When Europe wanted to be Chinese

IDCA - Chinese Shopping MallBefore the eighteenth century, Europeans had a fairly limited knowledge about what was going on in the far-east. Most of what they knew was based on rumours or hearsay from traders returning from the Silk Road; Chinese whispers if you will. But by the middle of the 1700s Europe was beginning to collect better and more accurate information about life in China, everything from Chinese goods and art to Chinese philosophy, Chinese design and even politics. This fascination with China in mid-eighteenth century Europe even has its own name in French when it comes to design: chinoiserie.
Jesuit missionaries, trained in many of the modern scientific techniques from the West began arriving in China in the seventeenth century and began to study everything they could find. They had come to save the souls of the non-Christian Chinese but were also sending back to France and Italy new examples of a completely different way of human existence. Even though by the mid-eighteenth century, Jesuits had lost much of their influence in China and in Europe, their books on the subject of what was happening in the Middle Kingdom were exciting the upper and middle classes of a rising Europe.
Luxury goods
Chinese luxury goods had always had a cache in the European mind set. However by the mid-eighteenth century European households had come to know better how Qing dynasty Chinese middle and upper classes were living and wanted to be just like them.
Europeans heard of the opulent Chinese villas decorated with porcelain vases, lacquer painted boxes, and jade trinkets precisely placed around the home for the purpose only of good fortune and beauty. Europe’s new but growing middle classes envied this lifestyle and wanted to fill their houses with these products. They thought ‘Why couldn’t we have a home that shows people how well we are doing in life?
Europeans found in Chinese designs an alternative to their geometrical precision of neoclassical architecture and the weight of baroque design. Chinese designs were now in vogue across the fashion capitals of Europe with new wallpapers and furnishings donning middle class homes, to pagodas in public parks, and the sedan chairs in which people were carried through the streets.[1]
Demand for Chinese luxury products surged to levels comparable to Chinese demand for European luxury goods today in a severe case of status anxiety brought on by their middle class neighbours having something they did not.
One other important feature of Chinese civilization Europe wanted to copy was its bureaucracy. China had centuries before Europe created what we would recognize as a modern state run by professional bureaucrats. The key difference between European states and the Chinese state was the method of hiring people to run it. In China the concept of examination for entrance into the bureaucracy was highly important because in Europe state officials were usually selected on favour by the ruler. European states would put the King’s idiot brother in charge or use these jobs to buy off lesser rivals to power.
China as far back as the Warring States period (463–222 BC) had in Max Weber’s words “administrative rationalisation” that resembled European states only in the modern era. By having a regulated examination it allowed for the recruitment of people into an organization based on their technical ability rather than their family connections or some other means of political patronage. By limiting the bureaucracy to persons able to meet a specific standard of ability, China was in effect developing the idea of rule by experts.
Until the eighteenth century, China was the most advanced administrative organization in the world. This move to a bureaucratic state only occurred in Europe due to the advancement of modern technology, modern science, and the Industrial Revolution.[2]  Because of the Chinese way of doing it, European countries began to change the way their bureaucracies recruited officials and based it on the Chinese model. To this day countries like the UK and France still have examinations for admittance as a state official. In the eighteenth century Europe had seen the wonder of the single, massive Chinese state and how it managed a continental empire and just copied it.
The final influence the China craze had on Europe in the mid-eighteenth century was in philosophy. For the first time an increasingly literate society was able to read about a society with completely different ideological foundations than its own. During the Age of Enlightenment, Europe was able to assess a wealthy, powerful, and sophisticated country like China who was neither basing its philosophy on the Greeks or on the Bible.
Between 1740 and 1760 the French philosopher Voltaire used information about the Chinese to make anti-clerical attacks on the power of the Catholic Church in European society. He argued that if the Chinese really were so moral, intelligent, ethical, and well governed, and if this was largely attributable to the influence of Confucius, it followed that since Confucius had not been a Christian it was obviously possible for a country to get along without the presence of Catholic clerical power.[3]
Another intellectual of the time was Adam Smith who found the case of China an immensely useful comparative study on population growth and employment where in concluded that "the poverty of the lower ranks of people in China far surpasses that of the most beggarly nations in Europe". Clearly not impressed by the Chinese, Smith went on to criticize China for not being dynamic enough economically and continuing to protect inefficient institutions, thereby making the case for the British model of industrialization that would take until 1978 for China to fully embrace.
Voltaire and Adam Smith were some but not all of the intellectuals and philosopher wrestling with the problems and questions the existence of China brought to the European mind-set. Hegel, Boulanger, Rousseau, and Montesquieu were all studying “the Orient” in an effort to better understand human existence in the absence of the things Europeans had known to be true for centuries like the God or their rudimentary sciences. China must have seemed like the closest thing to an alternate universe, and it brought with it an opportunity to re-evaluate the European way of thinking allowing for new ideas to emerge and take root.
In the mid-eighteenth century, Europeans loved China and were fascinated by it and admired it in the way many Chinese people admire and try to emulate the West today. Chinese governing practices, design, and philosophy had a profound impact on Europe in the eighteenth century. Europeans wanted to be more “Chinese”, they saw China as rich, powerful, and with an outstanding educational tradition. Europe copied and became stronger and when they returned to China in the nineteenth century Europeans were now richer, more powerful, and better educated than their great hero.
Despite the Chinese obsession with being more modern and arguably more Western, it was in fact the West at one point in history that was inspired by them and thought China to be the most modern nation on earth - because at that time they were.

[1] Spence, J. D. (1991) The Search for Modern China, New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, pp.134.
[2] Creel, H. G. (1970). The Origins of Statecraft in China – Volume One: The Western Chou Empire. Chicago, IL, USA: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 3-4.
[3] Spence, J. D. (1991) The Search for Modern China, New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, pp. 133.


 In-Depth-China      CSA-blog



  • Beijing

    China Study Abroad Ltd
    3610 Capital Mansions,
    6 Xinyuan Nan Road, Chaoyang
    Beijing, 100027
    Phone: (+86) 10 8468 3799 
  • London

    China Study Abroad Ltd
    154 Bishopsgate
    London EC2M 4LN
    United Kingdom
    Phone: (+44) 0207 377 84 
  • Hong Kong

    China Study Abroad Ltd
    Rm 604-7 Dominion Centre
    43-59 Queen’s Road East
    Hong Kong
    Phone: (+852) 800 968 924 


f-grey t-grey

Our Newsletter