Globalizing China or Sinicizing the Global? On Alexander Statman’s “A Global Enlightenment” and Ali Humayun Akhtar’s “1368”

Gianamar Giovannetti-Singh reviews Alexander Statman’s “A Global Enlightenment: Western Progress and Chinese Science” and Ali Humayun Akhtar’s “1368: China and the Making of the Modern World.”

Globalizing China or Sinicizing the Global? On Alexander Statman’s “A Global Enlightenment” and Ali Humayun Akhtar’s “1368”

1368: China and the Making of the Modern World by Ali Humayun Akhtar. Stanford University Press. 256 pages.A Global Enlightenment: Western Progress and Chinese Science by Alexander Statman. University of Chicago Press. 320 pages.

WE LIVE in a time when discussions of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) role in geopolitics and of its paramount leader Xi Jinping’s vision of the global order show up regularly in news reports. What can books about China offer to those interested in cross-cultural interactions before the current era? And how can the burgeoning field of global history help revise our understanding of China’s past? The two books under review pursue deeply divergent approaches to these interrelated questions, both of which have topical as well as scholarly significance.


Alexander Statman’s A Global Enlightenment: Western Progress and Chinese Science (2023) is a magnificent intellectual history of the late Enlightenment’s interest in Chinese knowledge traditions, revealing their central role in European debates over the meaning and value of “progress.” By contrast, Ali Humayun Akhtar’s 1368: China and the Making of the Modern World (2022) is an ambitious macrohistory of imperial China’s exchanges with neighboring and distant states.


While superficially concerned with similar issues, A Global Enlightenment and 1368 offer starkly contrasting images of China’s engagement with other polities, past and present. For Akhtar, China’s contributions to “the making of the modern world” comprise the spread of the empire’s visual, material, and intellectual cultures across Central Asian khanates, Southeast Asian sultanates, Japanese shogunates, the Dutch Republic, and Victorian Britain. On Statman’s account, instead, 18th-century Europeans’ engagement with China’s history, religions, and sciences lay at the very heart of the Enlightenment’s efforts to define both itself and “modernity.” In other words, while Akhtar tells a protracted, Sinocentric story of China’s globalization, Statman reconstructs in meticulous detail a key episode in which European conceptions of modernity and Enlightenment were themselves Sinicized.


In exploring Enlightenment attitudes toward China, Statman contributes to the lively literature on Sino-European interactions. Scholars in this field have long been fascinated by the rapid souring of European assessments of Chinese culture in the late 18th century, following nearly 200 years of panegyrics on the Middle Kingdom by Jesuit missionaries. Unlike earlier studies, however, Statman takes as his starting point the suppression of the Jesuit order, announced in Beijing on November 15, 1775. The Jesuit order, by then viewed with suspicion for its extensive transnational reach and political power, had been shut down by the Holy See in 1773. Statman draws much-needed attention to the forsaken “ex-Jesuits” who remained in China after the abolition of their order in Rome. Far from shying away from their predecessors’ scientific activities, the ex-Jesuits retained and even expanded their interests in natural philosophy, studying “all the mysteries of physics” with Manchu interlocutors like Prince Hongwu, a grandson of the late Kangxi emperor, one of the most famous rulers of the Qing empire (1644–1912). Statman’s protagonists are not celebrity philosophes like Voltaire and Condorcet, but rather “orphans of the Enlightenment: erstwhile members of the Enlightenment family who felt like they were being left behind,” both in Paris and Beijing.


Reviving a treasure trove of exchanges between the ex-Jesuit Joseph-Marie Amiot (1718–93) and his extensive epistolary network, Statman makes two major revisionist arguments. First, he convincingly shows that the concept of progress in Europe emerged in dialogue with the Enlightenment orphans’ investigations into Chinese religious and intellectual cultures. Thanks to the many Jesuit accounts of China’s lengthy chronology, most early modern Europeans viewed the empire as a profoundly ancient and static state. However, value judgments of these traits were rapidly changing in 18th-century Europe. Indeed, while in 1756 China’s antiquity encouraged Voltaire to deem it the “cradle of all the arts,” by 1773 that same characteristic led Cornelis de Pauw to claim that China remained in a state of “eternal infancy.” Attitudes toward antiquity—and with it, China—took a sharp turn for the worse in the late Enlightenment. However, as Statman’s second revisionist intervention makes clear, this shift did not mean that Europeans lost interest in Chinese science. Far from it. Throughout the late Enlightenment, the orphans remained deeply and seriously fascinated by China and its ancient knowledge as a scholarly and political resource. As Statman summarizes, what “took place toward the end of the Enlightenment was not the expulsion of Chinese models, but their realignment.”


A Global Enlightenment analyzes several illuminating, chronologically ordered episodes of cross-cultural science-in-the-making involving various orphans of the Enlightenment. We learn about the integration of Chinese sources, such as the allegedly ancient Stele of King Yu the Great, into anti-progressive theories of history, as well as hypothesized connections between the Chinese and the lost Hyperborean civilization of Atlantis. An outstanding chapter on “the yin-yang theory of animal magnetism” reveals how Amiot and the comte de Mellet drew on Daoist theories and practices of transcendental ecstasy and kung fu to explain Franz Mesmer’s voguish theory of an invisible magnetic force between all living things. For orphans such as Jean-Sylvain Bailly, Antoine Court de Gébelin, Amiot, and de Mellet, the latest European scientific discoveries were nothing more than the recovery of ancient Chinese knowledge.


The orphans of the Enlightenment had created a truly hybrid natural philosophy. However, as Statman explains, the association of Chinese knowledge with unorthodox practices and philosophies served to alienate it from the late Enlightenment’s established scientific authorities. The orphans’ Chinese studies had two main consequences in early-19th-century Europe. On the one hand, they relayed the bulk of primary sources on which a new class of professional Sinologists built their discipline. On the other, the scientific establishment’s rejection of the orphans’ eccentric theories—which emphasized the commensurability between the ancient East and modern West—resulted in the excision of Chinese knowledge from the canon of capital-P Philosophy. As Hegel pronounced, the Chinese were the most superstitious society in the world; a radical volte-face on Voltaire’s assessment of China in 1756 as the world’s most rational state and Confucius its most rational philosopher.


A Global Enlightenment ends by tracing the legacies of the post-Enlightenment’s tarring of China as a fundamentally ancient and thus unscientific civilization into the 20th-century scholarship of Joseph Needham, perhaps the world’s best-known Sinologist. Needham is famous for his eponymous “grand question”: namely, why did modern science arise in Europe rather than China, given China’s “much more efficient” history of applying natural knowledge to practical needs? As Statman explains, variations of the Needham question had been asked as early as 1735. However, it was only in the 19th century, once China and its knowledge traditions had been deemed an alternative rather than connected to modern European science, that the question could take on its modern meaning.


Akhtar’s 1368 follows a very different approach to examining China’s relationship to global history. The book begins by asking heavily loaded questions reminiscent of Needham’s: “When did China, one of the leading manufacturing centers of the ancient world, lose its innovative edge to Europe, and to what extent did China’s older legacy during the Great Ming (1368–1644) and Qing dynasties (1644–1912) pave the way for modern industrialization?” Akhtar contends that the meteoric rise of China as a high-tech manufacturing superpower in the 21st century is but a “second iteration” of its first globalization many centuries ago. His book tells a “rise and fall” story, surveying the making and breaking of the myriad connections the Ming and Qing empires established with disparate parts of the world.


The aim of 1368 is to explain how the Ming empire became “a global power.” It emphasizes the importance of Muslim networks—both the Central Asian silk routes and the Southeast Asian spice routes—in the spread of Chinese material and intellectual cultures. The book explores China’s influence in Central Asia, and, making use of two travel accounts—one in Persian and the other in Ottoman Turkish—illustrates how Chinese imperial aesthetics were often appropriated by neighboring states to project political power. Elsewhere, it draws on the travel accounts of the Ming Muslim sailor Ma Huan to identify a population of Chinese Muslims in Java, and uses three Malay-language epics (the Chronicle of the Kings of Pasai, the Chronicle of Hang Tuah, and the Malay Annals) to argue that Southeast Asia constituted the “crossroads of the world’s encounters” with China.


In its second half, recounting interactions between the Chinese empire and Iberian sailors, Jesuit missionaries, Dutch traders, and British colonial administrators, respectively, 1368 retells a relatively familiar narrative arc of Ming and Qing China’s rise and fall. We learn how the Iberians’ search for the Spice Islands rapidly turned into a search for Chinese commodities, how the Jesuits’ scholarship brought Chinese philosophy to an Enlightened European public, and how the Dutch carried a steady supply of Chinese porcelain and tea to Europe. The book tells of how the British transplantation of tea in its South Asian colonial possessions, the Opium Wars, and the Sino-Japanese War rapidly brought “[t]he era of China’s global cultural transfer […] to an end.” Lastly, it discusses Japan’s “modernization” following the Meiji Restoration and argues that the direction of cultural and intellectual influence between China and Japan had shifted from the latter to the former by the late 19th century, marking the decisive end of “global China” until the late 20th century.


Two aspects of 1368 are especially admirable. The first is its prominent focus on how material artifacts, such as silk, porcelain, and tea, shaped the political dynamics of transcultural exchange during China’s first globalization. The book contains impressively detailed accounts of the production and use of these commodities. Another commendable aspect is 1368’s use of sources in several Asian languages to reconstruct what impressions Persians, Ottomans, and Malays formed of China, thus integrating perspectives that are often absent from Anglophone global histories, which tend to focus predominantly on connections between the West and “the rest.”


However, 1368 also has notable shortcomings. Perhaps the most obvious is its title. Above all else, 1368 emphasizes continuity between the cross-cultural exchanges of earlier periods and of the Ming, seeking to revise once-commonplace narratives of the Ming as an age of cultural isolation. Thus, naming the book after the year during which, Akhtar argues, China continued to foster preexisting global connections, is somewhat strange. Another limitation is 1368’s expansive temporal scope. While Akhtar is correct in emphasizing that China engaged in transformative cross-cultural interactions throughout the Ming and Qing periods, it remains near impossible to write a nuanced transcontinental history of over five centuries of history in 179 pages. In sum, 1368 is a valuable overview of China’s global interactions during the final centuries of monarchical rule but occasionally suffers from an uncritical replication of its primary sources’ triumphalism.


A Global Enlightenment and 1368 are very different books. Yet reading them together is particularly illuminating. The vision of globalization outlined in 1368 strongly resembles that shared by Statman’s orphans of the Enlightenment, celebrating China’s bygone and anticipated future globalization, and the global political shifts that may engender. Read alongside 1368, Statman’s historical analysis becomes all the more pertinent to the present.


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Gianamar Giovannetti-Singh is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the faculty of history at the University of Cambridge and the Lumley Junior Research Fellow in history at Magdalene College, Cambridge, in addition to being short-listed as a BBC New Generation Thinker in 2023. His work has appeared in History Workshop Journal, Modern Intellectual History, Isis, and the Journal of the History of Ideas.

LARB Contributor

Gianamar Giovannetti-Singh is a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow in the faculty of history at the University of Cambridge and the Lumley Junior Research Fellow in history at Magdalene College, Cambridge. His work has appeared in History Workshop Journal, Modern Intellectual History, Isis, and the Journal of the History of Ideas. In 2023, he was short-listed as a BBC New Generation Thinker.

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