Europeans have been writing about China for centuries–ever since The Travels of Marco Polo described it as a faraway and mystical kingdom. European thinkers like Voltaire and Montesquieu used China to support their own theories of political philosophy, then writers in early modernity tried to explain why China was falling behind—and then, with the rise of Maoist China, how it represented true revolutionary potential.
China Through European Eyes: 800 Years Of Cultural And Intellectual Encounter (World Scientific, 2022), edited by Professor Kerry Brown and Gemma Chenger Deng collects an assortment of these observations written over several centuries, from illustrious writers like Matteo Ricci, Voltaire, Leibniz, Weber, Marx, and Beauvoir.
In this interview, Kerry and I talk about how the way Europeans understood China changed and shifted over eight centuries–and the ways in which they parallel the way we talk about China today.
Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London. He is an Associate of the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House, London, an adjunct of the Australia New Zealand School of Government in Melbourne, and the co-editor of the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, run by the German Institute for Global Affairs in Hamburg. From 1998 to 2005 he worked at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as First Secretary at the British Embassy in Beijing, and then as Head of the Indonesia, Philippine and East Timor Section. He is the author of almost 20 books on modern Chinese politics.