[Review] 张西平:《中国和欧洲早期思想交流史》(Zhang Xiping: History of the Intellectual Exchange between China and Europe in the Early Modern Period)

Zhang Xiping 张西平, Zhongguo he Ouzhou zaoqi sixiang jiaoliushi 中国和欧洲早期思想交流史 (History of the Intellectual Exchange between China and Europe in the Early Modern Period), Beijing: Beijing Daxue Chubanshe 北京大学出版社, 2021. ISBN: 978-7-301-32228-4, 531 pages, 138 RMB.

Reviewed by Zhou Yuping 周宇平 (Albert-Ludwig University of Freiburg)

This monograph by Zhang Xiping, distinguished professor at Beijing Language and Culture University (北京语言大学) and Beijing Foreign Studies University (北京外国语大学), focuses on the intellectual exchange in philosophical and religious fields between China and Europe. This includes classical and medieval philosophies and Christianity in Europe and Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism in China. First published in 2001 and republished in 2010 and 2021, the 2021 edition of the book belongs to the book series Ruxue yu Ouzhou wenming yanjiu 儒学与欧洲文明研究 (Studies on Confucianism and European Civilization). According to Zhang, the 2021 edition inherited the structure of the previous editions but with a few amendments to details, which readers can notice from his citation of more recent publications (p. 530).[1]

The book covers a period spanning 300 years from 1500 to 1800 and consists of a total of 16 chapters divided into two sections. The first section deals with the transfer of European ideas to China, and the second examines the dissemination of Chinese thought and culture in Europe. Zhang’s primary sources in his study are the writings of Catholic missionaries in China during the Ming- and Qing-period. Some of these writings are translations and annotations on the works of well-known European and Chinese thinkers. Among the missionaries, the Jesuits and their publications are the focus of this research.

The book provides a valuable overview of the Chinese and European writings of Catholic missionaries in China. Drawing on his educational background in philosophy, Zhang identifies the European origins of the missionaries’ philosophical writings and offers a remarkable comparison between Christian philosophy and Chinese Confucianism. His analysis reveals the differences and similarities in the approaches of different Catholic missionaries and societies to interpret European and Chinese religions and philosophies. Jesuits and the Franciscan missionary Antonio de Santa María Caballero (Li Andang 利安当, 1602–1669) shared the strategy of uniting with Confucianism (he ru 合儒) by arguing that Christianity and Confucianism shared the same God. However, disputes arose both within the Jesuit mission and between the Jesuits and Franciscan and Dominican missionaries regarding how to translate God into Chinese and whether ancestral and Confucian worship in China constituted religious rituals.

The first chapter, a preamble to the following two sections, traces the beginning of globalization as the background for Sino-European exchanges. Zhang stresses the importance of the travelogue The Travels of Marco Polo in shaping the European secular worldview as well as the Spanish and Portuguese expansion in the Age of Discovery. The occupation of Malacca by the Portuguese in 1511 marked the starting point for the encounters between Chinese and Christian civilizations. He concludes the first chapter with the founding of the Jesuit mission in China. Arriving in 1579 as the first Jesuit in the country, Michele Ruggieri (Luo Mingjian 罗明坚, 1543–1607) followed the approach of accommodation in evangelization first proposed by the missionary Alessandro Valignano (Fan Li’an 范礼安, 1539–1606) and in the 1580s established the first Catholic church in Zhaoqing 肇庆 (Guangdong). Ruggieri’s confrere Matteo Ricci (Li Madou 利玛窦, 1552–1610) further developed the accommodation strategy, taking on the slogan of “uniting with Confucianism and displacing Buddhism” (he ru yi fo 合儒易佛) and he even succeeded in establishing contacts with members of the imperial court.

The first section of the book consists of seven chapters, Chapters Two through Eight, exploring the intellectual flow from Europe to Ming and Qing China via Jesuit missionaries. Chapter Two briefly examines the transmission of Western knowledge to China, by which the author means natural sciences, philology, and art. Chapters Three to Six analyze the Chinese writings of Jesuit missionaries: Tianzhu shiyi 天主实义 (The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven) by Matteo Ricci; Ming li tan 名理探 (Investigation of Pattern of Names) by Francisco Furtado (Fu Fanji傅汎济, 1589–1653) and the Chinese Christian Li Zhizao 李之藻 (1571–1630); Qiong li xue 穷理学 (Study on the Fathoming of Principles) by Ferdinand Verbiest (Nan Huairen 南怀仁, 1623–1688); Xixue fan 西学凡 (Introduction to Western Sciences) by Giulio Alenio (Ai Rulue 艾儒略, 1582–1649); Chaoxing xueyao 超性学要 (Summary of the Study of Transcendent Nature) by Lodovico Buglio (Li Leisi利类思, 1606–1682); Zuchuan tianzhu shijie 祖传天主十诫 (The Ten Commandments of the Lord of Heaven as Transmitted by the Ancestors) by Michele Ruggeri. Chapter Three deals with the introduction to Aristotelian philosophy, including logic and his theories of the four classical elements and the four causes; Chapter Four is about Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy; Chapter Five deals with scholasticism, ranging from the Trinitarian doctrine to morality issues; and lastly, Chapter Six is about Christian theology.

When discussing the work Ming li tan, Zhang notes how Li Zhizao brilliantly created new terms in logic by adopting terms from traditional Chinese vocabulary, for instance, jiu究 for “analyze” and zhixian 指显 for “deduce and prove” (pp. 70–75). This sheds light on how missionaries and Chinese adopted new knowledge by borrowing existing Chinese vocabulary and endowing them with new meanings to make the foreign knowledge more understandable to Chinese readers. In Chapter Six, on the introduction of Christian theology in China, the author traces the translation of Christian literature back to the Tang Dynasty (618–907), somewhat digressing from the book’s focus on the early modern period. Instead, an examination of the translation of other Christian texts, such as catechisms, would have been better suited to support Zhang’s overall analysis. The last two chapters of the first section look at Ricci’s comparisons between Catholicism and Neo-Confucianism (Lixue 理学) and his interpretation of Buddhism. Ricci argued that Christianity and original Confucianism (Yuanru 原儒; i.e., Pre-Qin Confucianism) shared commonalities in their views on humanity and their belief in the same God. In contrast to his appreciation of original Confucianism, Ricci criticized Neo-Confucianism for deviating from the original and immaculate Confucian philosophy. At the same time, he denounced Buddhism for its unscientific teachings on the natural world and its lack of originality, claiming that some Buddhist teachings were overly similar to those of Pythagoras.

Following his introduction to Ricci’s understanding of Confucianism, Zhang gives his own judgments on Ricci’s interpretation. For example, he comments on Ricci’s opposing attitudes toward original Confucianism and Neo-Confucianism: “It is not right to only contrast ‘early Confucianism’ and ‘later Confucianism’” (只将“先儒”与“后儒”对立起来是不对的; p.247). Zhang seems to expect that knowledge should be transmitted without any interpretation by the missionaries and that the transferred ideas ought to be as close to the source as possible. Rather than making a value judgement on the ideas and actions of historical actors, his research would have benefitted more from a discussion of why and how Catholic missionaries interpreted and (mis)read Chinese thought and culture for their European audiences and what influenced their translation and (mis)understandings in this transcultural context.

In this first section, Zhang clearly lays out the Jesuits’ strategy of complementing Confucianism and displacing Buddhism, as well as their appropriation of Confucianism in the translation of texts on Christianity and European philosophy. However, Zhang neither clearly defines “philosophy” and “theology” nor does he clarify their differences in the context of medieval Europe. As a result, it is unclear why he discusses the missionaries’ introduction of the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, Scholasticism, as well as Christian theology in mutually independent chapters, i.e., in Chapters Four, Five, and Six, respectively. This compartmentalization is curious, since Thomas Aquinas was the most representative figure in the school of Scholasticism, and Scholasticism and Christian theology have clear overlaps and are mutually inseparable.

The second section of the book looks at how Chinese culture was transmitted to Europe in the early modern period. Zhang again examines the works of Ruggeri and Ricci to show how they introduced Chinese religions and philosophy to a European audience. Next, he explores how the Chinese Rites Controversy facilitated this transmission and how Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism were presented to European readers. Here, the author readdresses the Jesuit strategy, “conforming with Confucianism, depreciating Buddhism and Daoism” (he ru pai fo pai dao 合儒排佛排道), which also surfaced in other missionaries’ works. In addition to Ruggeri and Ricci, Zhang also discusses the works of other Jesuits and their contributions to the cultural transmission, such as Álvaro de Semedo (Zeng Dezhao 曾德昭, 1585–1658), Martino Martini (Wei Kuangguo 卫匡国, 1614–1661), Philip Couplet (Bo Yingli 柏应理, 1623–1693), and Joachim Bouvet (Bai Jin 白晋, 1656–1730). Their works cover a broad range of topics related to Chinese history and culture, ranging from ancient to late imperial China, provinces to imperial courts, as well as including geography and religion.

The last three chapters of the second section investigate how European readers of the Catholic missionaries’ writings about China perceived Chinese culture and ideas and how they interpreted the missionaries’ writings. These readers include well-known French, German, and English intellectuals, such as Nicolas Malebranche (1638–1715), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), Oliver Goldsmith (1730–1744) and others. Zhang mentions a shift in the narratives of European thinkers on Chinese culture, which may be characterized as from Sinophilia to Sinophobia, and the background for this shift: The Industrial Revolution taking place in Europe and European colonial expansion around the world. In addition, he accurately states that the European philosophers’ interpretation of Chinese philosophy should be understood in the context of European intellectual history. To this end, he briefly discusses how the Enlightenment movement shaped European perceptions of Confucianism and Chinese politics. For instance, Nicolas Malebranche’s criticism of Chinese philosophy as atheistic was an indirect condemnation of Baruch Spinoza, who did not believe in God (p. 394). Despite this discussion of contextualization, Zhang continues to comment on the thoughts and intentions of the European intellectuals, judging whether their understanding of Chinese philosophy and culture was correct, incorrect, superficial, or deep. Some points he mentions also lack sufficient evidential support. For example, he asserts, “It is a widely accepted conclusion that in the 18th century, cultures from the East, specifically Chinese thought, became the impetus for Europe to emerge from the Middle Ages” (在18世纪,东方文化、中国精神成为瓦解西欧中世纪城堡的一个重要因素,这是一个被普遍接受的理论; p. 6) and “Chinese culture became an important factor in the emergence of the Enlightenment movement” (中国文化成为催生启蒙运动的重要因素; p. 509). Without references and further explanations, such strong claims remain problematic and are based on unsubstantiated grounds.

Zhang’s examination of Sino-European cultural and intellectual exchanges is essentially limited to analyzing the content of works produced by Catholic missionaries, especially Jesuits. However, it might be more advantageous to pay attention to how, why, and in what contexts these works were written and how Chinese readers, especially Chinese Catholics, perceived them. The wider context, including the transition from the Ming to the Qing dynasty, the changing imperial policies towards Catholicism in China, and the politics within the Jesuit Mission and its relationship with other Catholic missionary organizations in the country would contribute to a more informed understanding of the production and circulation of these missionary works. Although the author mentions in his book that he will embark on another project to analyze the writings of Chinese Christian literati, this would still neglect the voices of ordinary Chinese Christians.

Much ink has been spilt on the elite perspective, both in intellectual history and the broader history of Christianity in China. As historian Ge Zhaoguang has pointed out, traditional intellectual historiographies typically emphasize the elites and their selected writings and tend to overlook the situational contexts in which ideas originated, as well as the emotions and agency of historical actors.[2] As for Christianity in China, alternative sources such as images and materials used for masses and ritual performance could also shed light on missionary efforts amid the lower levels of society and the Chinese perceptions of Christianity. Moreover, this bottom-up perspective can serve to expand our knowledge of the historical role of Christianity in China, for instance, the extent to which Christianity adapted to Chinese culture and how it differentiated itself from other Chinese belief systems.[3]

To conclude, this is a book on the history of Sino-European intellectual exchanges, with a special focus on the history of philosophy and religion. Zhang has not only paid much attention to European and Chinese philosophies but also adopted the traditional methodology of writing philosophical history by focusing on missionaries and their contemporary European thinkers, both of whom belonged to the upper echelons of society. The author has raised many interesting points as food for thought, but these points are often not sufficiently elaborated. For example, more discussions would be necessary on how the theory of “misreading/misunderstanding” (wudu 误读; p. 6) can be applied to this topic. Moreover, a closer look at the role of the Dominicans and Franciscans in the introduction of Chinese history, culture, and rites to European readers after the Chinese Rites Controversy would be an important supplement. Nonetheless, the monography offers deep insights into the comparison between Christianity and Confucianism from 1500 to 1800. In the Chinese-speaking academia, it is fundamental research in the history of the Catholic Church in Ming and Qing China and helps researchers gain a comprehensive understanding of the history of knowledge exchange between China and Europe in the early modern period.


[1] It was first published in 2001 under the title Zhongguo yu Ouzhou zaoqi zongjiao he zhexue jiaoliushi 中国与欧洲早期宗教和哲学交流史 (History of Early Exchanges in Philosophies and Religions between China and Europe) by Oriental Press (东方出版社) in Shanghai, and was then republished in 2010 by Xinjiang People’s Press (新疆人民出版社) under a slightly different title: Sichou zhilu: Zhongguo yu Ouzhou zhexue zongjiao jiaoliu yanjiu 丝绸之路:中国与欧洲哲学宗教交流研究 (The Silk Road: Studies on Sino-European Exchanges in Philosophies and Religions).

[2] Ge Zhaoguang, Zhongguo sixiangshi daolun: sixiangshi de xiefa 中国思想史导论: 思想史的写法(Shanghai: Fudan Daxue Chubanshe 复旦大学出版社, 2013), p. 96.

[3] Nicolas Standaert, “Christianity as a Religion in China: Insights from the ‘Handbook of Christianity in China: Volume One (635–1800),’” Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 12 (2001), pp. 8–15.



Cite this blog post
MJF (2024, January 24). [Review] 张西平:《中国和欧洲早期思想交流史》(Zhang Xiping: History of the Intellectual Exchange between China and Europe in the Early Modern Period). European Research Centre for Chinese Studies. Retrieved June 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/vnv4

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