Strategy and revolution: the last words of the Jesuit China Mission?

On the eve of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), Voltaire published L’Orphelin de la Chine and the Essai sur les mœurs, marking what is generally seen as the high point of sinophilia in Enlightenment France. In the latter work, Voltaire presents China as a nation ruled with stability and continuity by an absolute but enlightened monarch and a rational and secular civil service, impartially trained and selected through the famous imperial examination system. Voltaire was, of course, drawing on a narrative that had largely been created by the Jesuits since Matteo Ricci had settled in China 150 years earlier.

The general view continues that, after Voltaire, sinophilia turned to sinophobia. Europe’s industrial and economic progress was contrasted with China’s perceived stagnation. The political stability and continuity that sinophiles had cited as evidence of the superiority of China’s political economy became problematic, as it was seen also to show that China could not now progress. Accordingly, China’s influence faded and left very little mark on France in the twenty years leading up to the Revolution.

The Mandate of Heaven–Strategy, Revolution, and the First European Translation of Sunzi’s Art of War (1772)

In The Mandate of Heaven – Strategy, Revolution, and the First European Translation of Sunzi’s Art of War (1772), published this month by Brill, I argue that China, as presented by the Jesuits, had a significant impact over those two decades. This can be traced through the movements, work and writings of three men. The first is a French missionary, Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718–1793), who arrived in Beijing in 1751 to join the French Jesuit mission there. Four years later, just as Voltaire’s works were being published, two young Chinese, Louis Ko (1732–1780) and Étienne Yang (1733–1787), arrived in France to complete their education and training as Jesuits. (There was a third, Louis Zheng, but he soon disappears from sight.)

The Seven Years’ War, which formally broke out in 1756, radically affected all three of these men. In 1762, emboldened by the military, political and financial defeat of France and her Catholic allies at the hands of Britain and Prussia, the French Parlement brought a successful action to expel the Jesuits from France. Louis XV was forced to confirm this decision in 1764. Ko and Yang were stranded in France but taken under the wing of the minister Henri Bertin (1720–1792). Bertin arranged for their return to China, but not before he had organised for them to tour France to see the country’s manufacturing and economic strength. When they left in 1766, they took with them a set of questions about China’s economy, prepared by Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727–1781). Perhaps because of this exchange, François Quesnay (1694–1774), leader of the “physiocratic” movement of political economists, published an article in the physiocrat journal Éphémérides du citoyen entitled “Le Despotisme de la Chine” (1767). Quesnay went much further than Voltaire had in suggesting that China was a model for Europe, in the phrase of Lewis Maverick, who translated this work into English in 1946.

Joseph Amiot

A revolutionary? Joseph Amiot in Alfred Hamy, Galerie illustrée de la Compagnie de Jésus, 1893.

Ko, Yang and Amiot became correspondents of Bertin for the next thirty years. Amiot’s correspondence began in 1766 when the abolition of the Jesuits had thrown the French mission in Beijing into chaos and dismay. Amiot, by then one of its senior members, decided he needed to demonstrate to the French government that the Jesuits, the China mission and he himself were still of strategic value to France. Accordingly he translated “Sun Tzu’s Art of War” (孫子兵法 Sunzi bingfa) and other Chinese military materials, and sent them to Bertin. In his dedicatory letter, Amiot made clear his intent:

“A Frenchman, transplanted for the past 15 years in the capital of the Chinese empire, offers as homage to your Excellency a segment of his literary works. This tribute, owed to you by virtue of your taste for all that concerns the Sciences and the Arts, would not, perhaps, be unworthy of you if it were offered by anyone other than a Jesuit. It is a note, a compilation, or a type of translation of what has been written, least badly, in this extremity of Asia, on the military art … China is a vast field in which you constantly encounter some new resource that is no less suitable for the political utility of an enlightened statesman than for the sterile curiosity of the idle philosopher.”

Amiot’s work was published in 1772, and one of its readers was a veteran of the Seven Years’ War, Paul-Gédéon Joly de Maizeroy (1719–1780), himself a translator of classical military theory. In 1771, Maizeroy published his translation of the Byzantine Emperor Leo VI’s Taktika. In the course of this Maizeroy took the word στρατηγíα from the Greek and created the French word stratégie. For Maizeroy, “strategy” was the all-embracing process by which political objectives are translated into action using military means. This was a significant development, but just as important is the fact that for Maizeroy, the object of strategy is not fighting but winning. By 1777, Maizeroy had synthesised classical European and Chinese traditions in a formulation that strongly echoes the Sunzi:

“The science of war […] is the art of managing the lives of men and of achieving victory. The latter does not mean only winning in combat. It is winning by reducing to nothing the plans of the enemy, obliging him to abandon an advantageous position, or to retire, without one’s being obliged to take the risk of combat itself.”

A survey of European history and military thought from 1600 to 1945 would show just how radical this idea was at the time, but it can be seen as a pivotal idea in the asymmetrical warfare that has characterised the past 74 years. It also explains why the ideas of the Sunzi have been so influential outside the military world. Today, Maizeroy and Amiot are largely forgotten, but strategy is a common part of the civilian vocabulary, and even in civilian life “Sun Tzu” is the best-known exponent of the idea of it.

There is one more piece to this story. Amiot acknowledged in his letter to Bertin that he was not sending a literal translation (although he contradicts this elsewhere). What he does not say, however, is that he has very significantly altered the closing words of the final chapter of the Sunzi. In Amiot’s version, this chapter deals with “divide and rule” as a fundamental approach to strategy, and he suggests that two of the great figures of Chinese history were masters of it. These two men were, respectively, subjects of the Xia and Shang dynasties, but were instrumental in their overthrow. As Yuri Pines writes in his article “To Rebel is Justified? The Image of Zhouxin and the Legitimacy of Rebellion in the Chinese Political Tradition (2008), these stories exemplify the Chinese notion of “legitimate rebellion”, which arises when a ruler has lost the “mandate of heaven” (天命 tianming). The original text makes passing reference to these men, whereas Amiot writes of them,

“Is there a single one of our books that does not praise these two great men? Has history ever called them traitors of their nation, or rebels against their sovereigns? Far from it; they are always mentioned with the greatest respect. They are, according to historians, heroes, virtuous rulers, saintly figures.”

This then is how one should describe those who rebel against an unjust ruler. And, for good measure, Amiot on four occasions tells his readers that the Xia dynasty was overthrown in 1766 BCE. How strange that he was writing in 1766 CE.

Was Amiot trying to suggest that Louis XV had lost the “mandate of heaven” and could now be overthrown? Certainly, the missionary was downcast by Louis’s decision to suppress his beloved Society of Jesus. Regardless of his motive, however, his work was picked up by a group of radical soldiers who were part of the Physiocratic circle and who published État actuel de l’art et de la science militaire à la Chine in 1773. This was on the face of it a review of Amiot’s work, but the authors used the introduction as an opportunity to take Quesnay’s thinking from 1767 to a new level and called explicitly for a revolution in Europe to establish a government and political economy like those of China. “Fortunately,” they conclude, “everything tells us that this great revolution is not far off!”

I do not go so far as to suggest that Amiot set out to invoke a revolution in France, but he made two important connections. Firstly, as he introduced Chinese classical military thought to Europe, he influenced the emerging idea of strategy, and connected strategy to revolution. Secondly, he connected the longstanding ideal of the Chinese state with the doctrine of justified rebellion. In Amiot’s Sunzi the Chinese saint is a rebel who uses strategy to overthrow a tyrannical sovereign and establish enlightened rule.

– Adam Parr

A vote of confidence in Louis XVI? Voltaire’s Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares

It isn’t always possible to know what prompted Voltaire to write a particular text. The Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares appear to be the response from one armchair traveller and great China admirer, Voltaire (or his young Benedictine alter ego), to another armchair traveller and China detractor, Cornelius de Pauw, author of Recherches philosophiques sur les Egyptiens et les Chinois (Berlin, 1773). However, Voltaire had finished reading the Recherches by September 1774 (D19110), over a year before we have any hint that he has started work on the Lettres chinoises.

Another trigger might have been the assemblée générale du clergé that was held in Paris for much of 1775. Voltaire billed his Lettres chinoises – published early in 1776, once the clergy was safely home again – as ‘insolent’,[1] and indeed they argue for the anteriority and superiority of Eastern philosophies and religions over Judaeo-Christianity.

I just wonder whether the Lettres chinoises may also partly have been written as a sort of vote of confidence in Louis XVI. Nowhere is the king mentioned explicitly. It is only in a private letter to D’Alembert, quoted below, or in the unpublished Edits de sa majesté Louis XVI (1776), that Louis XVI and Chinese emperors are clearly linked in Voltaire’s mind. Yet might the Lettres chinoises’s undiluted admiration for Eastern rulers seem to validate some of the controversial decisions that the king faced in the first two years of his reign?

Qianlong (1711-1799) (The Palace Museum, Beijing)

Qianlong (1711-1799)
(The Palace Museum, Beijing)

In September 1774, Louis XVI had signed an edict penned by his controller-general, Turgot, bringing about free trade in grain. The edict was contentious enough (though Voltaire thoroughly approved), but its explanatory preface was also criticised on the grounds that a king should not have to justify his rulings. Though the Lettres chinoises do not mention this edict, or the following six that coincided with their publication, they lavish praise on the current Chinese emperor, Qianlong, for communicating with his people: ‘How did [Qianlong] have a heart good enough to give such lessons to a hundred and fifty million men?’; ‘Here is an emperor more powerful than Augustus, more revered, busier; who only writes for the instruction and the happiness of humankind’.[2]

Writing to Frederick the Great on 3 October 1775, D’Alembert complained that the clergy assembled in Paris was attempting to persuade Louis XVI to renew edicts against the Protestants.[3] On 6 November, Voltaire noted in code to D’Alembert: ‘They say that the bonzes [i.e. the French clergy] have recently wanted to harm the disciples of Confucius [the Protestants], and that the young emperor Kangxi [Louis XVI] has calmed everything down with a wisdom beyond his years’.[4]

Kangxi (1654-1722) (The Palace Museum, Beijing)

Kangxi (1654-1722)
(The Palace Museum, Beijing)

In the Lettres chinoises, the Chinese emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng are both held up as models of rationality in their dealings with religious troublemakers. Kangxi’s message to the Jesuits at his court is quoted approvingly:

‘The emperor is surprised to see you so stubbornly attached to your ideas. Why concern yourselves with a world that you are not yet in? Enjoy the here and now. Your attentions make no odds to your god. Is he not powerful enough to make his own justice without you interfering?’[5]

Voltaire similarly approves of Yongzheng’s ‘admirable speech’ expelling the Jesuits in 1724:

‘What would you say if I sent a troupe of bonzes and lamas to your country to preach their dogmas there: – bad dogmas are those which under the pretext of teaching virtue, sow discord and revolt: you want all Chinese to become Christian, I know; then what will we become? The subjects of your kings.’[6]

Yongzheng (1678-1735) (The Palace Museum, Beijing)

Yongzheng (1678-1735)
(The Palace Museum, Beijing)

Yongzheng apparently gave the departing Jesuits money and supplies, as well as escorts to protect them against the fury of the people. The Lettres chinoises do not mention the persecution of the Jesuits, claiming instead that ‘there was no dragonnade’ (a reference to seventeenth-century persecution of French Protestants).[7]

The Lettres chinoises may serve more than one purpose: they reassert Voltaire’s idealised view of China against Cornelius de Pauw, they make Judaeo-Christian religions look small alongside ancient Eastern religions, and perhaps they also implicitly lend their support to a king whose actions seem to parallel those of great Chinese emperors.

  • The Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares have just been published in volume 77B, Œuvres de 1775-1776, of the Complete Works of Voltaire.
  • Voltaire had to make do with being an armchair traveller to China, India and Tartary. Travel, real and imagined, is the theme of this year’s Journées Voltaire, ‘Voltaire: les voyages de l’esprit libre?’, which take place on 13 and 14 June 2014 in Paris, at the Sorbonne.
  • There is no doubt that the East, especially the Far East, was in demand when Voltaire wrote his Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares. Currently on display at Versailles are precious Chinese objects collected by French royals throughout the eighteenth century: ‘La Chine à Versailles, art et diplomatie au dix-huitième siècle’ is on until 26 October 2014.



[1] ‘Puisque vous me répondez de M. de Sartines, je vais donc lui adresser les insolentes Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartares’ (20 March 1776, to d’Argental, D20010).

[2] ‘Comment a-t-il eu un cœur assez bon pour donner de telles leçons à cent cinquante millions d’hommes […]? […] Voici un empereur plus puissant qu’Auguste, plus révéré, plus occupé; qui n’écrit que pour l’instruction et pour le bonheur du genre humain’ (OCV, vol.77B, p.116-17).

[3] ‘Quant aux prêtres, qui sont actuellement assemblés comme ils le sont par malheur tous les cinq ans, et qui dans cette assemblée se dévorent et se déchirent entre eux, ils partent de là pour aller à Versailles conjurer le roi de renouveler les édits atroces et absurdes qui ordonnent la persécution des protestants’ (Œuvres de Frédéric le Grand, 30 vol., Berlin, 1846-1856, vol.25, p.31:

[4] ‘On dit que des bonzes ont voulu depuis peu faire du mal aux disciples de Confucius, et que le jeune empereur Kan-hi a tout apaisé avec une sagesse au dessus de son âge’ (D19729).

[5] ‘L’empereur est surpris de vous voir si entêtés de vos idées. Pourquoi vous occuper si fort d’un monde où vous n’êtes pas encore? Jouissez du temps présent. Votre Dieu se met bien en peine de vos soins! N’est-il pas assez puissant pour se faire justice sans que vous vous en mêliez?’ (OCV, vol.77B, p.157).

[6] ‘Que diriez-vous si j’envoyais une troupe de bonzes et de lamas dans votre pays pour y prêcher leurs dogmes: – les mauvais dogmes sont ceux qui sous prétexte d’enseigner la vertu, soufflent la discorde et la révolte: vous voulez que tous les Chinois se fassent chrétiens, je le sais bien; alors que deviendrons-nous? les sujets de vos rois’ (OCV, vol.77B, p.158, n.c).

[7] ‘Il n’y eut point de dragonnade’ (OCV, vol.77B, p.158, n.c).