of the philosopher
Chu Hsi.

What most impressed the Jesuits and Leibniz about
China, was its superiority to Europe in the establish-
ment and maintenance of a rational social order.
Leibniz fancied from what he read that the K'ang-hsi
emperor was a model ruler who governed his subjects
firmly but with great respect for law and the advice
of his counsellors. So great was Leibniz' admiration
for the government, social stability, and moral system
of the Chinese that he confessed:

... we need missionaries from the Chinese who might teach
us the use and practice of natural religion, just as we have
sent them teachers of revealed theology

(trans. in Lach,
Novissima Sinica, p. 75).

To Leibniz and the Jesuits, the morality of the
Chinese was inseparable from government. The
Chinese, it was alleged, have no concern with abstract
questions of morality but are interested only in apply-
ing to daily life the teachings of Confucius regarding
the duties of men. The morality of the Chinese is seen
to be a set of prescriptions designed to procure and
assure individual, familial, and social happiness. The
successful organization of the Chinese monarchy, as
opposed to the European states, is based on the fact
that the emperor applies and adapts to the adminis-
tration of the state the principles which obtain in
individual and family life. Political means are used in
China to achieve a more perfect morality. The end
of life, society, and government in China is happiness,
here and now. Abstract religious virtue, with its invisi-
ble and other worldly rewards, is of no interest to the
Chinese. China flourishes as a great and virtuous em-
pire without the aid of revealed religion.

Among the earliest of the philosophical popularizers
to propagate to the learned public the Sinophilism of
the Jesuits was Christian Wolff, the follower of Leibniz.
In a lecture delivered at the University of Halle in
1721 before the combined faculty and student body,
Wolff proclaimed the excellence of Chinese moral
philosophy and its correspondence with his own teach-
ings regarding the efficacy of human reason in meeting
the problems of daily life. Duty and virtue, the differ-
ence between good and evil, and the imperative to
right action may be learned from nature as well as
revelation, according to both the Chinese and Wolff.
While Wolff contends that no conflict exists between
this doctrine of lay morality and Christian teachings,
his Pietistic colleagues at the university remained un-
convinced. In their determination to end what they
thought of as Wolff's heretical teachings, the Pietists
prevailed in 1723 upon King Frederick William I of
Prussia to banish Wolff from his territories.

From the sanctuary of the University of Marburg
Wolff continued thereafter to write about and teach
his “practical philosophy.” Others continued to write
polemical tracts about Wolff and his interpretations
of Confucian morality and Chinese statecraft. In 1730
at Marburg Wolff delivered a lengthy lecture on China
as the outstanding working example of an enlightened
government. His views of the “Real Happiness of a
People under a Philosophical King” did not go un-
noticed by Voltaire and the young Frederick whom
he was tutoring at Rheinsberg. Within German univer-
sity circles the moral philosophy and Sinophilism of
Wolff continued to be a subject for learned debate until
the last generation of the eighteenth century. Wolff's
major pronouncements on Chinese morality and gov-
ernment were greeted with great cordiality by the
Jesuits. In the Description of Du Halde, issued five years
after Wolff's lecture at Marburg, emphasis continued
to be placed upon the natural morality, rational reli-
gion, and enlightened statecraft of the Chinese.

The first systematic treatise on the science of state-
craft published in Europe was Montesquieu's L'esprit
des lois
(The Spirit of the Laws, 1748). For his informa-
tion on China Montesquieu used the merchant accounts
as well as the adulatory statements of the Jesuits, but
preferred the merchants as the less biased observers.
The merchants, as we have seen, were as unanimous
in their condemnation of the treachery, deceit, and
dishonesty of the Chinese as the Jesuits were in their
praise of China's natural morality and good govern-
ment. In response to the conflict in his sources, and
in harmony with the thesis of his book, Montesquieu
concluded that a wide gulf separates theory from prac-
tice in the governing of China. Peace and tranquillity
are assured by patriarchal repression and by the do-
minion of fear. An attack upon a magistrate becomes
an attack upon the entire system, hence dissent and
liberty are nonexistent and reform of evil impossible.
As long as the elements are cooperative, the people
industrious, and the state not too repressive, life in
China is satisfactory. But nature is not often benign
and so disruptions occur. And, since reform of the state
is not possible, the individual Chinese make out as best
they can by resorting to artifice. The state, handcuffed
by its own system, tolerates deception while eschewing
reform. China, because it is governed by the rod, is
classified as a despotism in which honor and virtue are
little more than theoretical objectives. Nonetheless, by
the attention he gave to China, Montesquieu recog-


nized that study of its laws and institutions is necessary
to any objective examination of the principles of gov-
ernment and similar questions of universal import.

Rousseau, in his Discourse on Political Economy (first
printed in the Encyclopédie in 1755) likewise experi-
enced the need to reckon with China in propounding
his generalizations. The emperor of China he sees as
being exemplary in unswervingly following the dictates
of the “general will” in resolving disputes between the
officials and the people. Rousseau approvingly noted
that it is “the constant maxim of the prince to decide
against his officers” without delay or investigation, and
concludes that since the “public outcry does not arise
without cause” the Chinese emperor finds “seldom any
injustice to be repaired.” He also praised the fiscal
system of China “where taxes are greater and yet better
paid than in any other part of the world.” The reason
for this, in Rousseau's estimation, is that food grains
are free of taxes, and the heavy duties levied on other
commodities are paid by the ultimate consumer, or by
those who can afford to pay.

Voltaire in his historical works, especially in the
Essai sur les moeurs et l'esprit des nations (1756),
measured China's civilization against the achievements
of other peoples. China occupies the place of honor
in his Essai and is the first civilization he considers.
The Chinese are especially successful, in Voltaire's
eyes, in using government to protect civilization. The
emperors of China, comparable to philosopher-kings,
for centuries maintained a stable, tolerant, and wise
regime. Their benign, patriarchal rule, reinforced and
aided by a corps of dedicated mandarins, served the
people well. Society, following the Confucian princi-
ples, was built on respect for the Golden Rule, mutual
toleration, and public service. In upholding the Confu-
cian ideals, the Chinese produced throughout history
an intelligent, rational, and deistic ruling class which
set an example to the rest of society by cultivating
virtue, refined manners, and an elevated style of life.
But the Chinese system, for all of its moral and political
virtue, could do nothing to encourage the expansion
of the arts and sciences. Superstition, ancestor worship,
and the character system of the language were persist-
ent deterrents to advancement. The consequence was
that China did not develop the arts and sciences as
it might have done. That China's ancient civilization
was overtaken by the European in the mid-seventeenth
century is best documented by the fact that “even”
the Jesuits were able to teach the mandarins something
from their first arrival on the Chinese scene.

If Voltaire's Sinophilism was qualified, a number of
political theorists of the mid-eighteenth century were
convinced that Europe had more to learn from China
than it had to teach. In Germany, a leading cameralist
writer of the day, J. H. G. Justi published in Berlin
in 1762 Vergleichungen der europäischen mit den
asiatischen und andern vermeintlich barbarischen
In this comparative work, as well as in
several of his other writings on political economy, Justi
concentrates on China as the foreign state most worthy
of study. He is particularly attracted by China as an
example of enlightened monarchy in which the un-
limited authority of the ruler is effectually combined
with moderation in its exercise. Moral restraint in the
monarch is inculcated in China by careful education
of the prince in humility, industry, respect for human
life, reverence for learning, and concern for agricul-
ture, the main occupation of the people. Like Leibniz,
he believed that the Chinese emperor is constrained
to virtue by his desire to receive the favorable judg-
ment of history. While subjects have the duty to re-
monstrate with the ruler, he sees in China no formal
constitutional restrictions on the emperor. Systematic
training in civil morality is taught to the people by
the mandarins, who are themselves selected, rated, and
promoted by a civil service institution. No hereditary
nobility exists in China, and elevation to high rank
comes only through excellent performance in public
service. The censorate, which acts as the eyes and ears
of the emperor, is the surveillance institution that
guarantees integrity and efficiency at all levels of gov-
ernment. Administration by boards rather than by
individuals alone also helps to check license and des-
potism among officials. Most impressive of all is the
fact that the Chinese system is internally so well bal-
anced and its administrative machinery so wisely con-
structed that it works automatically to insure the gen-
eral welfare. In China, Justi clearly thought he had
found a working example of the kind of enlightened
despotism that he and others were advocating for the
German states.

In France the ideal of an enlightened and rational
absolutism was most fully articulated by the Physio-
crats. The Physiocrats were especially critical of state
economic policies which overstress commerce and
neglect agriculture. In China they saw a government
vitally concerned with agriculture, as was symbolized
dramatically by the annual spring rites at which the
emperor, or his deputy, turned the first furrow. The
most characteristic of the Physiocratic writings which
elevated China to a model for Europe was François
Quesnay's Le despotisme de la Chine (Paris, 1767).
Quesnay sees the government of China as one in which
the ruler through legal despotism enforces the natural
economic laws. Authority is rightly invested in an
emperor who is impartial, tolerant, and constantly
careful to protect the public welfare. Since China is
an agricultural nation, the ruler correctly pays special


attention to problems relating to the land and the
cultivator. He does not lay arbitrary taxes, but follows
the Natural Law by requiring as payment “a portion
of the annual produce of the soil” (Maverick, p. 290).
He does not tolerate monopolies, but does his best to
encourage free and natural competition in all economic
enterprises. He demands regular accountings of public
funds and swiftly punishes malversations. The per-
petuity of China's government is attributed to the
stable natural order enforced by the ruler. China's
greatest problem is overcrowding of the land with the
result that too many of its people live in poverty or