Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


§ I.

We have frequently observed elsewhere, how rash and injudicious it is to controvert with any nation, such as the Chinese, its authentic pretensions. There is no house in Europe, the antiquity of which is so well proved as that of the Empire of China. Let us figure to ourselves a learned Maronite of Mount Athos questioning the nobility of the Morozini, the Tiepolo, and other ancient houses of Venice; of the princes of Germany, of the Montmorencys, the Chatillons, or the Talleyrands, of France, under the pretence that they are not mentioned in St. Thomas, or St. Bonaventure. We must impeach either his sense or his sincerity.

Many of the learned of our northern climes have felt confounded at the antiquity claimed by the Chinese. The question, however, is not one of learning. Leaving all the Chinese literati, all the mandarins, all the emperors, to acknowledge Fo-hi as one of the first who gave laws to China, about two thousand five hundred years before our vulgar era; admit that there must be people before there are kings. Allow that a long period of time is necessary before a numerous people, having discovered the necessary arts of life, unite in the choice of a common governor. But if you do not make these admissions, it is not of the slightest consequence. Whether you agree with us or not, we shall always believe that two and two make four.

In a western province, formerly called Celtica, the love of singularity and paradox has been carried so far as to induce some to assert that the Chinese were only an Egyptian, or rather perhaps a Phœnician colony. It was attempted to prove, in the same way as a thousand other things have been proved, that a king of Egypt, called Menes by the Greeks, was the Chinese King Yu; and that Atoes was Ki, by the change of certain letters. In addition to which, the following is a specimen of the reasoning applied to the subject:

The Egyptians sometimes lighted torches at night. The Chinese light lanterns: the Chinese are, therefore, evidently a colony from Egypt. The Jesuit Parennin who had, at the time, resided five and twenty years in China, and was master both of its language and its sciences, has rejected all these fancies with a happy mixture of elegance and sarcasm. All the missionaries, and all the Chinese, on receiving the intelligence that a country in the extremity of the west was developing a new formation of the Chinese Empire, treated it with a contemptuous ridicule. Father Parennin replied with somewhat more seriousness: “Your Egyptians,” said he, “when going to people China, must evidently have passed through India.” Was India at that time peopled or not? If it was, would it permit a foreign army to pass through it? If it was not, would not the Egyptians have stopped in India? Would they have continued their journey through barren deserts, and over almost impracticable mountains, till they reached China, in order to form colonies there, when they might so easily have established them on the fertile banks of the Indus or the Ganges?

The compilers of a universal history, printed in England, have also shown a disposition to divest the Chinese of their antiquity, because the Jesuits were the first who made the world acquainted with China. This is unquestionably a very satisfactory reason for saying to a whole nation —“You are liars.”

It appears to me a very important reflection, which may be made on the testimony given by Confucius, to the antiquity of his nation; and which is, that Confucius had no interest in falsehood: he did not pretend to be a prophet; he claimed no inspiration; he taught no new religion; he used no delusions; flattered not the emperor under whom he lived: he did not even mention him. In short, he is the only founder of institutions among mankind who was not followed by a train of women.

I knew a philosopher who had no other portrait than that of Confucius in his study. At the bottom of it were written the following lines:

Without assumption he explored the mind,

Unveiled the light of reason to mankind;

Spoke as a sage, and never as a seer,

Yet, strange to say, his country held him dear.

I have read his books with attention; I have made extracts from them; I have found in them nothing but the purest morality, without the slightest tinge of charlatanism. He lived six hundred years before our vulgar era. His works were commented on by the most learned men of the nation. If he had falsified, if he had introduced a false chronology, if he had written of emperors who never existed, would not some one have been found, in a learned nation, who would have reformed his chronology? One Chinese only has chosen to contradict him, and he met with universal execration.

Were it worth our while, we might here compare the great wall of China with the monuments of other nations, which have never even approached it; and remark, that, in comparison with this extensive work, the pyramids of Egypt are only puerile and useless masses. We might dwell on the thirty-two eclipses calculated in the ancient chronology of China, twenty-eight of which have been verified by the mathematicians of Europe. We might show, that the respect entertained by the Chinese for their ancestors is an evidence that such ancestors have existed; and repeat the observation, so often made, that this reverential respect has in so small degree impeded, among this people, the progress of natural philosophy, geometry, and astronomy.

It is sufficiently known, that they are, at the present day, what we all were three hundred years ago, very ignorant reasoners. The most learned Chinese is like one of the learned of Europe in the fifteenth century, in possession of his Aristotle. But it is possible to be a very bad natural philosopher, and at the same time an excellent moralist. It is, in fact, in morality, in political economy, in agriculture, in the necessary arts of life, that the Chinese have made such advances towards perfection. All the rest they have been taught by us: in these we might well submit to become their disciples.

Of the Expulsion of the Missionaries from China.

Humanly speaking, independently of the service which the Jesuits might confer on the Christian religion, are they not to be regarded as an ill-fated class of men, in having travelled from so remote a distance to introduce trouble and discord into one of the most extended and best-governed kingdoms of the world? And does not their conduct involve a dreadful abuse of the liberality and indulgence shown by the Orientals, more particularly after the torrents of blood shed, through their means, in the empire of Japan? A scene of horror, to prevent the consequence of which the government believed it absolutely indispensable to shut their ports against all foreigners.

The Jesuits had obtained permission of the emperor of China, Cam-hi, to teach the Catholic religion. They made use of it, to instil into the small portion of the people under their direction, that it was incumbent on them to serve no other master than him who was the vicegerent of God on earth, and who dwelt in Italy on the banks of a small river called the Tiber; that every other religious opinion, every other worship, was an abomination in the sight of God, and whoever did not believe the Jesuits would be punished by Him to all eternity; that their emperor and benefactor, Cam-hi, who could not even pronounce the name of Christ, as the Chinese language possesses not the letter “r,” would suffer eternal damnation; that the Emperor Youtchin would experience, without mercy, the same fate; that all the ancestors, both of Chinese and Tartars, would incur a similar penalty; that their descendants would undergo it also, as well as the rest of the world; and that the reverend fathers, the Jesuits, felt a sincere and paternal commiseration for the damnation of so many souls.

They, at length, succeeded in making converts of three princes of the Tartar race. In the meantime, the Emperor Cam-hi died, towards the close of the year 1722. He bequeathed the empire to his fourth son, who has been so celebrated through the whole world for the justice and the wisdom of his government, for the affection entertained for him by his subjects, and for the expulsion of the Jesuits.

They began by baptizing the three princes, and many persons of their household. These neophytes had the misfortune to displease the emperor on some points which merely respected military duty. About this very period the indignation of the whole empire against the missionaries broke out into a flame. All the governors of provinces, all the Colaos, presented memorials against them. The accusations against them were urged so far that the three princes, who had become disciples of the Jesuits, were put into irons.

It is clear that they were not treated with this severity simply for having been baptized, since the Jesuits themselves acknowledge in their letters, that they experienced no violence, and that they were even admitted to an audience of the emperor, who honored them with some presents. It is evident, therefore, that the Emperor Youtchin was no persecutor; and, if the princes were confined in a prison on the borders of Tartary, while those who had converted them were treated so liberally, it is a decided proof that they were state prisoners, and not martyrs.

The emperor, soon after this, yielded to the supplications of all his people. They petitioned that the Jesuits might be sent away, as their abolition has been since prayed for in France and other countries. All the tribunals of China urged their being immediately sent to Macao, which is considered as a place without the limits of the empire, and the possession of which has always been left to the Portuguese, with a Chinese garrison.

Youtchin had the humanity to consult the tribunals and governors, whether any danger could result from conveying all the Jesuits to the province of Canton. While awaiting the reply, he ordered three of them to be introduced to his presence, and addressed them in the following words, which Father Parennin, with great ingenuousness, records: “Your Europeans, in the province of Fo-Kien, intended to abolish our laws, and disturbed our people. The tribunals have denounced them before me. It is my positive duty to provide against such disorders: the good of the empire requires it. . . . . What would you say were I to send over to your country a company of bonzes and lamas to preach their law? How would you receive them? . . . . If you deceived my father, hope not also to deceive me. . . . . You wish to make the Chinese Christians: your law, I well know, requires this of you. But in case you should succeed, what should we become? the subjects of your kings. Christians believe none but you: in a time of confusion they would listen to no voice but yours. I know that, at present, there is nothing to fear; but on the arrival of a thousand, or perhaps ten thousand vessels, great disturbances might ensue.

“China, on the north, joins the kingdom of Russia, which is by no means contemptible; to the south it has the Europeans, and their kingdoms, which are still more considerable; and to the west, the princes of Tartary, with whom we have been at war eight years. . . . . Laurence Lange, companion of Prince Ismailoff, ambassador from the czar, requested that the Russians might have permission to establish factories in each of the provinces. The permission was confined to Pekin, and within the limits of Calcas. In like manner I permit you to remain here and at Canton as long as you avoid giving any cause of complaint. Should you give any, I will not suffer you to remain either here or at Canton.”

In the other provinces their houses and churches were levelled to the ground. At length the clamor against them redoubled. The charges most strenuously insisted upon against them were, that they weakened the respect of children for their parents, by not paying the honors due to ancestors; that they indecently brought together young men and women in retired places, which they called churches; that they made girls kneel before them, and enclosed them with their legs, and conversed with them, while in this posture, in undertones. To Chinese delicacy, nothing appeared more revolting than this. Their emperor, Youtchin, even condescended to inform the Jesuits of this fact; after which he sent away the greater part of the missionaries to Macao, but with all that polite attention which perhaps the Chinese alone are capable of displaying.

Some Jesuits, possessed of mathematical science, were retained at Pekin; and among others, that same Parennin whom we have mentioned; and who, being a perfect master both of the Chinese and of the Tartar language, had been frequently employed as an interpreter. Many of the Jesuits concealed themselves in the distant provinces; others even in Canton itself; and the affair was connived at.

At length, after the death of the Emperor Youtchin, his son and successor, Kien-Lung, completed the satisfaction of the nation by compelling all the missionaries who were in concealment throughout his empire to remove to Macao: a solemn edict prevented them from ever returning. If any appear, they are civilly requested to carry their talents somewhere else. There is nothing of severity, nothing of persecution. I have been told that, in 1760, a Jesuit having gone from Rome to Canton, and been informed against by a Dutch factor, the Colao governor of Canton had him sent away, presenting him at the same time with a piece of silk, some provisions, and money.

Of the pretended Atheism of China.

The charge of Atheism, alleged by our theologians of the west, against the Chinese government at the other end of the world, has been frequently examined, and is, it must be admitted, the meanest excess of our follies and pedantic inconsistencies. It was sometimes pretended, in one of our learned faculties, that the Chinese tribunals or parliaments were idolatrous; sometimes that they acknowledged no divinity whatever: and these reasoners occasionally pushed their logic so far as to maintain that the Chinese were, at the same time, atheists and idolaters.

In the month of October, 1700, the Sorbonne declared every proposition which maintained that the emperor and the Colaos believed in God to be heretical. Bulky volumes were composed in order to demonstrate, conformably to the system of theological demonstration, that the Chinese adored nothing but the material heaven.

Nil praeter nubes et coeli numen adorant.

They worship clouds and firmament alone.

But if they did adore the material heaven, that was their God. They resembled the Persians, who are said to have adored the sun: they resembled the ancient Arabians, who adored the stars: they were neither worshippers of idols nor atheists. But a learned doctor, when it is an object to denounce from his tripod any proposition as heretical or obnoxious, does not distinguish with much clearness.

Those contemptible creatures who, in 1700, created such a disturbance about the material heaven of the Chinese, did not know that, in 1689, the Chinese, having made peace with the Russians at Nicptchou, which divides the two empires, erected, in September of the same year, a marble monument, on which the following memorable words were engraved in the Chinese and Latin languages:

“Should any ever determine to rekindle the flames of war, we pray the sovereign reign of all things, who knows the heart, to punish their perfidy,” etc.

A very small portion of modern history is sufficient to put an end to these ridiculous disputes: but those who believe that the duty of man consists in writing commentaries on St. Thomas, or Scotus, cannot condescend to inform themselves of what is going on among the great empires of the world.

§ II.

We travel to China to obtain clay for porcelain, as if we had none ourselves; stuffs, as if we were destitute of stuffs; and a small herb to be infused in water, as if we had no simples in our own countries. In return for these benefits, we are desirous of converting the Chinese. It is a very commendable zeal; but we must avoid controverting their antiquity, and also calling them idolaters. Should we think it well of a capuchin, if, after having been hospitably entertained at the château of the Montmorencys, he endeavored to persuade them that they were new nobility, like the king’s secretaries; or accused them of idolatry, because he found two or three statues of constables, for whom they cherished the most profound respect?

The celebrated Wolf, professor of mathematics in the university of Halle, once delivered an excellent discourse in praise of the Chinese philosophy. He praised that ancient species of the human race, differing, as it does, in respect to the beard, the eyes, the nose, the ears, and even the reasoning powers themselves; he praised the Chinese, I say, for their adoration of a supreme God, and their love of virtue. He did that justice to the emperors of China, to the tribunals, and to the literati. The justice done to the bonzes was of a different kind.

It is necessary to observe, that this Professor Wolf had attracted around him a thousand pupils of all nations. In the same university there was also a professor of theology, who attracted no one. This man, maddened at the thought of freezing to death in his own deserted hall, formed the design, which undoubtedly was only right and reasonable, of destroying the mathematical professor. He scrupled not, according to the practice of persons like himself, to accuse him of not believing in God.

Some European writers, who had never been in China, had pretended that the government of Pekin was atheistical. Wolf had praised the philosophers of Pekin; therefore Wolf was an atheist. Envy and hatred seldom construct the best syllogisms. This argument of Lange, supported by a party and by a protector, was considered conclusive by the sovereign of the country, who despatched a formal dilemma to the mathematician. This dilemma gave him the option of quitting Halle in twenty-four hours, or of being hanged; and as Wolf was a very accurate reasoner, he did not fail to quit. His withdrawing deprived the king of two or three hundred thousand crowns a year, which were brought into the kingdom in consequence of the wealth of this philosopher’s disciples.

This case should convince sovereigns that they should not be over ready to listen to calumny, and sacrifice a great man to the madness of a fool. But let us return to China.

Why should we concern ourselves, we who live at the extremity of the west — why should we dispute with abuse and fury, whether there were fourteen princes or not before Fo-hi, emperor of China, and whether the said Fo-hi lived three thousand, or two thousand nine hundred years before our vulgar era? I should like to see two Irishmen quarrelling at Dublin, about who was the owner, in the twelfth century, of the estate I am now in possession of. Is it not clear, that they should refer to me, who possess the documents and titles relating to it? To my mind, the case is the same with respect to the first emperors of China, and the tribunals of that country are the proper resort upon the subject.

Dispute as long as you please about the fourteen princes who reigned before Fo-hi, your very interesting dispute cannot possibly fail to prove that China was at that period populous, and that laws were in force there. I now ask you, whether a people’s being collected together, under laws and kings, involves not the idea of very considerable antiquity? Reflect how long a time is requisite, before by a singular concurrence of circumstances, the iron is discovered in the mine, before it is applied to purposes of agriculture, before the invention of the shuttle, and all the arts of life.

Some who multiply mankind by a dash of the pen, have produced very curious calculations. The Jesuit Petau, by a very singular computation, gives the world, two hundred and twenty-five years after the deluge, one hundred times as many inhabitants as can be easily conceived to exist on it at present. The Cumberlands and Whistons have formed calculations equally ridiculous; had these worthies only consulted the registers of our colonies in America, they would have been perfectly astonished, and would have perceived not only how slowly mankind increase in number, but that frequently instead of increasing they actually diminish.

Let us then, who are merely of yesterday, descendants of the Celts, who have only just finished clearing the forests of our savage territories, suffer the Chinese and Indians to enjoy in peace their fine climate and their antiquity. Let us, especially, cease calling the emperor of China, and the souba of the Deccan, idolaters. There is no necessity for being a zealot in estimating Chinese merit. The constitution of their empire is the only one entirely established upon paternal authority; the only one in which the governor of a province is punished, if, on quitting his station, he does not receive the acclamations of the people; the only one which has instituted rewards for virtue, while, everywhere else, the sole object of the laws is the punishment of crime; the only one which has caused its laws to be adopted by its conquerors, while we are still subject to the customs of the Burgundians, the Franks, and the Goths, by whom we were conquered. Yet, we must confess, that the common people, guided by the bonzes, are equally knavish with our own; that everything is sold enormously dear to foreigners, as among ourselves; that, with respect to the sciences, the Chinese are just where we were two hundred years ago; that, like us, they labor under a thousand ridiculous prejudices; and that they believe in talismans and judicial astrology, as we long did ourselves.

We must admit also, that they were astonished at our thermometer, at our method of freezing fluids by means of saltpetre, and at all the experiments of Torricelli and Otto von Guericke; as we were also, on seeing for the first time those curious processes. We add, that their physicians do not cure mortal diseases any more than our own; and that minor diseases, both here and in China, are cured by nature alone. All this, however, does not interfere with the fact, that the Chinese, for four thousand years, when we were unable even to read, knew everything essentially useful of which we boast at the present day.

I must again repeat, the religion of their learned is admirable, and free from superstitions, from absurd legends, from dogmas insulting both to reason and nature, to which the bonzes give a thousand different meanings, because they really often have none. The most simple worship has appeared to them the best, for a series of forty centuries. They are, what we conceive Seth, Enoch, and Noah to have been; they are contented to adore one God in communion with the sages of the world, while Europe is divided between Thomas and Bonaventure, between Calvin and Luther, between Jansenius and Molina.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01