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Revisiting the sinophilia/sinophobia dichotomy in the European enlightenment through Adam Smith’s ‘duties of government’

By Ashley E. Millar


The Middle Kingdom, as a relatively unknown advanced civilisation, held a unique position in Enlightenment thought, as Europeans tried to understand a widening world and their own place in it. European views of China in the early modern period have been widely studied. While the predominant paradigm has been to analyse a shift from sinophilia to sinophobia, disagreements over the extent, nature and timing of this shift suggest that the rigid juxtaposition may not always be useful. In order to highlight the importance of the particular topic to the constructions of China in eighteenth-century European thought, this paper examines the way primary sources and scholars viewed one particular aspect of China: Its system of government. This paper will consider views of China related to Adam Smith's main duties of government (the art and science of war, the administration of justice and public institutions) and how these duties were to be paid for (the public revenue). Discussions of China's government married interest in the advanced civilisation of China with that characteristic Enlightenment project to define, explain and reflect on the meaning of civilisation and progress. A surprising degree of consensus is found, calling into question the conventional juxtaposition of sinophilia and sinophobia. Moreover, eighteenth-century European observers did not approach China with assumptions of superiority; on the contrary, there was a degree of civilisational relativism in their outlook, and at times China was seen as offering useful lessons. This approach also allows us to consider those questions with which Enlightenment thinkers did not turn towards China for answers, and ask the reasons for such omissions. China was dismissed as a useful model because it was deemed in many ways to be a unique case that could not be worked into the universal models that characterised the European Enlightenment

Topics: JN Political institutions (Europe), JQ Political institutions Asia
Publisher: Brill
Year: 2010
DOI identifier: 10.1163/156853110X522902
OAI identifier:
Provided by: LSE Research Online
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