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’, 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 It is only in a private letter to D’Alembert, quoted below, or in the unpublished Edits de sa majesté Louis XVI (1776), that Louis XVI and Chinese emperors are clearly linked in Voltaire’s mind.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?
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’.
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. 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’.
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?’
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.’
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).
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.
 ‘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).
 ‘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).
 ‘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: http://friedrich.uni-trier.de/de/oeuvres/25/31/text/).
 ‘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).
 ‘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).
 ‘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).
 ‘Il n’y eut point de dragonnade’ (OCV, vol.77B, p.158, n.c).