China’s Attitudes Towards The West And The General Validity Of Late Eighteenth Century European Claims Essay Samples

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: China, World, European Union, England, History, Religion, Science, Church

Pages: 6

Words: 1650

Published: 2020/10/27


It could not be denied that European perception of China has drastically changed as observed by most scholars and historians. Even in Western policies towards China, the change of perception is quite evident as policies became lax and leaned towards contempt and disrespect. It is claimed that the decline of China’s intellectual and scientific progress has been largely attributed to its negative perception of the Western culture. For the same reason, China in the late eighteenth century has been perceived generally as backwards for being a closed society with little interest in knowledge or innovation; or so it was according to Western scholars. As observed by Cohen, “Westerners, earlier in the century almost uncritical in their admiration, came to the conclusion that the Chinese seemed unwilling, or unable, to improve on their earlier inventions, such as gunpowder and the compass, which formed part of the foundation for Western development”. China, today, does not mirror this 18th century perspective. Apparently, modern China is a society that is open to change and has aggressively pursued scientific and technological advancement. But looking back was there indeed a decline in intellectual and scientific progress in China during the late eighteenth century? If there was, what could have been the possible causes for this decline? Was western perception on China as a backwards society in the late 18th century justified?

The Middle Kingdom

In order to understand China’s attitude and outlook of the West, one has to dig on its long and unbroken history. Influenced by their lingering civilization, the Chinese initially view their culture as supreme and the only civilized society of their time. In fact, during the earlier times, they refer to their country as ‘The Middle Kingdom’ to emphasize the belief that their country is the celestial center of the earth and that everything else revolve around them. For the same reason, the Chinese are not bothered if they are living in isolation thinking that they have nothing to learn from outsiders whom they call as barbarians. Since 221 B.C. when China was united under the Qin Dynasty, the Chinese have devoted their energies in developing their own unique culture and sophisticated social and civil activities and organizations. Remote and separated by natural barriers, the Chinese have little or no contact with foreign civilization and has even built a wall to keep the so called barbarians out during this early period in their history.

China’s Encounters with the Rest of the World

It is only logical to think that a civilization as big and developed as China should go unnoticed. Through the silk roads, historians believe that cultural exchanges between the East and the West began as early as the 1st century B.C.. Tales of a wonderful culture flourishing in the East are not uncommon to Europeans. And when Marco Polo returned to Europe after an adventurous journey to the ‘Middle Kingdom,’ Europeans became more curious and interested towards China. For years, the pattern of exchange has been from the East to the West as more goods from China are wanted in exchange of silver and gold of the Western world. As observed by Li, “Although the West now takes special pride in its technological achievements, the original transmission of major new techniques was, until the recent past before the western industrial revolution, no less overwhelmingly from the East to the West”. Most historians believe that the years between 1000’s to the 1500’s, China was the leading nation in terms of economic development. Evidently, it was during this time that Chinese merchants and ambassadors travel the world over extending China’s influence to India, the Persian Gulf, East Africa and most likely, Australia. For a time, it seems like China is poised to dominate the world and was once considered as the world’s most powerful nation. As observed by Robinson, in the middle of the 14th century, “China was undeniably the most advanced nation in the world”. As observed, China led advancement in various fields, which includes arts, society, entertainment, politics and technology. According to Robinson, “China’s military strength and cultural advancement were also unparalleled and it had one of the highest literacy rates in the world”. This development was a stark contrast with Europe’s stinking cities in the Middle Ages, which, according to Robinson, “was struggling with overcrowded cities that lacked sewerage and were rampant with disease”.

Pursuit of Western Knowledge

A Misguided Sense of Superiority
Why the industrial revolution did not happen in China? Perhaps one would ask, what were China and the rest of the world doing while the gears of industrial revolution are rolling in the West? Some analysts believe that industrialization is a probabilistic process. In the context of China’s failure to initiate the industrial revolution, Elman believe that “we have increasingly acknowledged that our focus on the “failure” of Chinese science to develop into modern science is heuristically interesting but historiographical misguided”. As observed by Voigtländer and Voth, “During the late medieval and early modern period, brief expansions occurred in many countries. Yet most of these growth episodes sooner or later ground to a halt” (Voigtländer, N., & Voth, H.J., 2006). It could not be denied that scientific thought flourish in conducive environments. When viewed in a historical perspective, it is undeniably clear that the Chinese have since struggled with their internal politics while most of the West are politically stable. In the west, especially in Britain, the scientific, environmental, political and cultural factors converged in almost perfect timing. Britain’s political climate during that time was considerably peaceful as compared to the rest of the world. While the Chinese are having internal upheavals, the English are embarking on a different kind of revolution that would eventually change the world. It is as though all the necessary factors for the industrial revolution have been laid in Britain. First of all, being a colonial country, Britain has access to almost unlimited raw materials from its conquered territories. Most importantly, scientific knowledge in Britain flourished as it was free from the constraints of religion and traditions. China, on the other hand, is a striking contrast with Britain during the initial stages of industrialization. While its getting clearer during the early 18th century that Western science and technology have surpassed that of China, the Chinese refuse to believe that this is the case so. This mind set is quite evident on Emperor Qianlong’s ‘Edict on trade with Great Britain’ wherein he emphasized that China has never valued ingenious articles, nor has it the slightest need of Britain’s products (Cohen, J.W., 1993; Andrea, A., & Overfield, J., “Edict on Trade with Great Britain”by Emperor Qianlong, n.d.). However, there is always a chance that the Emperor does not really mean literally when he said that China does not need Western ideas. There is always that chance that the Emperor has viewed the west warily because of the perceived threat of Western culture infiltrating Chinese culture, which, for some reason has been following a pattern. As observed in its history, the Chinese have expelled foreigners depending on the orientation of the new regime and most of these expulsions are largely influenced by religion and traditions. Although China refused to acknowledge Western authority in the two edicts that were issued by Emperor Qianlong, the disparity between China’s and the West became apparent when China suffered a humiliating loss to Britain during the Opium wars.


Western disillusionment towards China in terms of science and technology is quite understandable given the fact that the country has stagnated during the 18th century and perhaps even years prior to the 18th century. However, contrary to the thought that the Chinese have been backwards in their mindset and has refused to acknowledge and follow through on new knowledge, is highly debatable. As observed, several factors have contributed to the decline of scientific thought in China, which could not be solely blamed on China’s attitude towards the West. Among the major ones are political conflicts, extreme adherence to tradition and religion and the changing foreign policies both in trade and in diplomatic relations. On the other hand, China’s wariness and distrust towards foreigners especially Westerners may have been forged not by their rejection of knowledge and ideas per see but it was viewed as a threat to their culture and traditions. To say, therefore, that China is a backward society in the later part of the 18th century is superficial without considering the underlying factors that have caused such stagnancy to happen.


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