“A Global Enlightenment: Western Progress and Chinese Science” by Alexander Statman


Max Weber, an heir of the Enlightenment, wrote about “‘progress’, to which science belongs as a link and motive force”’ when considering the limitations of scientific rationalism. In detaching science from the strictures of reason, he had come full circle. This quote helps frame Alexander Statman’s ambitious essay, A Global Enlightenment: Western Progress and Chinese Science, a book about the reception of Chinese ideas on science or, rather, natural philosophy, in France during the late Enlightenment. The author sets out a daring purpose:


my contention is that Chinese science shaped a signature legacy of the European Enlightenment: the idea of Western progress.


His premise is that progress is a distinctively modern idea and a uniquely western one. Statman says,


I am aware of no historical study that attributes a conception of progress to any non-European tradition before modern times …


an assertion that is hard to challenge. Yet he is skeptical about the term and reluctant to settle on a definition.

“China was undoubtedly fashionable in the 18th century.”

A Global Enlightenment: Western Progress and Chinese Science, Alexander Statman (University of Chicago Press, April 2023)
A Global Enlightenment: Western Progress and Chinese Science, Alexander Statman (University of Chicago Press, April 2023)

La Chine sans aucun doute est à la mode au XVIIIe siècle,” wrote Virgile Pinot in La Chine et la formation de l’esprit philosophique en France (1640-1740)—a book published in 1932 and still a valid reference on the topic, Statman acknowledges in his notes—but that “China was undoubtedly fashionable in the 18th century” didn’t necessarily mean it was influential, Pinot would remark. Views of China during the Enlightenment did indeed oscillate like a pendulum.

“Reason” was the mainspring of the Enlightenment, enshrined as the road to emancipation from tradition, religion, and arbitrary privileges, while China was seen as the embodiment of reason by the early philosophes—mainly because in its governance, religion didn’t play a part. Voltaire, the most enthusiastic, saw China as “the wisest and most civilized nation in the universe”, and Confucius as “the prototype of an Enlightenment philosophe”. By the late Enlightenment, however, that image had reversed itself; now backward, Confucius was seen as superficial, and China reframed “from stable to static”. The few entries about China included in the Encyclopédie, probably written by Diderot, were perfunctory and condescending and, on natural philosophy, rather negative. These shifting views were also in part the result of growing economic disparity.

Yet the information on China coming from the Jesuits had not changed; they had always lauded the Chinese for their social organization, at least theoretically, while disparaging their astronomy and empirical sciences. Statman notes that


The shift from Sinophilia to Sinophobia reflected little new knowledge of China but changing notions of progress in Europe.


It was viewing China through the prism of the “Progress theory”, as imperfect a process as this might be, which “did bring about an end to the Philosophes’ enthusiasm for the East”.

In the 18th century, information about China came almost exclusively from the Jesuits.

But there was a group of now forgotten people that Statman calls “orphans of the Enlightenment”, whom he considers true members of the Enlightenment. These were men who, being open-minded and enthusiastically engaged in free speculation and debate, coming from different backgrounds, shared a strong interest in ancient wisdom—and Chinese ideas embodied ancient wisdom. Via a surprisingly dense and variegated body of research, critiques, and correspondence, this book rescues their names and contributions. If their views didn’t succeed at the time, the author argues, the reception of Chinese ideas through these forgotten figures would be lastingly influential:

first as an ancient precursor to modern discoveries; then as an example of what Western science was not; and, finally, as a new kind of distinctively modern alternative knowledge.


In the 18th century, information about China came almost exclusively from the Jesuits, mainly French, who had carved a niche of their own in the Church of the Saviour, north of the Forbidden City—thus known as Beitang—with a direct link to Paris rather than Rome. The mediator par excellence during the last decades of the reign of the Qianlong emperor was Jean Joseph Marie Amiot: he was the first to translate Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (among other works), and he understood China as a repository of ancient wisdom. This period saw the twilight of the Jesuit mission in China, the relations between the Beijing court and Chinese elite with the missionaries having been left badly damaged by the Chinese rites controversy. Amiot was increasingly isolated: he had no contact with Chinese literati, but with only a few Qing nobles, the Manchu prince Hongwu being his closest associate. Moreover, the Jesuit order was abolished in 1773, a momentous event that shook the Catholic world, the loss of their prestigious teaching institutions and developing projects having a cataclysmic effect. Regardless, the ex-Jesuit Amiot was indefatigable in his researching and networking, translating and sharing information.

At the other end, Amiot’s main correspondent in Paris was the minister of state Henri-Léonard Bertin, who in contrast with members of the Enlightenment atheists and deists, developed his interest in China as a Catholic and a royalist. He was responsible for the edition and publication of Mémoires concernant les Chinois, “the final monument of the Jesuit mission to China”, a work of fifteen volumes published from 1776 to 1791, after the Society had been suppressed, which has received little attention despite its importance.

Some of these exchanges allow for a glimpse of the atmosphere in Beijing. Bertin helped to provide gas balloons to Amiot, also an electrical machine, presumably for medical treatments. After the first balloon flights by the Robert Brothers took place outside the Tuileries in 1783, Amiot and the Manchu prince Hongwu “investigated gas-balloon aviation and electrical medicine while performing cutting-edge experiments at the North Church and Hongwu’s nearby mansion.” But those exchanges were performed in secret. The Chinese reacted with particular caution when it came to electrical therapy for the nerves. An air of suspicion and fear prevailed.

The discussions themselves mostly focused on the genealogy of knowledge, leading to assertions “that the scientific discoveries of modern Europeans might have been preceded by those of ancient China.” Their inquiries expanded to ancient Egypt but also tried to reconcile with narratives in the Bible. Statman is keen in revealing linkages with later repercussions:

Orphans of Enlightenment argued that ancient Chinese knowledge and modern European science were one and the same. But the result of their work was to associate Chinese natural philosophy instead with exactly those aspects of the European scientific tradition that their contemporaries rejected: mysticism, esotericism, and the occult.

On the origins of esotericism and its relation to China, Statman studies specific examples and two extraordinary figures. The Huguenot Antoine Court de Gébelin, author of Monde primitif, an eight-volume collection of essays inspired by Protestant, Masonic and political (Physiocratic) themes, “revealed an ancient people who had achieved unimaginable heights in the arts and sciences.” He talked not about the discovery but the recovery of ancient knowledge. Here we learn that a Song-period stone inscription played a part in Antoine Court de Gébelin’s invention of tarot-card fortune-telling. Statman emphasizes that this function of divination should be credited to Court de Gébelin and not to the Egyptians as it is usually thought. Issues of Monde primitif ended up in the Beitang library.

Jean-Sylvain Bailly is a more familiar figure, for he presided at the self-proclaimed National Assembly’s Tennis Court Oath in June 1789, and was hence immortalized in the drawing by Jacques Louis David, an iconic image of the French Revolution. Bailly, a noted astronomer and admirer of Court de Gébelin with whom he maintained a fruitful correspondence, wrote about the history of science and drew from comparative linguistics and mythological analysis, finding much in common in different cultures. He found in a Qing travelogue new evidence of the lost civilization of Atlantis. He was a rival of the Marquis of Condorcet, “the most ardent progress theorist of the late Enlightenment”, who discounted ancient wisdom except that of the Greeks. Comparing both authors’ works, Statman argues persuasively that Condorcet’s thought “emerged in conflict with Bailly’s search for ancient wisdom,” drawing from him “both factual claims and conceptual tools.” Yet, for all China’s contributions in centuries past, Bailly also saw it as static, her people “incapable of this inquietude that makes change into a need.”

Most intriguing is the chapter devoted to the yin-yang theory of animal magnetism. Formulated by the German physicist Franz Anton Mesmer (hence the word “mesmerize”), it was drawn mainly from the history of esotericism and occult philosophy in their intersection with science. Mesmer associated animal magnetism with a theory of bodily fluids he had read in Mémoires concernant les Chinois. But there were Amiot and the Comte de Mellet (from the circle of Court de Gébelin) who identified this theory of animal magnetism with the Chinese concept of taiji (“universal agent” and “material principle”) and its positive and negative poles or ying-yang, key of all sciences to the Chinese.

In drawing such connections, there were some distortions or misinterpretations of the sources which led to errors in its implications and conclusions. But the ideas made a splash: Louis XVI appointed two royal committees to investigate animal magnetism. One commission headed by Benjamin Franklin and including Antoine Lavoisier and Jean-Sylvain Bailly “issued a scathing report.” Mesmer left Paris in disgrace. And the prevailing conclusion among the members of the European Enlightenment was that China had no science.

By the end of the century, the links between Beijing and Paris had been severed.  And it is at this low ebb in the dialogue between China and the West when modern Sinology was born.

By the end of the century, the links between Beijing and Paris had been severed. Amiot died alone in Beijing in 1793. And shortly after, in 1811, the Qing expelled most of the missionaries from Beijing. Whereas in France, the Terror had abruptly turned off the lights of the Enlightenment: Bailly and Lavoisier ended with the guillotine, Condorcet died in prison, Bertin and Mellet fled into exile, never to come back.

And it is at this low ebb in the dialogue between China and the West when modern Sinology was born: in 1814, Abel-Rémusat, first European scholar who spoke Chinese, was appointed as chair of the new Chinese and Tartar-Manchu language and Literature department at the Collège Royal, the eminent Collège de France. Sinology was not born originally as a science, and it wasn’t until 1832 that science was accepted by the Académie Française “as a system of knowledge on some matter”. Although Abel-Rémusat rejected the work of the orphans of the Enlightenment, he championed the study of Daoism, which was to formally replace the former interest in Confucianism as “ancient eastern wisdom”, Laozi becoming a “Chinese Plato”.

Hegel, a reader of Amiot and in contact with Abel-Rémusat, would make his contribution to the new field too, rejecting non-Western philosophy while considering Daoism as magic. His conclusions were lapidary: “the Chinese are the most superstitious people in the world,” “Europe is absolutely the end of History, Asia the beginning.”

For Statman, this moment also marks the birth of Orientalism as a discipline, and he brings Edward Said to the fore. Said had written, “The modern Orientalist was, in his view, a hero rescuing the Orient from the obscurity, alienation, and strangeness which he himself had properly distinguished.” Statman turns Said’s argument into question, “how did the orientalist come to see his mission this way?” for China was not obscure, alien, or strange or mysterious, except for the orphans of the Enlightenment.


In a book that establishes near exhaustive linkages, a mention of Joseph Needham, who has dominated the history of Chinese science to this date, is required, here it is brief but clarifying. Not surprisingly, Needham had given credit to Abel-Rémusat as the founder of his own historical subject. Statman rightly reminds that “the so-called ‘Needham question’—why did modern science fail to develop in China?—was neither original to Needham, nor essential to what might be called the ‘Needham project.’” He mentioned that differences in social and economic patterns may throw light on “both the earlier predominance of Chinese science and technology and also the later rise of modern science in Europe alone.”

But Needham’s own question was “What exactly did the Chinese contribute, in the various historical periods, ancient and medieval, to the development of Science, Scientific Thought and technology?” [Needham’s own capitalization], and this is what he eloquently answered in his monumental Science and Civilisation in China.

In the conventional narrative, the global history of science and philosophy became a story of progress. Against this perceived wisdom, Abel-Rémusat raised early on his own critique of progress, a myth which “had come to resemble the very superstition that it was supposed to supersede.” And it was in the early 20th century when the problem of knowledge outside progress finally was confronted from within: a reaction against positivism spearheaded by Max Weber in the social sciences, or Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in psychology, among others, who reclaimed progress narratives that had been first advanced by the orphans of the Enlightenment.

Reading A Global Enlightenment requires a grounding on Figurism, Hermetism, Mesmerism, and Animal Magnetism, among other obscure notions, because no definition will be forthcoming unless deduced from the context. This is not a critical essay of the ideas presented but a neutral or detached exposition of these ideas and their genesis and connections; there is no judgment whether those speculations are bizarre or sound. Painstakingly referenced, the extensive and detailed notes and updated bibliography, and the clarification of some sources, stand as one of the book’s main contributions. Interestingly, while most of the French sources are extant and accessible in the archives, Chinese sources are much harder to come by, maybe deemed not worth recording or deliberately erased.

These are topics that seldom get scholarly treatment and Statman can be congratulated for rescuing from oblivion a history that cannot be discounted, his work is a new starting point.

Juan José Morales is the co-author of Painter and Patron: The Maritime Silk Road in the Códice Casanatense (Abbreviated Books, 2020) and The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815 (Penguin, 2017).