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Week 3: China and Europe

As I did this week’s reading in packet two, something that really stood out to me was just how much Europeans revered the Chinese. When I read the basic reading packet, I assumed that Macartney and the West viewed China and the Chinese as inferior and barbaric, given how this attitude seemed to be the default among Europeans of this era. However, I was quite surprised to learn just how much the West respected Chinese culture, at least, for this period in history. I was especially impressed with how the Jesuits recognized the need to approach the Chinese people “…as intellectual equals and show them through sophisticated argument that Christianity was in harmony with their most fundamental beliefs” (1). Even though their methods of cultural blending ended up causing trouble, the Jesuits seemed like they were at least trying to understand Chinese culture and traditions rather than just forcing European ideals on them. Previously, the earliest I had heard of missionaries attempting to assimilate to Chinese culture rather than the other way around was Hudson Taylor in the late 1800s, who actually adopted the Manchu style of clothing and hair in order to better fit in (here is a brief biography, for those interested: https://missionsbox.org/missionary-bio/hudson-taylor/).

 Other than the Jesuits, the source of Europe’s positive image of China was Du Halde’s book The General History of China. Although I only read a short section of The General History of China, it was immediately obvious to me why readers of this book would walk away with a positive view of China. The portion I read in volume three, which covered Chinese plays, history, and poetry, was almost over the top in how much it extolled the excellence of these subjects. Du Halde praised the Chinese method of meticulous record-keeping and attention to historical accuracy while drawing comparisons in Chinese written history to elements of European romances. He also lauded the Chinese people’s use of poetry without rhymes, pointing out how difficult this method was to perfect. With how much Du Halde sang the praises of these aspects of Chinese culture in this tiny section, I can only imagine that the entire book is the exact same way and how much this must have helped to create the positive image the West held about China. To be quite honest, this context of how Europe viewed China at the time made the story of McCartney even more frustrating. There he was, with all of these positive, almost worshipful images of China swirling around in his head, and he still could not bring himself to kowtow. Although I know it was a matter of ‘national pride’ it really seemed like it was also a case of McCartney’s personal pride, as simply kowtowing would have reaped England many more rewards than his stubbornness did.

Works Cited

  1. Mungello, David. “4. European Acceptance of Chinese Culture and Confucianism.” In The Great Encounter of China and The West, 1500 – 1800. Critical Issues in History. World and International History. Lanham, Md: Rowman and Littlefield, 2013.

2. Du Halde, J.-B. The General History of China : Containing a Geographical, Historical, Chronological, Political and Physical Description of the Empire of China, Chinese-Tartary, Corea and Thibet. Done from the French of P. Du Halde. Ecco Database. London: Printed by and for John Watts, 1736.

3. Platt, Stephen R. “How Britain’s First Mission to China Went Wrong: Why the Macartney Mission Went Awry.” LA Review of Books, China Channel, May 18, 2018

One reply on “Week 3: China and Europe”

I chose exploration pack one, so it was very interesting getting a taste of what the second pack had to offer. I really liked your post a lot, and think you did a great job. I loved the pictures!

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