Voltaire and China

by Jennifer Tsien

Like most of his contemporaries, Voltaire learned about Chinese culture and mores from the famous Jesuit letters. In a number of works, Voltaire demonstrates his high regard for this country, especially its social structure, its early developments in technology, and its devotion to Confucianism. However, his "Chinese" texts were not always about China: if we look closely at the aspects of the culture that he praised, we can see that he chose them precisely in order to highlight the shortcomings of his own country, France.

In our day, Voltaire is best known for writing contes philosophiques, but during his lifetime, he was more famous for his poetry, his tragedies, and his histories. One of his most notable plays was L'Orphelin de la Chine (The Orphan of China, 1755), whose plot was based on a Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao, which had been translated for European readers by the Jesuit missionaries. If one is familiar with Voltaire's theater, one can easily detect in the Orphelin a number of common themes in his tragedies. One major theme, for example, is the love between parents, particularly fathers, and their children, as opposed to passion between lovers, which Voltaire only reluctantly included in his plays. A second major theme is the battle between a society that Voltaire presents as superior (in this case, the Chinese) and one he presents as barbaric (the Mongols, led by the villain of the play, Genghis Khan).

Costume of Idamé (in the 'Orphelin de la Chine,' by Voltaire) 1 maquette de costume pour l'Orphelin de la chine
Costume of Idamé (in the "Orphelin de la
Chine," by Voltaire)
P.L. Jacob
New York Public Library
1 maquette de costume pour "l'Orphelin de la chine"
Louis-René Boquet
Bibliothèque nationale de France

In other works, such as his monumental universal history, Essai sur les mœurs et l'esprit des nations (An Essay on Universal History: The Manners and Spirit of Nations, 1756), Voltaire also showed his admiration for Chinese civilization. The very fact that he begins his text with China demonstrates how he saw this country as far more advanced, in matters of technology and of governance, than any of the European latecomers. This narrative choice also placed the historiographer Voltaire at an important distance from previous authors of so-called universal histories, such as Bossuet, who had created a teleological schema that led from Egypt to modern Christendom, completely ignoring all other parts of the world. Not all aspects of Chinese culture appear in a positive light in the Essai sur les mœurs, however. While Voltaire heaps praise on Confucianism, which he describes in terms that make it sound like an Asian version of deism, he expresses contempt for Buddhism. This rejection of the supernatural aspects of Chinese beliefs gives us a clearer picture of the "good" Chinese person that he wanted to imagine: a rational and refined being who dutifully acts to benefit the state. This idealized Chinese person also appears in some of Voltaire's short polemical texts, such as the "Catéchisme chinois," ("Chinese catechism") which can be found in his Philosophical Dictionary, and the dialogue "Galimatias dramatique." In the latter, the Chinese man is there to reject the convoluted and obscure doctrines of Christian theology.

Like other Enlightenment texts that featured Hurons, Tahitians, and others foreign peoples as the standard of innate common sense, Voltaire's works created the image of the rational Chinese person who would make readers notice the absurdities of European customs and religions.


Jennifer Tsien is Associate Professor of French at the University of Virginia, and is the author of The Bad Taste of Others: Judging Literary Values in Eighteenth-Century France. She has also taught a French seminar entitled "The Fictional Orient."


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