Leibniz on Chinese

«§3 But who would have believed that there is on earth a people who, though we are in our view so very advanced in every branch of behavior, still surpass us in comprehending the precepts of civil life? Yet now we find this to be so among the Chinese, as we learn to know them better. And so if we are their equals in the industrial arts, and ahead of them in contemplative sciences, certainly they surpass us (though it is almost shameful to confess this) in practical philosophy, that is, in the precepts of ethics and politics adapted to the present life and use of mortals. Indeed, it is difficult to describe how beautifully all the laws of the Chinese, in contrast to those of other peoples, are directed to the achievement of public tranquility and the establishment of social order, so that men shall be disrupted in their relations as little as possible. Certainly by their own doing men suffer the greatest evils and in turn inflict them upon each other. It is truly said that “man is a wolf to man.” Our folly is indeed great, but quite universal. We exposed as we are to natural injuries, heap woes on ourselves, as though they were lacking from elsewhere.

§4 What harm, then, if some nation has found a remedy [for these evils]? Certainly the Chinese above all others have attained a higher standard. In a vast multitude of men they have accomplished more than the founders of religious orders among us have achieved within their own ranks. So great is obedience toward superiors and reverence toward elders, so religious, almost, is the relation of children toward parents, that for children to contrive anything violent against their parents, even by word, is almost unheard of, and the perpetrator seems to atone for his actions even as we make a parricide pay for his deed. Moreover, there is among equals, or those having little obligation to one another, a marvelous respect, and an established order of duties. To us, not enough accustomed to act by reason and rule, these smack of servitude; yet among them, where these duties are made natural by use, they are observed gladly. As our people have noticed in amazement, the Chinese peasants and servants, when they bid farewell to friends, or when they first enjoy the sight of each other after a long separation, behave to each other so lovingly and respectfully that they challenge all the politeness of European magnates. What then would you expect from the mandarins, or from Colai? Thus it happens that scarcely anyone offends another by the smallest word in common conversation. And they rarely show evidences of hatred, wrath, or excitement. With us respect and careful conversation last for hardly more than the first days of a new acquaintance – scarcely even that. Soon familiarity moves in and circumspection is gladly put away for a sort of freedom which is quickly followed by contempt, backbiting, anger, and afterwards enmity. It is just the contrary with the Chinese. Neighbors and even members of a family are so held back by a hedge of custom that they are able to maintain a kind of perpetual courtesy

– “Preface to the Novissima Sinica” (1697-1699).


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