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Image of Photo of Prof Kerry Brown and image of book cover for China Through European Eyes

China Through European Eyes: 800 Years of Cultural and Intellectual Encounter

The China Forum seminar on Tuesday 30 April 2024 was delivered by Professor (Professor of Chinese Studies and Director, , ).

Kerry Brown’s lecture, based on the jointly authored book, , examined the tremendous changes over the long run in western perceptions of China, which have oscillated between idealization and demonization. Marco Polo established the foundational positive western image of China. During the European Enlightenment Matteo Ricci’s writings reinforced an optimistic perception of China. Leibniz and Voltaire both wrote enthusiastically about China’s meritocratic system of government. Montesquieu (1689-1755) was an outlier in this era, in his perception of China as a ‘despotic’ system without rule by law. Lord McCartney's embassy to China (1792-94) was a hugely important encounter between China and the West. The members of the mission returned with radically contrasting views. George Staunton wrote with great enthusiasm about China’s government and ethical system, while John Barrow, considered China to be ‘sterile’ and ‘stagnant’. In the 1820s Hegel argued that China was a country ‘without a history’.

In the 20th century, Carl Jung, Max Weber, and Bertrand Russell, all had a deep interest in China. They each tried to understand the ways in which it was different from the West. Weber attempted a deep study of Chinese religion. Jung was a close student of the I-Ching. Russell visited China in 1921-22 and developed a ‘positive but nuanced’ view of China. It constituted the first attempt by a westerner to attempt a ‘moral accounting’ of China. In Professor Brown’s view, this approach has been a persistent problem in Western engagement with China. Joseph Needham’s engagement with China was highly significant. He viewed Chinese science as an ‘intellectual partner’ and examined the history of science in China by using an intellectual framework that was common to the two cultures.

Western contact with China was reduced radically following the creation of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Since China entered the era of ‘reform and opening-up’ in 1978, western views of China have continued to oscillate between idealization and demonization. The EU and Britain have both shifted from viewing China as a collaborator to viewing it as a competitor and adversary. Underlying changing western perceptions of China have been a profound shift in the balance of economic, military, technological and cultural power. The asymmetries have shifted decisively in China's favour during the last 20 years, creating huge challenges for Europeans’ narrative about China. In Professor Brown’s view, Europe needs to adopt a more pragmatic approach and think in terms of ‘what Europeans need from China’, rather than ‘what Europeans can do for China’.

Issues discussed in Q&A included: the extent to which the UK’s governing classes are interested in promoting serious and deep understanding of China; evidence concerning UK government allocation of resources to enhancing popular understanding of China; prospects for genuine mutual understanding between Europe and China; the idea in the Zhong Yong (Middle Way) that ‘in nature living things grow together without harming each other’; the role of the US in the European-China relationship; the extent to which the mass media in China and the West view each other negatively; the extent to which the West’s values are universal; the extent to which conflict between China and the West can be resolved; reasons why people in the West should be interested in China and think about the civilisation differently; the clash between Chinese and Western universalisms; and the current state of the European-China relationship and the prospects for improvement.

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. From 2012 to 2015 he was Professor of Chinese Politics and Director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, Australia. Prior to this he worked at Chatham House from 2006 to 2012, as Senior Fellow and then Head of the Asia Programme. From 1998 to 2005 he worked at the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, as First Secretary at the British Embassy in Beijing, and then as Head of the Indonesia, Philippine and East Timor Section. He previously graduated from Cambridge University and has a PhD in Chinese politics and language from Leeds University. He is the author of 20 books on modern Chinese politics. His ‘’, a comprehensive history of Britain’s relations with China, is scheduled for release by Yale University Press in 2024, alongside a study of Taiwan with Penguin Books.