European and Chinese Cross Cultural Encounters: 17th Century

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The encounter between Chinese and European cultures in the 17th century highlighted the idea held by many in European culture that they were superior to the Chinese in matters of science, as well as society and religion. I will use two sources to support my argument. One is Louis Le Comte’s letter to Lord Philipeaux of France from 1697. Le Comte was a French Jesuit missionary who traveled to China in order to spread Christianity. His letter entailed observations and memoirs that covered how the Chinese approached scientific subjects, and what their scientific culture was like. The information in the letter gives us a clear look into what the French thought about the Chinese, which was also an idea that was held by many in Europe. The other source that I will use is the Chinese World Map of 1602, which was made by Matteo Ricci, Li Zhizao and Zhang Wentao, along with the translations from Ricci in its captions. These translations further demonstrate the European thought that they were superior to the Chinese in many aspects. In my essay I will analyze the European thought that they were superior to the Chinese, specifically in the sciences of astronomy, astrology, medicine, and geography.

Before we get into the scientific subjects, and the culture which defines them, we need an understanding of how the Europeans perceived the Chinese. To do this we need to examine Le Comte’s letter. This will help us understand the rhetoric and argumentative tools that he uses to make the country of France appear understanding, while making the Chinese look arrogant. The irony of this letter is that, by criticizing the Chinese for being arrogant and rude, Le Comte is actually the one being arrogant and rude. Le Comte is blind to this matter because he does not believe that his country is flawed. An example of this is when Le Comte starts his letter by giving the Chinese credit for instilling “wit” in the people of Siam. After making an attempt to seem like he respects the Chinese he goes on to insult them by saying that the Chinese believe that the “People of the East” are “blind” and that they believe themselves to be “the most intelligent Nation in the World.1 What Le Comte meant by this is that the Chinese viewed the Europeans as unknowing and in the dark. This view lacks credibility, for though the Chinese were an advanced culture and some Chinese philosophers or academics might have thought themselves superior to the Europeans, the Europeans definitely thought they were superior to the Chinese. By saying that the Chinese thought themselves superior he attempts to discredit them. This feeling of superiority is a moral superiority which stems from the belief that the French, Italians, and other Europeans held. The idea is that they held themselves to higher moral standards like politeness.

The underlying component of the superiority complex that flowed through European nations was religion. Christianity was the major belief system and it shaped the way the natural world was thought of. The way science was conducted and thought of was especially shaped by Christian beliefs. They believed in one God and that this God controlled everything. They also believed that the way the natural world worked was because of God. This was contrary to what the Chinese thought. They believed in multiple beings and that there was energy called Qi that altered events in the natural world. This was looked down upon by European scholars, especially by the Jesuits and they set out to change the Chinese beliefs because they found them inadequate. This idea that the French were more advanced is evident in Le Comte’s reflection on Chinese astronomy. According to Le Comte, “that never did People in the World addict themselves so constantly to it.” He says that the Chinese used this science to make an abundance of observations but that the Chinese were vague in their notes and observations that they could not possibly maximize the benefits of these...
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