Ancient History & Civilisation

The Age of the Philosophers


1. Estimates of the Chinese

THE intellectual discovery of China was one of the achievements of the Enlightenment. “These peoples,” Diderot wrote of the Chinese, “are superior to all other Asiatics in antiquity, art, intellect, wisdom, policy, and in their taste for philosophy; nay, in the judgment of certain authors, they dispute the palm in these matters with the most enlightened peoples of Europe.”1a “The body of this empire,” said Voltaire, “has existed four thousand years, without having undergone any sensible alteration in its laws, customs, language, or even in its fashions of apparel. . . . The organization of this empire is in truth the best that the world has ever seen.”2 This respect of scholars has survived closer acquaintance, and in some contemporary observers it has reached the pitch of humble admiration. Count Keyserling, in one of the most instructive and imaginative books of our time, concludes that

altogether the most perfect type of humanity as a normal phenomenon has been elaborated in ancient China . . . China has created the highest universal culture of being hitherto known . . . The greatness of China takes hold of and impresses me more and more . . . The great men of this country stand on a higher level of culture than ours do; . . . these gentlemen* . . . stand on an extraordinarily high level as types; especially their superiority impresses me. . . . How perfect the courtesy of the cultured Chinaman! . . . China’s supremacy of form is unquestionable in all circumstances. . . . The Chinaman is perhaps the profoundest of all men.3

The Chinese do not trouble to deny this; and until the present century (there are now occasional exceptions) they were unanimous in regarding the inhabitants of Europe and America as barbarians.4 It was the gentle custom of the Chinese, in official documents before 1860, to employ the character for “barbarian” in rendering the term “foreigner”; and the barbarians had to stipulate by treaty that this translation should be improved.5* Like most other peoples of the earth, “the Chinese consider themselves the most polished and civilized of all nations.”7 Perhaps they are right, despite their political corruption and chaos, their backward science and sweated industry, their odorous cities and offal-strewn fields, their floods and famines, their apathy and cruelty, their poverty and superstition, their reckless breeding and suicidal wars, their slaughters and ignominious defeats. For behind this dark surface that now appears to the alien eye is one of the oldest and richest of living civilizations: a tradition of poetry reaching as far back as 1700 B.C.; a long record of philosophy idealistic and yet practical, profound and yet intelligible; a mastery of ceramics and painting unequaled in their kind; an easy perfection, rivaled only by the Japanese, in all the minor arts; the most effective morality to be found among the peoples of any time; a social organization that has held together more human beings, and has endured through more centuries, than any other known to history; a form of government which, until the Revolution destroyed it, was almost the ideal of philosophers; a society that was civilized when Greece was inhabited by barbarians, that saw the rise and fall of Babylonia and Assyria, Persia and Judea, Athens and Rome, Venice and Spain, and may yet survive when those Balkans called Europe have reverted to darkness and savagery. What is the secret of this durability of government, this artistry of hand, this poise and depth of soul?

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