Vol. 7 (2022)
Focus: Enlightenment and extra-European cultures

European perspectives on China: a prescriptive turn

Guido Abbattista
Università di Trieste

Published 2022-11-18


  • Europe,
  • China,
  • missions,
  • Enlightenment,
  • Sino-western relations

How to Cite

Abbattista, G. (2022). European perspectives on China: a prescriptive turn. Diciottesimo Secolo, 7, 35–44. https://doi.org/10.36253/ds-13341


From the mid-1770s onwards there was a clear shift in perspective in the way European commentators looked at China, a subject that, especially in an era defined by Paul Hazard as the crisis of European consciousness, had long appealed to Western culture as both a cognitive and more generally an intellectual challenge. The contrast between sinophilic and sinophobic attitudes, which often characterized the evolution, even temporal, of the eighteenth-century perception of Chinese reality, cannot alone explain the shifts in interest and changes of opinion that occurred towards the end of the eighteenth century. What this contribution aims to highlight is how, in some key observers of and commentators on China between the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century – from Adam Smith, Abbé Raynal and Denis Diderot, to Lord Macartney and John Barrow – one can detect perspectives and reflections that cannot be due to a simple descriptive register or to attempts at apologia or devaluation, but rather to approaches tending to include China in global comparative historical or socio-economic reasoning. And how, with that reasoning, the assumption of the superiority of the European model leads to China being seen no longer as a mere object of admiration or a source of inspiration, but as a new actor with a new role in global history. The discourse thus tends to take on, in various ways, prescriptive overtones, aimed at identifying the internal and external changes necessary for the part that, from a Western perspective, China could play in a connected world.


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