China between the Ancients and the Moderns

By Min, Eun Kyung | Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

China between the Ancients and the Moderns


Min, Eun Kyung, Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation


Historians of the seventeenth-century "Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns" have recently shown how, from the beginning, it was not limited to questions of literary value but was tied up with changing notions of progressive history, historiography, philology, humanism, science, and reading culture.1 One line of inquiry that has been surprisingly neglected, however, is the role that Asia played in this debate about modern European identity. Although many have observed that the discovery of new lands coincided with the philological re-discovery of antiquity, there has been yet no comprehensive attempt to relate "the fissure . . . between imitation and scholarship, rhetoric and philology, literature and history" set in motion by the quarrel to the contemporaneous opening up of worlds beyond Europe.2 Following John Elliott's lead in The Old World and the New, scholars have indeed remained skeptical of the real impact of other cultures on European thought through the seventeenth century.3 If, however, the new worlds in Asia, Africa, and America initially made little difference to Europeans because they were rapidly "assimilated" to tradition and written into Christian genealogical narratives about "heathen antiquity," such assimilation became increasingly difficult as the century wore on.4

It is the aim of this paper to show that the quarrel between the ancients and the modern usually discussed within the parameters of European tradition was as much about the historical significance of other civilizations. The English quarrel between William Temple and William Wotton, in particular, was to a significant degree a quarrel about the relative cultural achievements of China as an extension of the debate on "ancient" and "modern" civilizations. The paper proposes that, in a strong sense, the seventeenth-century debate about China produced the quarrel-i.e., that the numerous published bulletins and reports on China that captured the imagination of seventeenth-century Europe contributed to the historiographical crisis that goes by the name of the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns.5

In a seminal essay on the importance of China to the European understanding of history, Edwin J. Van Kley suggests that "Perhaps the most serious challenge to the traditional scheme of world history and the factor most instrumental in changing that scheme was the 'discovery' of ancient Chinese history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries."6 World history-or "universal history"-as traditionally understood was derived from the Bible, covered the ancient Near East, Greece, Rome, and Western Christendom, and began with creation. Ever since the Renaissance, however, this traditional understanding of world history had come under increasing challenge, as the rediscovery of classical texts led to new conceptions of pagan antiquity and its relationship to sacred Christian history. The dominant intellectual response to the challenge of pagan history was to accommodate new knowledge about the pagans within the structures of traditional history, but by the seventeenth century it was becoming increasingly difficult to square the information pouring in, not only about the world of western antiquity but also about the non-European world, with Christian doctrine.

Because traditional "universal history" was geographically limited, but chronologically universal, the chief problem posed by pagan history had to do less with remapping the geographical boundaries of the world than redrawing its temporal limits.7 The problem was that geographical expansion often seemed to lead to chronological expansion as well. The furor caused by Isaac Lapeyrère's 1655 Praeadamitae, which posited the existence of "pre-adamites" who peopled the world before the biblical Adam on the basis of the greater antiquity of the Chaldeans, the Mexicans, the Peruvians, and the Chinese, illustrates how conjectural prehistory based on pagan records could unsettle the very basis of orthodox Christian history centered on the historical and theological primacy of the Jews. …

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