European and Chinese Cross Cultural Encounters: 17th Century

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European and Chinese Cross Cultural Encounters: 17th Century

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 observations.

This way of thinking about science as a way to benefit a culture is a very European way of thinking, and Le Comte is using it as a way to view his culture as superior because the Chinese do not use astronomy in the same way as Europeans use it. An outright example of the superiority which the Europeans feel is seen when Le Comte calls the Chinese astronomical tables imperfect, and that, although it took a while the Chinese astronomers finally grasped “some skill in Our Astronomy. ”. He is making the assumption that the European approach to astronomy is the better than the Chinese approach.

The final comment he makes on this subject is how Chinese successes in making calendars should be attributed to the Europeans. 5 By saying the Europeans should be credited with the Chinese’ calendar production; he makes the Chinese look dependent on them as a source of income. This supposed reliance that Le Comte says the Chinese have on the Europeans makes the Europeans seem much more superior. The same idea of superiority is echoed by Le Comte in his remarks on Chinese astrology, which we will take a look at in this paragraph.

Le Comte is very negative in his view on the Chinese astrologers. He looks at them as having a “knack of Lying” and that they are being deceitful in saying, for example, that good days for building and marriages depend “upon the Influence of the Heavens”. The European explanation that he offers is that, rather than depending on the heavens, these things depend on the “Wisdom and Discretion of Men”. 4 This way of thinking is based off of Christianity. Their belief system would not support the idea that planetary motion, or celestial occurrences would influence things on Earth.

In their minds God was the source that controlled nature and that the planets that were way out in space could not possibly effect events on earth. This idea that God controls heaven and earth, as Matteo Ricci says in the translations of his World Map, was the thought that the Jesuits were trying to instill in the Chinese. The attempt to Christianize the Chinese would require the Chinese to abandon their current knowledge system. This explains why Le Comte is so harsh towards the Chinese by calling them liars.

What Le Comte is trying to do, by being extremely critical of the Chinese’ astrologers, is discredit the Chinese and attack their knowledge system by saying that it is flawed. This example shows how the Europeans thought that they were the more advanced culture, and it is also a good example of what lengths they would go to in order to instill their more perfect religion on the Chinese (My emphasis). Moving on to the science of medicine we see the same European idea that the Chinese were inferior.

Le Comte attributes the lack of advancement in Chinese medicine to the desire of the Chinese to be more advanced in physics, natural philosophy and anatomy. We can see here, that even when the Europeans acknowledge the Chinese for being advanced in some areas, they still find a way to put a negative spin on that acknowledgement. Even the Chinese’ most “famous” science is degraded by Le Comte. “Pulses”, which made the Chinese famous throughout the World, was thought of by Chinese physicians as the “Foundation of all Medicine.

”6 It is criticized by Le Comte because they did not use “reasoning and arguing” when practicing or learning this technique. 6 This “reasoning and arguing” that the Europeans believed was necessary for correct scientific practice came from the scientific method which they believed would allow them to learn subject matter and to conduct experiments. Since the Chinese did not use this method, the Europeans automatically thought that the Chinese method was inadequate and that their way was better.

This led to the criticism of Chinese methods, and, just as with astrology, the Europeans accused the Chinese of “pretending” to know what they were doing because the Chinese relied on tradition and practice rather than methodology and testing. Le Compte goes on about how the Chinese “play the Prophet” and how people should not trust them because they use trickery in order to get people to pay money for a cure to their ailment. 7 He also highlights a Chinese medical practice which he says is “unmerciful”.

The practice he is referring to is the application of a hot iron to the feet of people that are plagued with Colick which is a disease that causes “continual vomiting” and “Gripes”. The word that Le Compte uses to describe the practice is “unmerciful” and “violent”. He sees the Chinese as barbaric which would set himself, as a European, apart from the Chinese. Again, the European belief that they were greater than the Chinese is echoed in this description of medical practices.

The Europeans believed that the Chinese had a habit of lying and deceiving in order to make a quick profit for any form of medicine. This is especially evident when Le Compte comments on the way which people were allowed practice medicine without being certified. He goes as far as to say that the Chinese who practice medicine without certification care more about the money they receive from their patient, than if their patient dies. The idea that someone needed to be certified to practice medicine is very European.

The major problem that Le Comte seems to have with this way of thinking that the Chinese have is not that people are dying, but that the Chinese idea is different from Europe’s. Europeans believed themselves to be honest and caring about using medicine and medical practices to help people, which made them superior to the Chinese. This relates back to the moral superiority that they felt. Moving from medicine let’s take a look at geography and map making. During Matteo Ricci’s time in China he met Mr. Li Wo-ts’un, a studier of geography who made maps of the world.

Ricci brought a map, that he made, to him and Wo-ts’un became “deeply interested” in it. After seeing this map Wo-ts’un convinced himself that “the correspondence between celestial circles and the terrestrial degrees of latitude and longitude was based on an immutable law. ” For an entire year he made “painstaking calculations” but, according to Ricci, Wo-ts’un neglected the “narrow scope” of his own map. Now, in order to remedy this Wo-ts’un asked Ricci to make a much larger map, and Ricci agreed. Ricci’s description of why he agreed to make the map is an attempt to belittle Wo-ts’un’s map making skills.

At the same time, Ricci attempts to seem fair by saying that he will need help in making this new map from the old maps of his “humble country”. However, he is the opposite of humble when he finishes making the new map. Ricci starts making a speech about how God was the reason that he made this incredible map and that he looks “with hope and expectation to those who, like himself (myself), are sojourners on this earth”. This is an attempt to give credit to his Christian God. Ricci’s purpose of being in China was to spread Christianity, so any chance to make his religion appear as if it were the reason for something important is taken.

By examining the desire to spread their own religion to the Chinese, we see that the European’s felt like the Chinese belief system was inadequate, and that they needed to believe in something else. This is the concrete example of the importance that the Europeans felt. Religion was the key motivator that made Europeans feel superior to the Chinese. By examining the encounter that the European missionaries and Chinese had in the 17th century we see that the Europeans felt superior to the Chinese.

This feeling was evident when Ricci and Le Compte compared the sciences of astronomy, astrology, medicine, and geography. The belief in Christianity that the European missionaries had was the foundation of the cause of this superior feeling. Comments: This cultural encounter was very interesting because it highlighted how the European’s were very intent on pushing their religion on the Chinese. One thing I did not mention was that the Chinese did not give in to the Jesuit missionaries because I do not believe it would add anything to the essay.


1) Matteo Ricci, Li Zhizao, and Zang Wentao. World Map of 1602. 2) Giles, Lionel. “Translations from the Chinese World Map of Father Ricci. ” In two files corresponding to two dates of publication in, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 52, No. 6 (Dec. , 1918), pp. 367-385, and The Geographical Journal, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Jan. , 1919), pp. 19-30 3) Le Comte, Louis. Memoirs and Observations Typographical, Physical, Mathematical, Mechanical, Natural, Civil, and Ecclesiastical, Made In a Late Journey Through the Empire of China, and Published In Several Letters… with Many Other Curious and Useful Remarks.

London: Printed for Benj. Tooke…, and Sam. Buckley …, 1697. ——————————————– [ 1 ]. Le Comte, Louis. p. 220 [ 2 ]. Le Comte, Louis p. 222 [ 3 ]. Le Comte, p. 222 [ 4 ]. Le Comte, p. 223 [ 5 ]. Giles, Lionel p. 370 [ 6 ]. Le Comte, Louis p. 224 [ 7 ]. Le Comte, Louis p. 225 [ 8 ]. Le Comte, Louis p. 227 [ 9 ]. Le Comte, Louis p. 231 [ 10 ]. Giles, Lionel p. 368 [ 11 ]. Giles, Lionel p. 369.


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  • University/College: University of Chicago

  • Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter

  • Date: 1 November 2016

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