Yale historian delivers 6th installment of Chinese history lecture series

Historians in the News

Jonathan Spence, Yale historian and leading authority on China, delivered the sixth annual W. Bruce Lincoln Lecture Monday.

Spence’s speech focused on China’s first visits to Europe in the 17th century and how the Chinese interacted with the English and the French at the time.

“The story I want to tell is how the Chinese tried to understand Western culture just as we tried to understand their culture,” Spence said.

Spence said the Western world was always interested in understanding the commerce and mystery of China. He added that the earliest Western explorers of China included Marco Polo and Catholic missionaries. They saw China as being powerful and enigmatic.

“China was particularly powerful in government, rituals, geographical skills and interpretation of chronology,” Spence said. “A flurry of books came out about China in the 16th century.”

China did not share the West’s enthusiasm for exploration. Spence said it is very hard to find any reciprocal interest from China. He added that the Chinese didn’t begin to venture out into the West until the 17th century.

Spence said the first fully documented person to visit the Western world was Michael Shen Fu-Tsung. He explained that Shen was born into a well-off Christian family and was invited by missionaries to travel from China to Europe in 1681. While visiting the West, Shen traveled from Amsterdam to France, and then to Rome, attempting to publish a book detailing the
values of early Chinese culture.

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