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JONATHAN SPENCE: When Minds Met: China and the West in the Seventeenth Century


It is just over fifty years since I made my first wobbly attempts to read and write Chinese. Within a few weeks I was hooked completely by the complexity and scope of Chinese history and culture, and since that time I have continued to try and understand what makes this extraordinary civilization so difficult to understand and yet so rewarding. Back in 1959-1960, when I was a student, Mao and his pliant colleagues in the People's Republic of China were driving the entire country into apparently irreversible programs of fundamental economic transformation, known by the optimistic name of the Great Leap Forward. Now, in 2010, that particular Great Leap has faded from global discourse, and has been replaced by a different type of transformative and explosive economic growth, as China has learned how to marshal its vast potential along new tracks of reconstruction and change. I see this invitation to give the Jefferson Lecture as being an opportunity to present some thoughts concerning an earlier period of Chinese history, one in which concepts of cultural change were very much present. Westerners and Chinese in the late seventeenth century were able to share certain beliefs and priorities that show how the idea of a "Meeting of the Minds" could be a genuine force for exploration and possible change, but also for harmony and adaptation.

The particular meeting of the minds that I am exploring this evening occurred in the 1680s. That was just a century after the pioneering Italian Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (whom the Chinese still refer to by his Chinese name of "Li Madou") had crossed the border between Macao and China and rented a small house in Guangdong province. As a conversation piece, he placed on the wall a print of a world map made in the West, with the names of the main continents and countries spelled out in the Western alphabet. Some of the Chinese who came to visit were vexed, other were intrigued. It was those Chinese with the greatest interest in getting at the truth who persuaded Ricci to make an enlarged version of the world map with the names identified by Chinese characters, and with the cartography somewhat adjusted so that China was closer to the center of the map, rather than being stuck on the periphery (as had been the case with the original map). In following these Chinese requests, Ricci further revised and enlarged the map with descriptive passages (in Chinese) which gave commercial and political details of many countries in both Europe and East Asia, along with descriptive references to some aspect of the Catholic states, the role of the papacy, and the nature of Chinese relations with its neighbors.

Over the following years, a small but steady stream of missionaries followed Ricci, and even served in Chinese official positions in the bureau of astronomy. A smaller number of Chinese also traveled to Europe during this period, though none left detailed accounts of their experiences. But travelers moving in either direction during the 1680s were aware that there was a tough new emperor on the Chinese throne, on whose orders troops of the newly installed Qing dynasty had consolidated China's southwest borders, occupied the island of Taiwan and blocked Russian settlers in the north from intruding further into the territories claimed by China along the Amur River.

In England, just to complete this brief summary, the year 1685 marked the accession to the throne of King James II, who boldly identified himself as a Catholic ruler of his largely Protestant subjects. It soon became clear that King James II intended to roll back the anti-Catholic prohibitions so strongly imposed on England by the Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell. For those of the Catholic faith in particular, the times were fragile and unpredictable-and citizens of any faith were all too aware of the recent and disastrous Great Plague and Great Fire which had laid waste whole areas of London, including the old St. Paul's cathedral, no less than eighty-six parish churches, and at least forty-four of the grandest commercial company halls. London's recovery was steady but also expensive and King James II-trying to rule without Parliament-was soon to be forced from his throne and sent to live in exile in France.

It is a commonplace that the sources that underpin our concept of the humanities, as a focus for thought, are expected to be broadly inclusive. But as a historian I have always been drawn to the apparently small-scale happenings in circumscribed settings, out of which we can tease a more expansive story. Thus I would like to start our search for the meeting of the minds not only in the later seventeenth century, but with a most unassertive source, an apparently simple letter of introduction written by a scholar in England, at Oxford University, dated July 26, 1687. Though the language of the letter is rather formal, even neutral in tone, if we read it carefully we notice that the range of topics covered in a short space is unusual, and can serve as a useful guide to the kinds of issues that in the seventeenth century served to bring people of different ages, races, and backgrounds into a common dialogue.

The writer of this late July letter in 1687 was a historian and linguist named Thomas Hyde, fifty-one years old at the time, a scholar of wide interests, who conducted his researches in a variety of "Oriental" languages, including Persian, Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac. In his youth, Hyde had found employment in the "publick library" at Oxford, completing a catalogue of the enormous benefaction later known, from the name of its principle donor Thomas Bodley, as the Bodleian Library. With that project now safely behind him, and the catalogue completed except for the tracking of certain Chinese titles, Hyde felt free to delve more deeply into his ow

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