- The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800, and: The Vision of China in the English Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries
Historians of European culture, those of Chinese intellectual history, and all scholars who seek to establish for the study of world history interpretive foundations that make it more than an uneasy, often disjointed, patchwork of European and non-European themes will welcome the publication of these two volumes dealing with one of the most crucial and revealing periods of cross-cultural interpretation in early-modern times. The first, David E. Mungello's The Great Encounter of China and the West, 1500-1800, takes the broader, more complete, and surely more balanced perspective, surveying developments from the beginning of the sixteenth century through the beginning of the nineteenth, focusing not only on the Chinese reception and ultimate rejection of Western culture but equally on the same themes in the West's attempts to come to terms with China.
Despite its considerable breadth, Mungello's book is by far the briefer, compressing its encyclopedic coverage into just over one hundred pages of well-illustrated text (twenty nicely reproduced black-and-white pictures and two useful maps).1 The brevity of Mungello's book might suggest that it was meant only for [End Page 521] freshman-level surveys of world history or Chinese and/or Western history; however, this book, with its wealth of information and insight, can well serve upper- level students embarking on a more in-depth study of the problem of Sino Western cultural interaction and interpretation, and general readers who seek to enhance their understanding of China and the profound misunderstandings that have so frequently characterized Sino-Western encounters in the past.
Although Mungello has produced numerous scholarly volumes such as Leibniz and Confucianism: The Search for Accord (University of Hawai'i Press, 1977 ), Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology (Franz Steiner, 1985), The Forgotten Christians of Hangzhou (University of Hawai'i Press, 1994 ), and The Rites Controversy: Its History and Meaning (Steyler, 1994), the book under review here, The Great Encounter, is more of a textbook than a scholarly monograph. As Mungello acknowledges, for example, "the scholarly apparatus" has been kept to a minimum, and "there are no footnotes." Nevertheless, The Great Encounter is clearly the product of considerable erudition as well as interpretive sensitivity. The latter aspect must be emphasized since earlier studies of Sino Western relations have frequently been of the "Western impact, Chinese reaction" variety.
As Mungello's book makes clear, there is far more to the story than this. The Great Encounter explores four main themes: (1) the Chinese acceptance of Western culture and Christianity, (2) the Chinese rejection of the same, (3) the Western acceptance of Chinese culture, and (4) the Western rejection of it. In developing the first theme, Mungello avoids easy characterizations of the Chinese as an insular people, and instead takes seriously those Chinese, mostly Neo-Confucian literati, who in the first century and a half of contact with Christian missionaries and Western culture were influenced by the latter two. Mungello's multifaceted account of the Chinese rejection of Western culture is impressive both at the general level and in terms of its concrete detail. Yet most striking is Mungello's reminder that "the Chinese rejection of Christianity was neither total nor permanent." In this connection he observes that the recent resurgence of Christianity within China suggests that "seeds sown by Christian missionaries in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries simply took several centuries to harvest" (p. 46). Mungello adds, rightly, that "such a long-term perspective is particularly appropriate" in relation to a culture as ancient as that of the Chinese (p. 46).