Scholarship has explored to a certain extent how the Western representation of China changed between the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, until the eve of the Anglo-Chinese War of 1840-1842. The period 1780-1840 has been identified as a meaningful chronological unit for understanding the changes that occurred in ideas, languages and culture in relation to major economic and political transformations in Europe. This may also apply to how European culture understood and interpreted Chinese situation during a period of time when Sino-European (mostly British) relations changed in a dramatic way. The commercial and the missionary discourses have been pointed out as major expressions of such a change, in terms of the dismissal of the Jesuit admiration for Chinese civilization and in general of Enlightenment Sinophile attitudes, as well as the emergence of a predominant Sinophobic attitude among ever more aggressive Westerners, disappointed by the failure of successive efforts for a diplomatic entente with Qing China. This essay, by analysing eighteenth-century literature on Asian commerce and early-nineteenth century British periodicals published in Canton and other mainly British publications on China and Chinese affairs, intends to put forward two points. It suggests, first, the necessity to go beyond a simple opposition between Sinophilia and Sinophobia and to grasp what is here described as a ‘prescriptive turn’ in Western discourses (both mercantile and missionary) on China, which, drawing upon various forms of printed communication, offered interpretations of Chinese contemporary society and institutions clearly inclining toward an aggressive and interventionist policy. It is also suggested that the emergence of such an attitude, as expressed by both the mercantile and the missionary discourses, did not imply a complete departure from Enlightenment ideas, but rather it was the logical development of the commercial, Eurocentric, modernizing and hierarchical view of world history which characterized a fundamental trend of Enlightenment culture defined here as the ‘commercial Enlightenment’. From this standpoint, the idea of ‘useful knowledge’ and the ideology of civil liberties, free trade and commerce provided the conceptual tools for a reform program addressing the East India Company and ancien régimes of Qing China, from a civilizational and modernizing perspective which united private merchants and Protestant missionaries, thus preparing the ideological ground for the so-called “First Opium War”.

Europe, China and the ‘Family of Nations’: Paradoxes of the ‘Commercial’ Enlightenment during the Sattelzeit (1780-1840)

ABBATTISTA, GUIDO
2015

Abstract

Scholarship has explored to a certain extent how the Western representation of China changed between the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century, until the eve of the Anglo-Chinese War of 1840-1842. The period 1780-1840 has been identified as a meaningful chronological unit for understanding the changes that occurred in ideas, languages and culture in relation to major economic and political transformations in Europe. This may also apply to how European culture understood and interpreted Chinese situation during a period of time when Sino-European (mostly British) relations changed in a dramatic way. The commercial and the missionary discourses have been pointed out as major expressions of such a change, in terms of the dismissal of the Jesuit admiration for Chinese civilization and in general of Enlightenment Sinophile attitudes, as well as the emergence of a predominant Sinophobic attitude among ever more aggressive Westerners, disappointed by the failure of successive efforts for a diplomatic entente with Qing China. This essay, by analysing eighteenth-century literature on Asian commerce and early-nineteenth century British periodicals published in Canton and other mainly British publications on China and Chinese affairs, intends to put forward two points. It suggests, first, the necessity to go beyond a simple opposition between Sinophilia and Sinophobia and to grasp what is here described as a ‘prescriptive turn’ in Western discourses (both mercantile and missionary) on China, which, drawing upon various forms of printed communication, offered interpretations of Chinese contemporary society and institutions clearly inclining toward an aggressive and interventionist policy. It is also suggested that the emergence of such an attitude, as expressed by both the mercantile and the missionary discourses, did not imply a complete departure from Enlightenment ideas, but rather it was the logical development of the commercial, Eurocentric, modernizing and hierarchical view of world history which characterized a fundamental trend of Enlightenment culture defined here as the ‘commercial Enlightenment’. From this standpoint, the idea of ‘useful knowledge’ and the ideology of civil liberties, free trade and commerce provided the conceptual tools for a reform program addressing the East India Company and ancien régimes of Qing China, from a civilizational and modernizing perspective which united private merchants and Protestant missionaries, thus preparing the ideological ground for the so-called “First Opium War”.
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Utilizza questo identificativo per citare o creare un link a questo documento: http://hdl.handle.net/11368/2844907
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