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This article is taken from PN Review 207, Volume 39 Number 1, September - October 2012.

Catchwords 17 Iain Bamforth
Civilisation Extended

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Europe looked to France as its cultural model. The French in their turn were fascinated by the civilisation of that other Middle Kingdom, China, elements of which had been transmitted to them by the Jesuits. Louis XIV celebrated the turn of the century in Paris with a Chinese firework display. The famous symmetrical French gardens were superseded, at the end of the eighteenth century, by Chinese-style gardens, which like the English gardens rejected symmetry in favour of nature and rustic scenes: they were often called 'anglo-chinois'.

It is short-changing China to imagine that it is our generation which has discovered its civilisation and energy. As soon as the Portuguese had opened up the sea-routes to Asia, China was giving us objects. Printing, gunpowder and the compass had already made their way to Europe via the Arabs. But a new import era began in 1601, when the scholar Matteo Ricci arrived in Peking to establish his mission there. Many memoirs in French and Latin were published concerning China and things Chinese, and enthusiasm for the practices of this ancient civilisation exploded in such diverse fields as furniture design, landscape gardening, architecture and the arts, and in the new luxury industries of porcelain and lacquerware. The consciousness of China, it could even be said, helped to loosen the authority of the Church: Confucianism was a moral system which had developed without any help from the Gentiles and clearly merited ...

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