I have been here but two days, so will not be hasty in my decisions. Such letters as I write to Fipsihi in Moscow, I beg you'll endeavour to forward with all diligence; I shall send them open in order that you may take copies or translations, as you are equally versed in the Dutch and Chinese languages.
... Letter III.I think I've talked about my potential dissertation topic several times on this blog already, and each time it keeps changing. (Not a bad thing, yet.) Now, though, I think I've finally begun to outline something coherent, so I wanted to record it here--after all, it will likely shape at least the next five years of my life.
From Lien Chi Altangi, to the care of Fipsihi, resident in Moscow; to be forwarded by the Russian caravan to Fum Hoam, First President in the Ceremonial Academy at Pekin, in China...
- Oliver Goldsmith, The Citizen of the World (1760)
What do we know about China and Europe in the eighteenth century, assuming we have some minimal level of interest in the period? Well, we know about chinoiserie, the continent-wide fashion for Chinese porcelain, furnishings, philosophy, and culture that most people place somewhere in the first half of the century. We know that Europeans were having trouble getting the Chinese to take them seriously. If we're a little bit more into it than that, we know about the Jesuits and their pioneering role in publicizing information about China; a little bit more, and we know about the Rites Controversy and the previous century's attempt to use Chinese as a prototype for a universal language. But there, in all but a handful of cases, our knowledge stops. Somehow the professional discipline of Sinology appears out of nowhere in the nineteenth century and the Jesuits disappear entirely (sometime around the time of their order's dissolution in 1773). Generally speaking, we don't think to inquire about how the knowledge got from China to Europe in the first place. We think, perhaps, about ships launching from Canton and landing in Le Havre. But what about that big European country that happened so conveniently to be located directly in the middle?
A handful of people have, in fact, recognized that Sinology existed as a discipline in eighteenth-century Russia. These, unfortunately, are not generally people with any interest in intellectual history. Russia is interesting to them because it was Westernizing, modernizing, becoming enlightened--and the assumption is inevitably that the direction of knowledge-transfer could only go one way. One of the most learned and sensitive scholars of Russo-Chinese relations dismisses the issue in two sentences: "Whenever Montesquieu or Voltaire, or Jesuit letters, had something to say on China it would be infinitely more interesting to the salons of St. Petersburg than anything Ilarion Rossokhin could ever expect to write. Indeed, their national energies were so wholly absorbed in the process of "Westernization" that Russians were unable to focus attention on their own experience in China."
Now, the problem here is not that the statement is wrong: it's true that Russian Sinologists usually found little favor in their own country. It's that it's wrongly conceived. Someone interested in how Russia used its "national energies" will find little of interest in this peripheral disciplinary history, since all the action was clearly in annexing territory, whupping the Turks and Swedes, and writing mannered neoclassical poems. It's even more of an obstacle when literally all the available studies treat the Russo-Chinese relationship as something that takes place between two masses labeled "Russia" and "China," like a game of Civilization. When you are writing diplomatic history, this works--but step into the realm of ideas and it turns out that your basic principles are incoherent. Ideas are not like "research points" you accumulate by moving the "national energies" slider.
In fact, if there was ever a historical conjuncture that demanded a truly international treatment, it was eighteenth-century "Russian" Sinology. Thus, Russia's seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ambassadors to China (and earliest writers on the subject) included a Moldavian who spent much of his career in the Ottoman Empire; a Dane; a Slovak who began his career in Venice; and the adoptive son, of uncertain Scandinavian nationality, of a Scottish doctor turned Russian official. Two of the people most actively involved with the Sinological world--the Prussian Gottlieb (Theophilus) Bayer and the Frenchman J. N. Delisle--were barely even Russian subjects and certainly were not Russian culturally. Moreover, Russo-Chinese contacts would be impossible without the Jesuits, who were themselves an international bunch. (No wonder, then, that treaties between the two countries were invariably signed in Latin first.)
Those Jesuits, whom we so strongly associate with the early history of Sinology, were in fact tightly linked to the Russians by ties of mutual dependence. Our traditional story holds that the Chinese were so enthralled by nifty Jesuit inventions and science that they permitted them to spread the Good Word as long as they provided technical assistance. By the eighteenth century, this was no longer true: although Kangxi seems to have appreciated the Jesuits as people, he no longer had much use for their skills. As the Jesuits frankly admitted, they were needed principally for one purpose: to facilitate communication with Russia. The Russians, in turn, relied on them for secret information (passed on illicitly on the basis of a feeling of shared Europeanness) as well as communication. Accordingly, something like three-quarters of the letters of the Jesuit Antoine Gaubil (which fill a thousand-page volume) were sent to or from Russian correspondents.
It's hard to tell why this is never mentioned except as an afterthought. Presumably, like in so many other cases, the Russian connection is peremptorily dismissed because Russia can be seen only as a passive recipient of Western beneficence. On the other hand, nationalist Russian scholars resist digging too deeply into the issue because it turns out that the lines between "Russian" and "foreign" are much blurrier than they'd like. A hardy backwoods boy like Lomonosov is a much more reassuring culture-hero than Bayer, who probably couldn't make himself understood in Russian at all.
But there are more substantive reasons too. Only a handful of Russian translations of Chinese texts were published in Europe, though the fact that they were suggests someone was reading them. Meanwhile, the academic structure within which the works of Russian Sinologists were published meant that dozens of them were turned out to the broad indifference of the aristocratic "general reader": it mattered little to Aleksei Leontiev, one of the leading figures in the field, whether anyone was buying them or not, since he was getting paid either way. It is therefore hard to estimate the influence of Russian Sinologists in Europe in the second half of the century, but it seems to have been unimpressive. (I plan to look at more specialized and state-centered discourses, such as geography, military science, and industrial R&D, to see how the situation was different there.)
In the early nineteenth century, Sinology reemerges out of the taiga, a development associated most closely with the name of Julius Klaproth. As far as I can tell, Klaproth did not like Russia and, later in life, tried to disassociate himself from it as much as possible--but in actuality it was only by working in the Russian service, with manuscripts in Russian libraries, and with scholars who benefited from Romanov-Qing diplomacy that he could get his start as a Sinologist. Meanwhile, Iakinf Bichurin, among the leading Sinologists of the century, got his start by catastrophically mismanaging the Russian Orthodox mission in Beijing. As a fervent patriot, it is likely that he exerted as much strength in pulling Russian Sinology away from Europe as Klaproth did--but he produced so much enduring work that the Russian contribution could no longer be doubted. I suspect that the eighteenth-century experience was revised largely under the influence of narratives peddled by Bichurin and Klaproth to their respective home audiences.
None of the above should be treated as established fact yet. I have a lot of reading to do before I even grasp the outline of the relevant events. Nonetheless, I hope the global and Russified prehistory of modern Sinology makes for a good story--or, failing that, "fills a hole in the research." Comments would be appreciated.