As part of my current sabbatical project on China in Later Enlightenment Political Thought, I have just written a draft chapter on Voltaire’s views on China in his world history. In many ways, his account of China is derivative and superficial compared to predecessors such as Pierre Bayle and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, though unlike these thinkers Voltaire composed a Sinophilic play popular in his time (adapted from a Yuan dynasty play) entitled The Orphan of China (as depicted above: Voltaire reading it to a rapt audience in the salon of Madame Geoffrin). One could argue that his praise of Confucian China is at worst a deceptive con-game meant to advance his own agenda, and at best a cultural fusion of European ideals projected onto China: in other words, a form of cultural con-fusionism.
Voltaire (1694-1778) was obsessed with China for much of his career as playwright, polemicist, novelist, and reformer. In the previous issue of Early Modern Times, we saw how Jesuit missionaries under the leadership of Matteo Ricci and his successors sought to convince the Chinese elite of the compatibility of Christianity and classical Confucianism. Although Voltaire heavily relied on Jesuit accounts of China and translation of Chinese classics, often aping Jesuit praise of Confucian ethics and politics, he used them as salvos against the Jesuits themselves. In other words, if Confucian China was as morally and politically exemplary as the Jesuits presented it, then this could be used as evidence of the deficiencies of Christianity. For Voltaire, that the Jesuits were expelled from China in 1724 just showed that for all of their Catho-arse-licking of the emperor and scholar-officials, the mission was a failure and forced them to Catho-lick their stigmatic wounds.
Instead of trying to bridge Confucianism and Christianity, he sought to deploy the former against the latter. By placing China and other Asian civilisations such as India’s at the beginning of his world history, he wanted to undermine the Biblical chronology based on scripture, showing how China predated the Hebrews and even the supposed Flood. Moreover, the ‘perfection’ of Chinese ethics and government for some four thousand years was a rebuke to providentialist accounts which traced God’s hand working through Christian history: the assuredly non-Judeo-Christian religious and moral foundations of China undermined claims of divine intervention in human affairs. Christian scripture and theology are only ‘holy’ in the sense of being ‘full of holes’; Voltaire was on a mission to put ‘dents’ in ‘providence’.
Furthermore, his presentations of Chinese morality and religion were unsubtle assaults on the Church. Confucianism, which teaches a salutary ethics based on paternal virtue and brotherhood, is free of the superstition and fanaticism plaguing Christian Europe in Voltaire’s time. The Chinese administration has wisely tolerated such false sects as Daoism and Buddhism–the latter a stand-in for Christianity in his polemic–as long as they have not disrupted public peace. Early modern Christianity, especially in its intolerant Catholic forms, could not be tolerated on such grounds. But unlike Bayle, who influenced Voltaire’s work in key ways, the latter argued that the Chinese literati were not virtuous atheists but deists, espousing a rational worship of a single divine lawgiver and creator without the trappings of superstitious fables and rites. The example of Chinese deism just shows the inanity of Christianity.
Of course, this idealised portrait of China reflects Voltaire’s projection of his own deistic, anticlerical, and reformist ideals on a country he never visited. Moreover, while praising Confucian ethics and politics to the skies, he denigrated what he perceived as China’s cultural stagnancy and backwardness in the arts and sciences–thus echoing critics of China in his time and afterwards who regarded Asia as unprogressive and static compared to the supposed rationality and dynamism of Europe. In sum, Voltaire’s praise of China was instrumental and self-serving, a way for the philosophe to Vol-tear down his enemies.
Early Modern Times will return in January. Have a safe and happy holiday!
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