A Global Enlightenment: History, Science, and the Birth of Sinology


Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowships




At the end of the Enlightenment, some French savants came to criticize China because it seemed stuck in the past; others praised it for the same reason. For those who challenged the emerging view of progress, China had much to offer. Like gunpowder, printing, and the compass, all new European science might have had ancient Chinese antecedents. Had Daoist alchemists built the first hot-air balloons? Was the theory of animal magnetism prefigured by yin-yang cosmology? Scholars looked to Beijing to investigate. There, the ex-Jesuit missionary Joseph-Marie Amiot fostered a global conversation that included a French statesman, a Swiss freemason, a Chinese barber, and a Manchu prince. Together, they searched for Atlantis, discovered kung-fu, and invented Tarot card divination. In the process, they cemented the view of timeless China and paved the way for modern sinology. This dissertation shows how Europeans claimed for themselves a monopoly on progress and recast China as a land of mysterious alternatives.