Following the release of the much-hyped movie Crazy Rich Asians, a romantic comedy featuring an Asian-American cast, we may recall that cross-cultural east-west encounters long predate visits of Chinese-American professors to meet their fiances’ super-rich Singaporean relatives. Indeed, there is a growing body of scholarly literature on European encounters with Asian thought and culture in the early modern period, most recently Jürgen Osterhammel’s Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia (Princeton, 2018), as well as my own contribution on this topic. Beginning in the sixteenth century, European explorers and missionaries systematically compiled information about the many peoples in the eastern part of the Eurasian landmass, which was then transmitted back home to an avid readership. The impressions early modern Europeans had of Asian potentates were by no means generally negative, and in many cases, were very positive (as with the much-praised Kangxi emperor, who ruled China from 1661 to 1722 and is pictured above on a maritime tour of his vast dominions). In other words, Asian monarchs were in Europeans’ eyes crazily rich but not usually rich in craziness–that is, not until the close of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth-century era of western hegemony.
Most of what westerners learned about east Asia in this period was transmitted via Jesuit missionaries. These soldiers of Christ, initially led by Ignatius of Loyola (author of The Spiritual Exercises, the Jesuit handbook) and tasked by the Counter-Reformation with bringing in new converts from the wider world now that much of northern Europe was lost to the Protestants, seemingly faced a ‘mission impossible’ when confronted with Chinese resistance to European contact. But the persistence and superb linguistic skills of Jesuits like Matteo Ricci eventually led to entry to the imperial court itself (local fans of this famous Jesuit were known as ‘Crazy Ricci Asians’). The China Jesuits pursued a strategy known as ‘accommodation’, in which (Catholic) Christianity was presented as compatible with traditional Confucian teachings, such that Christianity and Confucianism could thus be ‘accommodated’ to each other. Far less influential were the so-called ‘J-Suit’ missionaries, jump-suited zealots who pursued their own strategy of offering free camping equipment: it was thought that such ‘in-tents’ accommodation would convert the Chinese to the cult of physical rather than spiritual exercise.
While the Jesuits were laudatory about the wisdom and policy of Chinese emperors, other western observers and scholars admired Asian potentates in regimes outside China as well, as Osterhammel points out. For example, the authors of the seventy-five volume Allgemeine Welthistorie (General World History) of 1744-1804, edited by Siegmund Jacob Baumgarten and Johann Salomo Semler, as well as the formidable historian Edward Gibbon, downplayed the wrath of (Genghis) Khan and stressed his effective governance over the Mongol empire. Similarly, during the eighteenth century, many authors dissented from Christopher Marlowe (who set the bar low) in holding up the far-from-timorous Timur (the fourteenth-century west Asian ruler also known as Tamerlaine) as a model of the beneficent ruler. Furthermore, despite his brutality and sadism, the eighteenth-century Persian potentate Nadir Shah was depicted by some authors as saviour of the Iranian nation and praised for his tolerant religious policy–though western authors were far less flattering after the ‘nadir’ of his power and assassination in 1747. Finally, though the late eighteenth-century Indian ruler Haidar Ali was vilified especially by British authors as an ‘Oriental despot’ standing in the way of British imperial interests, critics of such expansion in India from within and without Britain regarded Haidar as an intrepid and enlightened reformer. Hence, European writers were divided between those who denounced his cowardly tyranny and others who lauded his ‘high-daring’.
General scholarly opinion of Asian rulers was more unambiguously critical in the nineteenth century. Asian monarchs were considered unprogressive, feeble, despotic, and mired in gross sensuality. For example, many authors condemned the arrogance and ignorance of the Qianlong emperor after the 1792-93 Macartney mission. This British diplomatic mission sought to ease trading restrictions with China, but the imperial court was indifferent to these foreigners and to the scientific instruments brought by the British to impress the emperor (and demonstrated by the Scottish natural philosopher James Dinwiddie, whose personal papers are archived at Dalhousie University). In other words, the failure of the Macartney mission to engage with the Chinese emperor and establish an ongoing relationship with Britain reflects the words of that later Macartney: ‘You say “Stop” and I say “Go, go, go”. Oh no. You say “Goodbye” and I say “Hello.”‘
Do check out our new EMSP+ webpage, featuring links to EMSP publications, recent faculty publications, the Early Modern Studies Society, and alumni profiles!
‘Til next week,
Director, Early Modern Crazy Rich Potentate Studies Program