European Intellectual Influence on China During Qing Period

A Brief History of China: Qing Dynasty

In the early seventeenth century the Ming dynasty was finishing due to different fights, rebellions, and natural disasters. In 1644, Manchu armies conquered Beijing and changed it to the capital of the new empire as well as established a new dynasty called Qing. The new rulers decided to adopt the Chinese culture and made their contribution to its development. They sponsored scientific projects and became patrons of different art’s masters (Cary). During that time the Chinese perception of their nation, as the most developed civilization as compared to others, strengthened. The country’s ruler, the Son of Heaven was one of the highest ranges among other earthly monarchs and deserved to govern the Chinese people. Japanese and Annamese rulers were regarded as younger brothers of the Son of Heaven. Peoples who did not admit Confucianism were considered as the lower rank of barbarians (Wakeman) and “the Chinese seldom came into direct contact with Europeans” (Wakeman). During the time of Ming dynasty, trade was carried through mediators, namely Mongols. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries the continuous and direct relations were established between the two civilizations. The intellectual influence of the civilizations on each other was remarkable. While China had been making large contributions to the European culture at the beginning, later the impact of Europe prevailed over China.

When in 1514 Portuguese arrived in China from Melacca, the development of European civilization was influenced greatly by the Chinese intellectual heritage. However, the course of events changed later. At that time, the greatest people of Europe were charmed by the Chinese culture. English philosopher Francis Bacon appeared to be the first one who distinguished the importance of such China-Europe encounter. In particular, he identified three inventions: printing, gunpowder, and the magnet, which were first discovered in China and caused drastic changes not only in Europe but throughout the whole world (Reichwein).

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Geoffrey Hudson refers to the period of the establishing relations between Europe and China as one of “China Besieged”, meaning that European “invaders” encircled the country and both parties derived mutual benefit from such state of things. Unfortunately, people during those times seemed to have different opinion on what was happening. The Chinese imposed many restrictions on the foreigners. For example, only two ports were opened for the foreign traders. Catholic missionaries were in charge of setting the regulations of the Chinese-traders’ relations. Concerning the missionaries, they were allowed to travel to China under tenuous conditions and the terms of their staying were severely limited (Shambaugh).

Therefore, during Qing period in China, the Chinese culture began to develop resistance to the foreign intellectual influence. Such tendency was not typical. Seven centuries of Chinese history from AD 200 to 900 provide a solid example of a completely different attitude to the foreigners and their impact. Due to the policy to which the Tang dynasty adhered, the borders of the country were opened to people from the whole world. That made it possible for Buddhism to spread throughout China (Mungello 32). The rejection of foreign culture had several negative and injurious outcomes for Chinese intellectual and cultural growth. It affected the progress of science and technology which began to stagnate. Later, it would lead to unavoidable declination in different spheres of life, for example, economy, culture, and the military (33).

Between eighteenth and twentieth century the European influence on China increased. It was the time when the power of the Qing dynasty began to decline and there was no other possibility for the Chinese but to accept and follow the rules the modern world dictated. According to the authors of “China-Europe Relations”, even military defeats of China did not have such a drastic effect on the country as the psychological and intellectual influence imposed on China during that period. Being under the Qing rule, the Chinese felt their intellectual superiority over European “barbarians” for a long time. However, starting from the nineteenth century this feeling was shattered by the West (Shambaugh 16). Popularity of China began to decline when the Industrial revolution started in Europe. The exotic country, “timeless China”, was not regarded admirable as it was before. Fast developing European countries could not continue to respect the country, which remained at a standstill in its resentful attitude to the innovations. Lord MacCartney, an English Ambassador to China whose mission failed owing to Emperor Qianlong, compared the country to “an enormous drifting ship in danger of going aground”.

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During the nineteenth and early twenties centuries, Europe caused modernization in different spheres of life in China, and had great intellectual influence on the country. The attitude towards the Western ideas and values of Chinese literati changed over the decades from hostile at the beginning to receptive later. First Chinese were interested mostly in the spread of European technical knowledge. At the end of the nineteenth century, Chinese scholars turned their attention to other spheres of European scientific works and knowledge such as political experience and religious thought (Chang). During the Qing rule different missions appeared specializing in various spheres of life. The intellectual European influence was mostly connected with the work of different Christian missions in China.

Different groups of people, such as traders, diplomats, soldiers, came to China with the aim to take advantage of the country searching different types of concessions, privileges, and profit. Missionaries consisted another group of the foreign visitors who settled the task not to take but to give, not to derive benefit but to serve the interests of the Chinese people. Between sixteenth and eighteenth centuries about eight hundred missionaries came to China. This period of time is called the “Missionary Era” (Weizun).

The missionaries were deeply convinced that the task of conversion would have been accomplished if Chinese culture had been re-ordered. Both Protestant and Catholic missionaries were not tolerant towards the culture and regarded it as something immature and improper that needed to be altered. They did not want to consider the fact that the Chinese traditions had been developing for thousands years and transformed to invaluable heritage for these people. However, there was a bunch of Protestants who expressed tolerance and appreciation of some aspects of the Chinese culture and found their mission not in destructing the culture but rather in its fulfilment. First, the Chinese felt fear and rejection. Later they understood the need for substantial changes. By the 1890s, foreign intrusion was viewed as highly beneficial to China and its people (Cohen).

European Influence on Politics During Qing China

It is worth noting that Europe influenced politics of China at both the domestic and international levels but it was felt more at the stage of international relations. The Chinese started first to examine and later to accept the practices of the European system of states called the Westphalian system. The belief in the right of the Son of Heaven and in his absolute power over the world began to be doubted. Certainly, the Chinese never tried to deviate from their age-old traditions. However, the contribution of the European politics to Chinese practices played an important role in the development of the realist thinking in China, which subsequently formed Chinese foreign policy. Moreover, the adoption of the Westphalian system helped the Chinese to distinguish the importance of their territorial integrity and sovereignty. Their political lexicon had lacked these notions before (Shambaugh).

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European Influence on Technology During Qing China

Despite the fact that the first European mechanical clock was invented later than that of Chinese, the knowledge of horology had been lost in China over the years. Therefore, the Kangxi and Quianlong Emperors of Qing dynasty craved for having the chiming clocks, which the missionaries were bringing with them when traveling to China. The Chinese literati were mostly interested in the scientific and technological side of the invention. Concerning the aristocracy, they regarded the clocks simply as exotic and decorative objects that could serve as fine symbols of showing status. It is very prominent that such fascination of mechanical clocks brought a huge change to China. The new fast-developing fashion helped to create a lot of workplaces. New imperial workshops were created where the missionaries acted as teachers of Chinese craftsmen who were requiring much effort in order to master in the producing clocks for the court. There were established workshops in Beijing as well as more of them were built in the port of Canton, where European ships sailed up (Mungello).

European Influence on Art During Qing China

As long as the main task of Christian missionaries remained to spread Christianity, they used every possible tool in order to implement their aim. One of such tools was art. Often holy pictures were more effective than the words while helping the Chinese to understand the mysteries or Christianity. Paintings, illustrations in the books and engravings devoted to the religious topics served the educational purpose. The interest the Renaissance oil paintings sparked in the Chinese people was enormous. They stood in long queues waiting their turn to see the magnificent pieces of Western art, which were exposed in Christian churches. The Chinese were impressed by the lifelike quality and the possibility to use the three dimensional space on the European paintings. It is worth noting that the pictures stimulated the huge interest. Moreover, engravings were copied by Chinese masters of wood and beautiful books were translated and spread all over China (Mungello). They had a great intellectual influence on China. The Chinese culture had the chance to assimilate the special technique, which allowed the three dimensional way of painting. Jesuits were willing to teach their Chinese friends how to apply the technique of perspective since they believed that it was very theological and expressed the logical principles due to which the world was created by God. At the beginning of Qing dynasty rule, a school of perspective was established at the imperial court, and painter Giovanni Gherardini became its director. The Kangxi emperor was fascinated by the painter. Moreover, when Giovanni, after five years of devotional work, expressed the desire to move to France, the Emperor did not want to release him first. The Gherardini’s influence on Chinese art remained significant for a long time. His students continued to enrich the Chinese culture. The missionaries encouraged the Emperor’s and literati’s interest in the technique of perspective. They published Chinese adaptation of Perspectiva Pictorum et Architectorum by Pozzo for Chinese painters (41).

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European Influence on Medicine During Qing China

The achievements of qualified medical missionaries and their influences were very prominent. The number of hospitals and dispensaries increased from forty in 1876 to two hundred and fifty in 1905. Some of them could offer the most up-to-date medical treatment and care. The Westerns brought new scientific knowledge and medical techniques to which Chinese were completely unaccustomed, but they expressed high interest in its studying because they approved to be successful. For example, under the supervision of Dr J. G. Kerr of the American Presbyterian Mission, more than million patients were treated. However, at the end of the nineteenth century he founded the first institution for mentally retarded people in Lhina (Cohen). Some of Chinese physicians, who first got their education in the mission schools, went to the West for further medical training. For others the opportunity appeared to be trained in the medical schools attached to the hospitals which were established by the missionaries. The intellectual impact on Chinese medicine became more tangible over the years and even went beyond the boundaries of medicine. By 1937, there had been seventy hospitals built by French Catholic organizations and three hundred built by the Christian missions from Great Britain (Weizun). Chinese literati sought the advice from missionaries not only regarding the subjects related to the public health but also those referring to education, sanitation, housing, and water supply (Cohen).

European Influence on Publishing and Journalism During Qing China

Catholic and Protestant missionaries played a significant role since most of them did not perceived their mission as spreading only Christian gospel. They acted, according to Albert Feuetwerker, as “cultural brokers” sharing Western values, thought and knowledge with the natives. First, under the missionaries’ supervision, different private associations, newspapers and educational institutions were organized. Later, the Diffusion of Christian and General Knowledge among the Chinese (SDK) society was created, which undertook the task of spreading Western culture among the Chinese elite. The organization was responsible for translation of many European publications, for example, Robert MacKenzie’s History of the nineteenth century and History of the Sino-Japanese War (Chang). One of the most important contributions of the society to the intellectual altering of the Chinese minds was the popularization of The Church News magazine founded by the American missionary Young J. Allen in 1868. The title of the magazine was changed to The Globe Magazine and its content included news in secular knowledge and a forum for public proposals. It was published in literary Chinese and presented the newest information on the current world affairs. Consequently, European intellectual influence during the Qing began to be widely felt in China. This magazine, along with other SDK publications, appeared to be a vehicle of growing social criticism and a nice example for the modern socially and politically oriented Chinese journalism.

European Influence on Education During Qing China

It is worth noting that it was harder to gain the acceptance and approval in the field of education than that in the field of medicine or journalism. In the majority of cases Protestant missionaries succeeded to obtain public acknowledgement. They prevailed over their Catholic colleagues who were in charge of many schools but those of the elementary levels and conducted only lessons of religion and Chinese literature. During the conference of Protestant missionaries in 1877 American Presbyterian Calvin Mateer was the first person who raised the question of the importance of secular education in China. He highlighted the growing missionaries’ responsibility in that field. The conference resulted in creation of a “School and Textbook Series Committee” (Cohen 576). According to Mateer, “the success of mission schools depended in no small measure on having good suitable textbooks”. Therefore, in 1890, under the Committee supervision along with publishing of 84 books, different maps and charts were produced for the secular usage. Moreover, these books had huge intellectual influence on the young people of China. In addition, the instructions were given in English. Therefore, the children grew accustomed to the foreign language and had a chance to continue their education in the West. One more advantage of this program was that the books did not need to be translated. Protestants had great educational facilities and became responsible not only for numeral schools but also for hundreds of higher-level establishments among which there were colleges. As opposed to Catholics, Protestants also thought Western subjects in their educational institutions. Irvin Hygatt, one of the participants of the Conference, raised the issue of the new generation of professional teachers who appeared in China among missionaries: “These men are heavily committed to educational work and … represent … a new type of missionary educator”. The authority of Protestant Church was becoming stronger. The School and Textbook Series Committee grew into the Educational Association of China (EAC): “By the time of the third general conference of Protestant missionaries (1907) the EAC had a membership of four hundred”. It set educational standards and stimulated the growth of knowledge and science in China.

European Influence on Science and Mathematics During Qing China

Despite the fact that Protestants were considered inconsistent by the Chinese people, they produced more mathematics, logic and science books than those about all other secular subjects. In the beginning of the nineteenth century translating teams consisted of missionary and Chinese members. They were successfully coping with the translation of scientific sources from English to Chinese. One of the most prominent translating teams of those times was the one consisted of a British missionary Alexander Whylie and a gifted Chinese mathematician Li Shanlan. Another example of a man devoted to bring education and science to China is John Frayer, who was a teacher in a missionary school and later became a translator with a total number of 77 works translated (Cohen 578-579). The intellectual influence of such translation was that the science in China was greatly stimulated. Such encounter with “Western Knowledge” during the Qing dynasty times allowed Chinese terminological and conceptual language to improve and caused a radical change in the Chinese discursive landscape. They adopted a lot of European logic traditions which were introduced to China for two times during the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. This tradition was perceived as an entirely alien area of intellectual inquiry (Kurtz 4). It is interesting that even Chinese translators did not distinguish any similarities between this “exotic” foreign science and Chinese practices. However, these new adopted notions were used more frequently later and had a large influence on Chinese logic and mathematics thought.

European Influence on Emancipation of Women During Qing China

The intellectual influence of Europe irreversibly led to the modernization of China. One of the consequences of such changes was the emancipation of Chinese women. According to traditions of the country, the women did not have much freedom of choice there and were usually limited in their self-expression. They were humble, and within their families they had fewer rights than any other family member. Women were supposed to submit to their parents’ and husbands’ will. Moreover, there were no opportunities for them to get any education except the necessary minimum acquired at home. Protestant missions included a lot of women who were talented teachers and even physicians. Therefore, Protestants began their campaign for equal rights of the women in China. This campaign took several directions. One of them was the impact they made in anti-foot binding movement (Cohen). Foot binding is a special Chinese tradition of strongly tying bandages around women’s feet in order to make them look smaller because men consider such trend very attractive. Moreover, women did not have right to expose their bare feet: “Exposing bare, bound feet was unheard of in Chinese society; women were only to be seen wearing traditional “lotus shoes” (Hunter). The first society which stood against the cruel tradition was founded by the missionaries in 184. The women who wanted to go to the churches or girls who attended missionary schools were forbidden to bind their feet. The most prominent foreign influence on abolition of the tradition was made by the Natural Foot Society under the guidance of Mrs Archibald Little who was not a missionary. The foreign pressure made the empress to forbid this terrible practice in 1902 (Hunter). Moreover, Europeans put much effort while trying to bring the possibility of education to Chinese women. The first school for girls was Mrs Aldersey’s opened in Ningro in 1844. Owing to the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East, girls were also welcomed to higher educational institutions (Cohen).


It is very noticeable that the intellectual acceleration in different social-culture spheres of China during the Qing dynasty rule was stimulated by Western expansion. Since 1840s the Western transformative influence had reached China, which involved the socio-economic re-organization of the country. The economic growth stimulated by the Western expansion was especially ambitious in the treaty ports, namely the areas closely connected with the world market. The processes of intellectual and social changes were related to this growth. New professional workers and brainpower emerged. Along with the increasing possibilities of interaction with the outside world, all these processes resulted in creation of new values, expectations and behavioral patterns.
The positive outcome of the contact with European civilization was the fact that the cultural horizon of Chinese people had been largely expanded. The disadvantage of such process was that this contact made them feel somehow alienated from their native traditions and caused the problem of cultural identity for the new born Chinese intellectuals.

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