European perspectives on China: a prescriptive turn

From Firenze University Press Journal: Diciottesimo Secolo

University of Florence
6 min readJan 24, 2023

Guido Abbattista, Università di Trieste

In his 1969 book To Change China. Western Advisers in China, Jonathan Spence argued that the idea of ‘change’ — naturally referring to particular moments and aspects of Chinese history — has oft en inspired Western action towards China1. He advanced his argument by considering individuals who he felt played an important role in this sense and who could be considered examples of the European push for ‘change’, for ‘changing’ China. He started with the Jesuit missionary Adam Schall von Bell, active in China from 1618 to 1666, continued with Peter Parker, an American evangelical missionary, doctor and diplomat in China from 1834 to 1857, and then moved on to other figures such as the American adventurer Frederick Townsend Wardat the time of the Taiping revolt, Charles George ‘Chinese’ Gordon, the British officer later known as ‘Gordon pasha’, protagonist of the Second Opium War, and Robert Hart, who would become head of the imperial customs service. These were all figures who in various ways had profoundly influenced events in the late Qing period in China, helping to change its course. However, for Westerners who have had to deal with China in the modern era, what more specifically could ‘changing’ this immense country have entailed, what might this goal of change have variously consisted of, and what kind of mental and practical attitude was required to set such an ambitious goal? And above all, in the history of relations between Europe and China, when and how can one discern a drive in the will of the former to induce changes in the latter? We believe that by applying Spence’s perspective to the re-reading of various Western testimonies, especially those from the eighteenth century and at the turn of the nineteenth century, these questions can help clarify the evolution of how Europe has seen Chi-na, focusing on the problem of the relationship between China and the Western vision of modernity, time and history.


That the Catholic missionaries intended to change China profoundly is quite obvious. That their Protestant emulators, when they went into action in the early 1800s, wanted to do the same, with even greater determination, is beyond dispute. They wanted to bring China into the realm of world Christianity, defeating paganism and ousting Buddhism, the doctrines of Lao Tze, and at most tolerating aspects of Confucianism. They differed, the former also among themselves, and the latter in terms of methods, also because of the differ-ent periods and historical circumstances in which they found themselves operating. The Catholics had either no or very limited freedom of movement in the country, while the Jesuits were focused on dialogue with the top mandarin class from the end of the sixteenth century onwards. By contrast, from the early nineteenth cen-tury the Protestants, both British and American, had a much greater possibility of social and territorial inter-action with the Chinese reality and much more intense and diversified forms of enterprise in different sectors of social and cultural life. The fact that the primary desire to convert the Chinese was the driving force behind all activities in both communities and the inspiration for all their initiatives in areas that were not strictly religious — scientific, cultural, technical, medical, welfare — is clear. No matter how many important intellectual contributions they may have made to the knowledge and understanding of Chinese civilisation, stimulating attitudes of respect or even admiration for China, their fundamental aim remained that of changing one of its most impor-tant aspects, that is, its beliefs, rituals and religious life, trying to convince the Mandarin elite of the monothe-istic potential of Confucianism and to undermine idola-trous religion and magic cults. What constituted a real design for radical change, even more daring and long term, was the «empresa de China», that is the Spanish plans for military conquest from Mexico or the Philippines, which, not surprisingly, involved enterprising Jesuits in the 1580s, such as Alonso Sánchez. Had they been successful, a great change for China would most probably have followed, and the Chinese would most likely not have been able to do with the Spaniards what they had done with the Mongols and later with the Manchus, that is to keep their institutions and their social and cultural foundations substantially unchanged. However, the plans for conquest were not followed through and China never knew, not even in the ‘century of humiliation’, a European territorial domina-tion of a properly colonial type, with the partial exception of Hong Kong and some extraterritorial urban areas.From the mid-seventeenth to the mid-eighteenth century, relations between Europe and China offered no possibility for Westerners to bring about any change in the Chinese reality. Furthermore, with the Russian and Dutch embassies having been sent to Beijing during that period, they could only obtain some temporary relaxa-tion of the regulations for trade relations, compared to the consolidated practices of tributary relations between the Middle Kingdom and foreign ‘barbarians’. The mis-sionaries, divided among themselves and with Rome over the question of Chinese rites, achieved swinging progress, and conversions concerned only a very limited proportion of the Chinese population until the formal banning of Christianity in 1724. The possibility of exerting any influence on the court in Peking, while theoretically feasible given that the Jesuits were in Peking as advisors to the emperor, was limited to secondary practical aspects such as astronomy, painting, architecture and cartography. The goal of exerting even limited changes in both trade and diplomatic relations with China naturally continued to inspire the few unsuccessful European initiatives during the eighteenth century. The well-known Macartney mission (1792–1794) aimed to establish rela-tions with China that were different from the traditional ones and that were based on European concepts such as the stability and residency of diplomatic representation and the regulated freedom of trade, aligning the two countries on a level of mutual recognition. Of course, what Britain wanted by way of a diplomatic agreement would have been a significant departure from centuries of Chinese relative closure to the West, if not to other Asian countries. It would also have entailed the Chi-nese abandoning established practices, moreover at the high cost of opening their doors to Western foreigners whose naval and military strength was feared and who had been importing Indian opium on a massive scale for the last twenty years6. In fact, Macartney’s mission com-pletely missed its mark, as did the subsequent ones by William Amherst (1816–1817) and William Napier (1833–1834), as well as the Dutch one by Isaac Titsingh (1794–1796) and the Russian one by Timkovski (1820–1821). No change came about through negotiation, even in the limited sphere of trade and diplomatic relations, let alone in spheres that would involve China opening itself up to a more widespread and pervasive Western cultural influence. This, however, did not mean that Europe, and Great Britain in particular, did not persist in trying to obtain a change aimed — in short — at getting China to accept, by hook or by crook, full adherence to what was officially described as a recognised system of interna-tional economic and political relations. Indeed, it mattered little if afterwards, when the facts came to light, China’s forced entry into this system did not take place through recognition, equal dignity, exchange and reciprocity. China was forced to change, a change that certainly could not be seen as a voluntary participation in the global world of a Montesquieiuan ‘doux commerce’, regulated by the «gentle civiliser of nations», but rather as subservience, limited sovereignty and economic and financial subjugation.


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