The “Edifying and Curious Letters of some Missioners, of the Society of Jesus, from Foreign Missions” written in the 16th century contain descriptions of China, its culture and philosophy. But these descriptions are skewed and could be considered as representations because Jesuits were in contact with just one “social class” of the Chinese population, the Mandarins. They also have to justify their missions to Rome and present China in a positive light. The Letters have been a window on China and a lot of philosophers of Enlightenment have read them.
This paper attempts to describe in a critical way how Jesuits have misrepresented China and its philosophy and to measure their impact. The aim is to provide some tentative explanation of their implication in the inherited imaginary in Chinese philosophy in France and to analyse their politic of writing about China.
It will be shown that the Jesuits have portrayed China as a strange, exotic and curious world with hieroglyphic writing. They are at the origin of the “clichés” of the despotic emperor and of Chinese wise man which is still in minds today. The Jesuits were the first to put forward the thesis of “backwardness” of China in Sciences which has had during centuries a negative influence on the representation of China, and its philosophy was accused of being as outdated and not logical or rational.
The Chinese Chameleon Revisited: From the Jesuits to Zhang Yimou, pp.34-60