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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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Beginning in the mid-eighteenth century disillu-
sionment with China as a model of rationality, good
government, and the gay life was expressed with in-
creasing frequency and greater vigor. The hostility in
Europe towards the Society of Jesus, its expulsion from
a number of countries, and its formal dissolution by
the Papacy in 1773 led many contemporary observers
to be more than a bit skeptical about the veracity of
the glowing Jesuit reports of China. The growing criti-
cism of rationalistic thought and enlightened absolut-
ism also produced a reaction against a China which
had been elevated to a model society by rationalistic
social, economic, and political theorists. The more
effective closure of China to European trade had the
practical result of eliminating regular intercourse and
of forcing Europe's attention to turn to other more
hospitable places. The outbreak of the French Revolu-
tion and the continental wars brought an end to almost
all European relations with eastern Asia. England,


which managed to retain a degree of independence
from continental involvements, turned the major share
of its attention to India. The United States, where the
China craze imported from Europe began just after
the revolt against Britain, was one of the few places
in the Western world where disenchantment with
China had not set in by the end of the eighteenth

The intellectual and artistic foes of rationalism and
classicism stood in the vanguard of those who attacked
the China of the philosophes and the rococo painters.
The young Rousseau in his Discourse on the Arts and
(1750) raised two fundamental questions.
What advantage, he asked, has China “reaped from
the honors bestowed on its learned men?” Can it be,
he goes on satirically, “that of being peopled by a race
of scoundrels and slaves?” Or is the reward for holding
learning in honor the defeat of the empire by “rude
and ignorant Tatars?” Dr. Samuel Johnson, who had
been an ardent admirer of China in his earlier years,
came to look upon the Chinese as barbarians who had
no art other than “pottery” and who had never ad-
vanced sufficiently to possess an alphabet. Baron F. M.
Grimm, who castigated the Jesuits in his literary corre-
spondence for deceiving Europe with false reports,
branded China an unenlightened despotism with the
Confucian moral code fitting precisely a “herd of
frightened slaves” (Reichwein, p. 96). The young
Goethe, who had read the Analects as well as Mon-
tesquieu and Rousseau, had no patience with the
“knickknacks” of chinoiserie and was inclined to regard
China itself as possessing a hybrid, overrefined, super-
ficial, and sick civilization.

As ideas about China during the Enlightenment were
subjected to a more intimate inspection, the tendency
grew to stress the static quality of its civilization.
Enlightenment philosophers of progress generally con-
cerned themselves with the advance of reason in the
West and rarely referred in their considerations to
other parts of the world. Voltaire and other rationalists
were primarily intent upon revealing the universality
of reason and were content with simply finding a place
for China in their cosmic designs. In doing so, even
some of the greatest admirers of China posited a civili-
zation that was unchanging, unprogressive, and being
rapidly overtaken by the West. None of the englightened
writers, not even the authors of universal history from
Bossuet to the Göttingen school, undertook seriously
to bring China into their considerations of historical

Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations (1776) asserted
that the poverty of China's lowest classes is far greater
than anything to be found in Europe. Like Montes-
quieu, Smith was inclined to accept the travelers' view
of China and to put aside that of the Jesuits as suspect.
“The accounts of all travelers,” he noted, “inconsistent
in many respects, agree in the low wages of labor, and
in the difficulty which a laborer finds in bringing up
a family in China” (Book I, Ch. VIII). Since the travel
accounts from Marco Polo to those of his own day
describe China in essentially the same terms, Smith
concluded that China “seems to have been stationary”
(ibid.). But though China appears to stand still, “it does
not seem to go backwards” (ibid.). Its towns and culti-
vated lands are not deserted or neglected. China's
failure to develop economically, despite its acknowl-
edged wealth in people and resources, he ascribed to
its neglect of international trade. Failure of the state
to encourage trade and provide security for investors
and workers produces a bipolarization of Chinese eco-
nomic life by which “the oppression of the poor must
establish the monopoly of the rich” (Book I, Ch. IX).

J. G. von Herder, in his earliest writings, conceived
of China as an agrarian country dominated by a pater-
nalistic government which inhibits the growth of the
intellectual and creative capacities of the people. In
his Ideen (1791) Herder self-consciously attempted an
objective appraisal of Chinese civilization in an effort
to let it fit itself into his universal historical conception.
He reviewed China's natural environment and history
and concluded that its physical isolation and rigid
institutions prevent the growth of dynamism and cre-
ativity. The descent of the Chinese from barbaric
Mongols left a heritage of coarse habits and unrefined
tastes. Natural growth is repressed by the false stress
placed upon filial piety and obedience to authority.
The civilization that evolves in stubborn isolation from
other world cultures is stultified, artificial, and un-
imaginative. “The empire,” he asserted, “is an em-
balmed mummy inscribed with hieroglyphics and
wrapped in silk.” Later in life Herder modified this
view and praised the Chinese for their tolerance, pa-
tience and enlightened government.

T. R. Malthus in An Essay on the Principle of Popu-
... (1798) analyzed the incentives to and checks
upon the increase of China's population. He estimated
on the basis of Du Halde's figures that China's popula-
tion in the early eighteenth century was almost
240,000,000; at the end of the century Sir George
Staunton, the British emissary to Peking, estimated it
at about 334,000,000. Malthus accounted for China's
vast numbers and their rapid increase by reference to
the productivity of the land, its intensive cultivation,
the government's concern for agriculture, the indus-
triousness and relatively high social position of the
farmer, and the encouragement given to marriage by
the religious and social systems. He also noted that
despite its vast area, China had a population density


of thrice to twice that of France, a deplorable situation
brought on mainly by the cultural imperatives encour-
aging marriage. But limits are set upon the operation
of marriage as an incentive to increase of population
by the large number of priests, monks, scholars, serv-
ants, and slaves who remain single and childless. Dis-
ease, especially among children, is a positive check but
not as important as might be expected in such an
overcrowded country. Infanticide by exposure and
drowning is common but it varies with abundance and
scarcity. Frequent crop failures from drought, floods,
or plagues of insects produce devastating famines that,
because of China's isolation, cannot be relieved by
outside help. Unrelieved scarcity results in riots and
wars, which with widespread famine act as the most
powerful check on population increase. Malthus saw
little prospect for China to improve the lot of its
people through manufacture and the encouragement
of foreign trade. Its wealth, based on cultivation, had
already reached its zenith and little hope for relief
could be envisaged either through greater agricultural
or industrial productivity. In terms of material devel-
opment China seemed doomed to stagnation and pre-
destined to suffer a staggering burden of overpopula-
tion and grinding poverty.

The thesis that China was a static and unprogressive
civilization received its classical formulation in Hegel's
Philosophy of History (1830-31). Hegel was a close
student of the critical merchant and Protestant ac-
counts of China as well as of the adulatory writings
of the Jesuits. China, like other Oriental states, pos-
sesses for Hegel a civilization in which nature terrorizes
man and in which progress is limited by geographical
and racial contradictions. While China has its own
Volksgeist, it has never advanced beyond the initial
stages in the realization of freedom. The only free
individual is the despot; for others freedom under the
state has never been realized and no sense exists of
the infinite worth of the individual.

Hegel saw Confucius as a moralist, not a systematic
or speculative philosopher. The sage prescribed prin-
ciples for action, and made morality for the individual
identical with the emperor's will and law. It is this
prescriptive quality of Chinese morality which ac-
counts for the unchanging, despotic character of
Chinese society and for the failure of the Chinese to
have an interest in abstract knowledge for itself. Since
China's civilization does not progress, it is relatively
certain that China was not better off in antiquity than
at present. Study of prevailing conditions might then
be assumed sufficient to unlock the secrets of China's
past. Hegel, who was also a close student of Voltaire's
idea of universal history, explicitly rejected the uni-
formity of nature and placed the stagnant Orient,
including China, at the bottom of his ladder of linear
history which culminates in freedom's self-realization
in the Europe of his day. But by this scheme Hegel
did not succeed in explaining how universal history
itself progressed from its first “unchanging” phase to
the Greek stage in which a greater degree of freedom
somehow developed.

Marx's concept of Asia, as spelled out in his writings
of the 1850's, was based essentially on the views of
the classical economists, especially John Stuart Mill.
Both Marx and Engels embraced the then current belief
in an Asiatic society that was unique in possessing
peculiar systems of land ownership and production
which definitely set it apart from the agrarian societies
of classical antiquity and feudalism in the West. Cli-
mate and geography necessarily made artificial irriga-
tion the basis of Asian agriculture. The Asiatic state
came into being to control waterworks spread over vast
territories where the people, living in dispersed, self-
supporting villages, depended upon strong central au-
thority to organize and control irrigation. In China the
economy rests upon a combination of small agriculture
and domestic industry in which the state consumes
almost totally whatever surplus value can be produced.
The Asiatic mode of production thus made the state
the real landlord, and it maintains in perpetuity a
condition of general slavery for the masses.

China, Marx and Engels thought in 1850, was the
“oldest and most unshakeable empire of the world”
(Lowe, p. 19), isolated and rotting. But, at about this
time, China began to be forced out of its shell of
isolation by imperialist attacks from the West. The best
evidence for China's loss of stability was the outbreak
of the Taiping rebellion in the 1850's and the changes
that it threatened. Faced by the reality of a China in
decline, Marx and Engels had to fit China into their
theoretical framework as a changing element. China,
it was concluded, under pressure from industrial capi-
talism, would leap over antiquity and feudalism to the
capitalist and ultimately to the socialist modes of pro-
duction. Marx and Engels saw changes in China of the
kind they expected to see in the West. In their preoc-
cupation with Europe they failed to notice indigenous
reasons for change. In their concern with a changing
China, they abandoned their efforts to fit China into
their unilinear scheme of universal history as they tried
to understand what influence it might have upon the
world transition from capitalism to socialism.