In 1275, Marco Polo famously reported about Cathay’s (China) pompous cities, stupendous power, and incredible wealth (Pelliot & Moule, 1938). But the first encounters of scale and cultural significance between East and West were the many Jesuit missions during the late Ming Dynasty. Indeed, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), Francis Xavier (1505-1552), and Jean Adam Schall von Bell (1519-1566), like most other Jesuit missionaries in Asia, came, saw, and wrote extensively about the Chinese civilization that – despite its numerous follies and shortcomings – in many ways was not only superior in size and number. Its people were also “more polite, delicate and gentle in nature,” and thus outclassed the West not only “in scope of its economies” and in terms of its “sympathetic, true human intelligence” (Gu, 1922), but also in its awareness of its sophisticated moral code and perceived antiquity (Hart, 1999):
It is a well-known fact that the liking – you may call it the taste for the Chinese – grows upon the foreigner the longer he lives in this country. (Gu Hongming, 1922)
Despite the achievements of the Jesuits in China in the seventeenth century, one should not merely attribute their successes to the curiosity of the Chinese intellectuals, or to the expertise and advanced scientific training of the Catholic Church, but perhaps more so to the cosmopolitan mind of China’s emperors. It was not uncommon for the ‘Shangdi’ (Emperor) to employ foreigners (Li, 1998). For example, it was the Shunzhi Emperor (顺治帝, 1638-1661) who promoted Cologne-born German Jesuit Johann Adam Schall von Bell to a Mandarin of first class; and it was the Kangxi Emperor (康熙帝, 1654-1722) who frequently summoned the Vlaanderen-born Belgian Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) to the Forbidden City (紫禁城). Shunzhi and Kangxi both were keen on having the Jesuits bring new science and technology to China, not necessarily because they felt China was desperately in need of Western technology, but because that was what vassal states were supposed to do in those days of ‘tianxia’ (天下, The Celestial Empire or All under Heaven): The non-Chinese scholars, disarmed and mesmerized by the immense power and might of the Chinese civilization, out of humbleness and submission, were simply expected to (and really felt obliged to) contribute to the Empire and in return were rewarded privileges and official posts quid pro quo.
“It is power that makes one benevolent” – that same kind of fair-minded atmosphere of tolerance, academic freedom, and mutual dependency during the Ming Dynasty would have been difficult to achieve in nitpicking, prejudiced Europe. Or can anybody imagine the impossible scenario of some Chinese Daoist monks walking into Vatican City of the Dark Ages and negotiating alternative world views with the clerics? Not even the Church’s own people, not even the Jesuits could do that, if one recalls Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), who happened to spend the latter part of his life under inquisitional house arrest.
Thus, I imagine the Jesuits had an extraordinarily good time in Asia while living under ‘tianxia,’ built some churches but also translated Chinese literature, and respected the Confucian code of moral conduct and learning, in exchange for an equally curious and tolerant Chinese audience (Li, 1998; Jami, 2001).
With wave after wave of Jesuits flocking into China, embracing the Chinese, and ‘mysteriously’ turning into ‘apostles of Confucius’ (Hart, 1999), it is not difficult to understand why, in 1704, Pope Clement XI finally intervened and issued his notorious papal bull, condemning all Chinese beliefs and rites per se. It was outrageous and plainly inconceivable to the Catholic Church “how a system of filial piety and state morality called Confucian could take the place of a proper religion, could make men, even the mass of Asia, do without religion” (Gu, 1922). Of course, the fascination with Chinese culture would never decrease in Western academic circles. It could only increase.
The Germans admired Asia immensely. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe rejoiced: “They have another peculiarity; in China men and nature are inseparable.” Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz wrote that this by far most populous nation on Earth, with a highly ordered civil structure, must have achieved that population and civil structure through some identifiable means. Satirically, Leibniz suggested that Chinese missionaries should be invited to instruct the European people (Cook & Rosemont, 1994).
After two opium wars, the British imperialists of those days – otherwise totally convinced of their new ‘religion’ of Anglo-Saxon Capitalism and industrial superiority – nevertheless still found occasional sufficient praise for their ‘conquered.’ In 1922, after spending a year lecturing at Peking University, the British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell, despite his ludicrous criticism of the “cowardice, callousness, and voraciousness in the average Chinaman,” still found mostly words of admiration for China’s cultural industrialism and overeager hospitality (Chinese intellectuals literally bent over backwards to please foreigners, and treated Russell courteously), and, naturally, the Imperial examination system (c. 605-1905) or ‘ke ju’ [科举] (Russell, 1922). This gargantuan system of totalitarian proportion yet universal meritocracy (in theory, but in practice there is abuse in any system) had, over the course of 1,300 years, co-shaped Confucian China and Imperial China, and, although formally abandoned in 1905, in Russell’s time still dominated people’s minds and attitudes towards learning and career. The Imperial system, unlike the European one of those days, was theoretically blind to the social class or creed of its candidates, and was solely designed to find the most intelligent and diligent contenders among the huge Chinese gene pool.
Russell’s analysis of China and its people concludes with a prophecy, namely that the Chinese civilization alone has the power to easily supersede, both economically and intellectually, all European states combined if only they adopt Western science to defend themselves against aggression, but otherwise stay faithful to their own fine civilization (Russell, 1922). For those who did not believe in China’s potential ‘other’ civilization, Russell had this warning:
The Chinese demand Western science. But they do not demand the adoption of the Western philosophy of life. If they were to adopt the Western philosophy of life, they would, as soon as they had made themselves safe against foreign aggression, embark upon aggression on their own account. (Bertrand Russell, 1922)
Unfortunately, to this day, this is exactly what half-educated Western policymakers encourage China to become. Ignoring any information about China is not knowledge about China. With their often reckless demands for ‘The American Dream,’ the ‘Rechts- und Verfassungsstaat,’ ‘Democracy,’ and ‘Human Rights,’ the Western nations of today are aiming at establishing a Middle Kingdom in their own image: “Hey, China, you look like one of us. Look what we’ve made you!”
Cultural Effects of the Dichotomy
Pattberg, Thorsten (2013), The East-West Dichotomy, Foreign Language Press, Beijing