The Wisdom of the East: Enlightenment Perspectives on China

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History book series (CIH)


Unlike the Islamic Near East, which had been known to the West for centuries, China constituted a “new world” for early modern Europe, which had been only dimly aware of its existence before the sixteenth-century voyages of exploration. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, China came to be admired by many Westerners in a way that the Islamic world never was. Respected for its great antiquity, the stability of its institutions and customs, and the urbane wisdom and tolerance of its ruling elite, China was embraced as a model of “enlightened despotism,” which some philosophes saw as the solution to the chronic instability and conflict of their own societies, and the Chinese mandarin became one of the favored stock characters for Enlightenment authors seeking to criticize the European status quo. For Enlightenment Sinophiles, China represented a rationalist utopia, a place where meticulous organization and the refinement of manners ensured a harmonious and prosperous society.


Seventeenth Century Chinese Civilization Chinese Philosopher Ming Dynasty Great Antiquity 
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© David Allen Harvey 2012

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