“China Through European Eyes: 800 Years of Cultural and Intellectual Encounter” by Kerry Brown and Gemma Chenger Deng


China Through European Eyes is a very helpful and well-presented annotated anthology of extracts from European writers on China. The authors presented range from Marco Polo to Roland Barthes, which gives readers wide and various perspectives on the subject; some see China as a threat, others romanticize it, and still others find inspiration in its world-outlook. It is an ideal starting-off place for anyone interested in how China has been viewed by Western intellectuals over the centuries, and the editors have done good service by providing substantial extracts in one place, together with informative introductions and a good selection of further readings listed at the end of the book. It would make ideal reading for any students of cultural exchanges between China and the West, and it broadens our knowledge of how the West’s attitude towards China varied and how we got to the place we are now.

The selections include observations by well-known intellectuals such as Voltaire, Bertrand Russell, Simone de Beauvoir, Hegel, Marx and Jung, but readers also encounter travelers. These include the Abbé Evariste Régis Huc (1813-1860), who dyed his skin yellow as part of his disguise as he travelled through areas of China where Christians were being persecuted, and John Barrow’s account of Lord Macartney’s embassy (1792). Barrow characterized the Chinese as “puerile” and “gross and vulgar”, although he admitted that they were really good at firework displays. We also have the Reverend Samuel Purchas (1577-1626), a “travel-liar” who never left Cambridge except to go to London (a fifty-six mile trip) but whose mind and imagination went everywhere, including China, where he tells us that the “Great Khan” employed “ten thousand falconers”, whose actions he watches “abiding in a Chamber carried upon four elephants.”

The differences in the observations expressed by the writers in this book are well-illustrated by the selections offered, and some are striking in their apparent “modernity”, a characteristic which demonstrates that contemporary thinking often differs little from that of the past. Montesquieu, for example, sees China, which he calls “a despotic state, whose principle is fear”, an example of what we would now call totalitarianism, and notes that the Chinese see the world quite differently from the West. “Their customs, manners, law and religion being the same thing,” he asserts, “they cannot change all these at once,” unless, of course, someone conquers them, in which case “either the conquered or the conquerors must change.” For Montesquieu, in China “it has always been the conqueror,” because it’s easier that way. If you can’t beat them, join them. He laments that this means Christianity can’t make much headway there. Leibniz’s observations, on the other hand, are extremely latitudinarian and show a concerted effort to understand Chinese thinking in and of itself, in spite of the fact that he had never been to China, knew no Chinese, and gleaned all his knowledge from reading. Hegel, another armchair traveller, wanted to fit China into his theory of what he called the “world-spirit”, the idea that consciousness is non-individual, that it’s shared by people everywhere. Hegel’s prose is, as might be expected, complex and dense, but there’s clarity, too: “The universal Will,” he tells us, “displays its activity immediately through that of the individual,” and that, for Hegel, includes Chinese individuals.

There’s a refreshing sense of cultural curiosity in most of these writings, even if the authors never went anywhere near China.

China Through European Eyes: 800 Years of Cultural and Intellectual Encounter, Kerry Brown, Gemma Chenger Deng (World Scientific, April 2022)
China Through European Eyes: 800 Years of Cultural and Intellectual Encounter, Kerry Brown, Gemma Chenger Deng (World Scientific, April 2022)

The surprise, for me, was Voltaire, who wrote a long entry on China in his famous Dictionnaire philosophique (1752). He argues that China must be encountered on its own terms, and he has great admiration for Confucius as well as a healthy respect for the reasons that the Chinese emperors of the Qing dynasty actually first engaged intellectually with the Jesuits although they eventually expelled them for their missionary activities. Voltaire’s well-known antipathy to the Catholic church probably lay behind his enthusiasm, but this bias does not reduce the general validity of his observations. “The religion of their learned is admirable,” Voltaire wrote, “and free from superstitions, from absurd legends, from dogmas insulting both to reason and nature,” and, in spite of Western assertions to the contrary, they are not atheists.

We can find some of this echoed in the sociologist Max Weber’s analysis of what the Chinese believe. Weber, who also wrote about India and the Middle East, approached Chinese thought through Confucianism (Leibniz called it a “cult”), as did many other Europeans, which he understood was primarily a system of ethics rather than philosophy as practiced in the West, which dealt with questions such as the nature of reality. As Weber noted, “Confucianism was in large measure bereft of metaphysical interest.” He believed that in Confucianism “the basic impulses of human conduct were economic and sexual,” and that as a result “the world was … just as imperfect as man.” There was no sense of sin and guilt in this world outlook..


The general reaction to these readings is that Western intellectuals had a wide-ranging amount of ideas about China. There’s a refreshing sense of cultural curiosity in most of these writings, even if the authors never went anywhere near China. What is perhaps most striking is that modern attitudes towards this country are not surprisingly different from those articulated by past generations of China students. China is often considered as a threat, sometimes a land of exoticism, and even occasionally as a role model or at least a place worthy of examination for the validity of its way of life and whether it could have a positive impact on our own way of thinking in the West. Many writers commend the broad-mindedness of the Chinese; Bertrand Russell stated plainly “I think the tolerance of the Chinese is in excess of anything that Europeans can imagine,” and that Chinese civilization was “built upon a more humane and civilized outlook than our own.” And, as far as the Chinese “threat” was concerned, Karl Marx felt that “The Chinese have at least ninety-nine injuries to complain of to one on the part of the English,” referring to the Opium Wars and their aftermath.

We also have some examples from the writings of Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva and Simone de Beauvoir; to my mind only de Beauvoir has something useful or revealing to say, as she actually engages directly with Chinese intellectual debate as it tries to move beyond Confucianism, discussing different schools of thought as they were contending in 1957. Barthes, on the other hand, is represented by disjointed scribblings which rarely rise above the level of undergraduate lecture-notes, and the extract from Kristeva’s About Chinese Women (1976) ranges from the idealistic to the condescending and self-indulgent. She even tells us where the voices of Chinese women come from; “they begin in the chest or belly,” she tells us, “but they can suddenly hiss from the throat and rise sharply to the head, strained in aggression or enthusiasm.” Is Kristeva writing about people or some exotic tropical bird? Thank goodness we can turn back to Marco Polo, Purchas, Voltaire and the Abbé Huc.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.