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This winding path leading to the Lop Nur basin is said to have been walked by Marco Polo.

Europe's 500-Year Chinese Dream

Age-old fables of mysterious Serica - the land of silk; Voltaire's admiration for Confucian thought; prized products such as delicate and refined porcelain and rare and expensive tea; Marco Polo's fascinating account of his voyage to China in the 13th century; for more than 500 years, Europeans have been dreaming their own Chinese Dream. European humanist thinkers have long displayed a passionate interest in and reverence for China's ancient civilization.

An illustration of the Nightingale from Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales. Andersen's story tells of the Chinese emperor and the mysterious and magnificent country he rules.

Origins of the Dream

An ancient Chinese book relates how, around 1000 B.C., Zhou Mu, the fifth King of the Zhou Dynasty, met the Queen Mother of the West by the Jade Pool in the Kunlun Mountains. Modern researchers believe that this story probably describes the first visit of a Chinese head of state to a western country. King Mu is thought to have travelled from China's Central Plain to Central Asia where he formally presented the Queen Mother of the West with a state gift of silk. This is the earliest record of the transmission of silk to the West.

In his great work History composed around 500 B.C., the Greek thinker Heredotus wrote that "the East is the cradle of all civilization and all wisdom." Greek documents dating from the 4th century B.C. refer to China as Serica - meaning the land of silkworms and silk. At this time, during the Warring States period of Chinese history, Chinese silk had already been known in Europe for a long time.

In the first century B.C., the Roman Consul Julius Caesar amazed a crowd of theatre-goers by arriving at a performance wearing a robe made of Chinese silk. Silk became one of the West's most prized luxuries. The Romans called it the "gleaming treasure of the East," and following the Greek example, continued to refer to China as Serica. The Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History that silk came from a tree native to Serica cultivated by a people from "beyond the north wind" who were doted on by the sun god Apollo.

In the first century A.D., the Roman geographer Pomponius Mela recorded how businessmen described the inhabitants of Serica: "They are a very honest people. Traders leave their goods in the wilderness and buyers come to pick up the goods when the owners are not present. This way of doing business is very well-known."

In the 4th century A.D., the Greek historian Ammianus Marcellinus also documented business travelers' impressions of the Chinese: "Serica is a vast country, a thousand-league plain...rich in produce, they have five types of cereals, fresh and dried fruits, sheep and cattle, everything you could wish for. Cities are few and far between, but are rich and densely populated. The people of Serica know little of war and weaponry, preferring to spend their time in self-cultivation and quiet contemplation so they live in harmony with each other and their neighbors. Where they live the skies are blue, the moon is bright, the climate is mild and even when the wind blows it is not cold but more like a warm and gentle breeze."

The ancient Silk Road played a crucial role in linking the civilizations of Asia and Europe.

This description tallies with what we know of the climate and geography of China's Central Plain during this period. Around this time Europe entered the Middle Ages - the period of around one thousand years from the conquest of Rome by Germanic tribes in 476 A.D. to the Renaissance and the beginnings of capitalism in the 15th century. The culture and thought of Medieval Europe were backward and crude. Frequent wars between feudal lords contributed to a stagnation of technology and the people generally lived in extreme poverty. Iron farm implements were rarely seen, let alone seed drills or effective irrigation. The church was mightier than the state and religious courts terrorized the people, who had no recourse but to throw themselves on God's mercy. Even the aristocracy was illiterate, not to mention the peasantry. So the Middle Ages, and especially their early period, would be known to later generations as the Dark Ages. The Chinese Dream was of course the very opposite of the above description of Medieval Europe. And just around this time, Marco Polo arrived on the scene to offer the West a vision of a more advanced civilization.

A portrait of Julius Caesar. Caesar is said to have worn a robe made of Chinese silk to a theater performance, causing the audience to gasp in awe. (Right)

Potters' wheels dating back to 4,080 BC were unearthed at Hemudu, Yuyao City, Zhejiang Province. (Down)

Marco Polo Begins Europe's 500-year Chinese Dream

Wax figures displayed in the Museum of Inner Mongolia recreate the scene in which Kubilai Khan of the Yuan Dynasty receives the Italian adventurer Marco Polo.

In November 1271, Marco Polo (1254-1323) left Venice on a journey to the East. In the summer of 1275, he arrived in Xanadu, the capital of the Yuan Dynasty where, having found employment in the royal court, he won the favor of the Emperor, Kubilai Khan. In 1298, three years after he arrived back in Venice, he dictated the world-famous Travels of Marco Polo which introduced the hitherto mysterious culture of China to the West. Calling on his 17-year sojourn and extensive travels throughout China, he heaped praise on China's rich and flourishing culture and learning, likening the country to a paradise.

Marco's Polo dictated his Travels in a prison cell, where he was confined for having taken part in the war between Genoa and Venice - this circumstance in itself reflecting the brutality and chaos of that period of European history, in sharp contrast to China's stability and prosperity. The backward and chaotic condition of Europe must have seemed almost unbearable when compared with China's thriving and peaceful empire.

The Mongol Yuan dynasty ruled China for only just over 90 years. The culture that Marco Polo described owed far more to the Han and Tang dynasties than to the relatively short period of Mongol rule.

From the 13th to 16th century, Chinese culture and inventions were transmitted to Europe via the Mongol and Arab peoples as intermediaries, and helped lay the material foundations of the European Renaissance. From the 16th century onwards, Jesuits who arrived to do missionary work in China, carried back Chinese ideas to Europe and helped to usher in the 17th - 18th century philosophical revolution of the Enlightenment.

In the 14th century, English armchair "traveler" Sir John Manderville in his fictional Travels of Sir John Manderville once again recounted tales of the legendary kingdom in the East, and acclaimed the Great Khan, with his uncountable treasures and vast realm, as a strict but just monarch, the most powerful in the world, even greater than the renowned Prester John.

The vision of a mysterious, rich and populous China described in these two travelogues provoked enormous interest and to a large extent stimulated the great European voyages of discovery and the 15th century age of exploration.

Columbus originally intended to sail to China and arrived in America by chance. When he saw that where he had landed was nothing like the place described by Marco Polo, he decided he must be in India.

From a historical perspective, civilizations on the rise take on the role of cultural disseminators. From the 13th to the 16th century, the Mongols and the Arabs transmitted Eastern culture to Europe. By the 16th – 18th century Europe had taken over from there as the main propagators of culture.

Overall, we can say that from Marco Polo's voyage in the 13th century, right through to the 18th century, Europeans continued to be gripped by "China fever."

Foreign Impressions of China

A Mongolian royal tented chariot. Although the Yuan Dynasty lasted only some 90 years, it revived cultural exchanges between East and West, as a result of which many of the achievements of the Han, Tang and Song Dynasties were transmitted to Europe.

In 1580, the Augustine Friar Juan Gonzales de Mendoza (1545-1618) traveled to China during the Ming Dynasty on the orders of the King of Spain.

The arrival of the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) in Macau in 1582 effectively initiated the modern era of communication between China and the West. Thanks to Ricci and others, Chinese culture rapidly spread to the West and breathed new life into Europe's three-century-old China fever. Some scholars believe the China craze directly triggered the Enlightenment and the subsequent social, political, economic and cultural transformation of Europe.

The History of the Great and Mighty Kingdom of China by Juan Gonzales de Mendoza (1540-1620) was published in Rome in 1585. Mendoza eulogized China's material culture and its social and political institutions. His book describes a great and powerful empire headed by an unusually intelligent and accomplished monarch who ruled on the basis of rational and ethical principles. The people lived according to refined customs and norms, and the arts and sciences flourished. In the 20 years following its first edition, Mendoza's book was reprinted 30 times.

Matteo Ricci in his China in the 16th Century wrote: "With its countless citizens, vast territory and rich and plentiful produce, despite the fact that it has a powerful army and navy, and could easily conquer its neighbors, neither the emperor nor the people ever think of launching an armed invasion. They are satisfied with their lot and have no ambitions of conquest. In this respect they are very different from Europeans who, dissatisfied with their own government, strive to seize the possessions of other peoples."

Statues of a camel and a merchant in front of a palace in the Cannaregio district of Venice illustrate the impact Marco Polo's story had on the city.

In a letter written on January 6, 1515, the Portuguese businessman Corsali wrote: "We Portuguese mariners arrived in China. These are the people who invented porcelain and silk.... We spent several wonderful days in Guangzhou. We made a huge profit on the goods they sold us."

A sailor called Empoli summed up his thoughts and feelings as follows: "We discovered China and stayed there for a time. This is the richest country in the world - so many great and beautiful sights - it simply astonished us. If I am spared and manage to return to Guangzhou I hope to take my comrades to Beijing to see the Chinese Emperor."

A steady stream of businessmen and missionaries continued to relate stories of China's flourishing economy, orderly system of government, and the friendliness, intelligence and courtesy of the Chinese people. Even the Portuguese nobleman Galeot Pereira who had been imprisoned and banished for several years by the Chinese government for piracy, praised the leniency and impartiality of the Chinese justice system in his China Report published in Venice in 1565: "As for [the Chinese] being heathen, I do not know a better proof of praising their justice than the fact that they respected ours, we being prisoners and foreigners. For wheresoever in any town of Christendom should be accused unknown men as we were, I know not what end the very Innocents' cause would have; but we in a heathen country, having for our great enemies two of the chiefest men in a whole town, wanting an interpreter, ignorant of that country language, did in the end see our great adversaries cast into prison for our sake."

A statue of the Italian missionary Matteo Ricci. In 1582, Ricci arrived in Macau to begin his missionary activity in China, initiating a period of fruitful exchange between China and the West.

The China Dream in the Age of the Enlightenment

A statue of Voltaire, the great French Enlightenment thinker. In the 18th century, many Enlightenment thinkers, including Voltaire, wrote admiringly of China's society, ethics, traditions, customs and technology.

The early stages of the Enlightenment coincided with the Qing Dynasty's consolidation of power in China. Delighted with its discovery of Confucian China, Europe only had eyes for the East.

In 1669, the English scholar John Webb urged King Charles II to follow the example of the Chinese monarch's benevolent rule. The British statesman Sir William Temple praised the Chinese political system as "rule by the wise" - the realization of the vision expressed in Plato's Republic.

In the 1670s, the Spanish Dominican Father Philippe Marie Grimaldi proposed that all European monarchs should model themselves on the Chinese emperor by improving their own conduct and giving philosophers a role in government.

In the 18th century, Europe saw China as an ideal society, as a model for its own future, an alternative to rule by feudal monarchs and a rigid Church hierarchy. At the time, China was essentially ruled by scholars, who generally had an open and tolerant outlook. Europeans particularly admired the imperial examination system that, in theory at least, allowed any citizen, no matter how poor or lowly in origin, to attain high office. It is fair to say that up until the 1780s, European society idealized and idolized Chinese culture.

As the Ming Dynasty gave way to the Qing, increasing numbers of missionaries arrived in China and, in turn, carried Chinese thought back to the West, feeding ideas into the ferment of the Enlightenment and stimulating political reform in European states. Louis XIV of France established a system of absolute monarchy, centralizing power in his hands. Russia's Peter the Great, Prussia's Frederick the Great, and Austria's Maria Theresa soon followed suit.

The European Enlightenment was the ideological expression of an anti-feudal movement of the people led by the rising bourgeoisie. It was a second great wave of rationalism, scientific progress and liberalization of thought, following on from the Renaissance.

The "Chinese high tide" and "China fever" had already had a profound influence on European life during the Renaissance. European philosophers and men of letters were increasingly influenced by Chinese thought and Confucian China became one of the main sources of the ideological ferment of the Enlightenment.

A painting of The Orphan of Zhao, a Chinese play that Voltaire adapted, drawing on concepts of Chinese politics, religion and philosophy, to challenge Europe's hereditary aristocracy.

The 18th century Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire gave vivid and fascinating descriptions of Chinese ethics, science and popular customs in his groundbreaking works. Under the influence of the French vanguard of Enlightenment thinkers, Europe embarked on another half century of the "Chinese Dream," and a new round of ethical and philosophical reflection.

The craze for Confucian China accelerated Europe's modernization process. The ethical philosophy of Confucius, the political thought of Laozi, China's long history, its unfamiliar writing system, became fashionable topics of discussion, provided models for emulation and inspired creative thinking.

Voltaire was the leading thinker of the French Enlightenment. His thought had a huge impact on 18th century Europe, to the extent that later generations called the 18th century "the age of Voltaire." He was the leading European advocate of Chinese thought and, as the leader of the "Encyclopedia" faction, dominated the French Enlightenment.

Voltaire said, "Businessmen sought only wealth in the East, but Philosophers discovered the world of the spirit." In his Essay on the Customs and the Spirit of the Nations (1756), Voltaire wrote: "I am completely engrossed in the works of Confucius and absorbing their essential meaning. His books express the purest form of ethics; the happiest and most praiseworthy era this world has ever seen was when men followed the Confucian code. In the field of ethics, Europeans should become apprentices of the Chinese." "China is the finest, oldest, biggest, most populous and best governed country in the world," he said. "When China was already a prosperous, perfectly governed country, Europeans were still savages wandering the forests." He effectively called on Europe to Sinify itself. He hailed Confucius as the world's greatest teacher and his philosophy as the best and most in harmony with human reason. Believing China to be the ideal state, he promoted Chinese culture as a standard to be emulated.

Voltaire's adaptation of the Yuan Dynasty drama, The Orphan of Zhao – published as The Orphan of China in 1755, replaced the play's original theme of clan loyalty and revenge with a vision of reason, compassion and reconciliation. His overarching aim was to muster Chinese concepts of government, religion and philosophy in a challenge to European feudalism.

This porcelain plate, featuring a unicorn, bamboo, banana trees, rocks, flowers and mulberries, was exported overseas in the middle of the 14th century.

Other notable works from around this period included the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher's China Illustrata (1667), Confucius, Philosopher of the Chinese (1687) by the French Jesuit Philippe Couplet, The History of China (1658) by the Italian Jesuit Martino Martini and the French Jesuit Joseph-Francois–Marie-Anne de Moyriac de Mailla's monumental General History of China. In 1654, Dutch cartographers, the Blaeu brothers, published their Most Recent Map of China whose accuracy was confirmed the following year by the Dutch ambassador to Beijing. In 1624, the English aristocrat Lord Herbert of Cherbury published his Deist tract On Truth which claimed Confucius as an early Deist and used his thought to attack superstition, the idea of divine revelation and, in general, to issue a challenge to European religion. In 1655, the Portuguese Jesuit Álvaro de Semedo published his History of that Great and Renowned Chinese Monarchy, in which he praised China as "the country of wisdom." This period saw a flurry of activity in Oriental studies. In 1661, translations of The Great Learning, The Doctrine of the Mean and The Analects were published in France. In 1672, the translation of The Great Learning was reprinted in Paris.

This pear-shaped porcelain pot, produced at the beginning of the 15th century, was embellished by Ottoman craftsman around 1500.

In 1697, the French missionary Joachim Bouvet (1656-1730) returned from Beijing to France dressed in the robes of a Qing Dynasty official. Father Bouvet had brought with him, as an official gift from the Chinese Emperor Kangxi to Louis XIV, the Biography of the Kangxi Emperor, which portrayed Kangxi as a philosopher king. In 1699, Bouvet published his History of the Chinese Empire which gave a generally objective and balanced appraisal of Chinese political culture. Bouvet praised Confucianism as an ethical system of global significance and suggested that Chinese characters might form the basis of a universal language.

In the first half of the 18th century - the heyday of the Enlightenment - 599 foreign language books about China were published. In these texts, China's Confucian ethics and philosophy, the view that man is a part of nature, the theory of the enlightened sovereign and ethical rule were held up as a critique of, and alternative to, Europe's decaying feudal system and religious persecution. The European Enlightenment thinkers used an idealized vision of China as a banner in their struggle to overthrow theocracy and monarchy. They used Chinese thought as a battering ram against feudalism and religious oppression. After more than 100 years of struggle, their ideas finally became the mainstream, signifying Western society's emergence from the Middle Ages and entry into the modern era.

A Secular Chinese Dream

This oil painting shows British aristocrats taking tea sometime in the 19th century. Chinese products, especially porcelain, tea and silk, had a huge impact on the lifestyle of the European upper classes.

The Renaissance and the Enlightenment were hugely optimistic eras when Europe dreamed of a new world based on a revolution in science and art; they also coincided with an intellectual love affair with all things Chinese and a passion for chinoiserie in both art and daily life; this was a period when the arbiters of taste venerated and delighted in the exotic.

China dominated the lifestyle of the fashionable upper-class. Chinese tea, silk and porcelain became must-haves in high society. Delicate porcelain, sumptuous silk and richly-flavored tea did not just enrich the lives of the few Westerners able to afford them; they irrevocably altered the entire Western way of life.

In 1650, the average annual income in England was around five pounds, but a pound of tea cost ten pounds. Only the King, his courtiers and the nobility could afford to grace their tables with Chinese porcelain and treat their most honored guests to Chinese tea. Chinese porcelain became the ultimate status symbol among the European upper classes.

Chinese style represented elegance and refinement. The traces of Chinese influence can be found everywhere in late 17th and 18th century European art. Chinese products and style became a craze. If a ship loaded with Chinese goods arrived late in London or Paris, prices of luxury goods would soar.

On the cultural plane, the mysterious East filled Westerners' most romantic reveries. The Danish storyteller Hans Christian Andersen never set foot in China but 13 of his fairytales feature the country. China inspired his "most magical and beautiful images." As a child he would often daydream that he was a lost son of the Chinese emperor. His fairytale The Nightingale tells the story of a Chinese emperor whose garden is filled with flowers made of gold, whose palace is a soaring tower of porcelain. The emperor is dignified and powerful, his kingdom magnificent, mysterious, flourishing. This is the alluring picture of China Andersen paints for his readers.

The great German poet Goethe scarcely hid his passion for the East. His anthology West-Eastern Diwan opens with the verse Hegire, in which he writes: "Flee into the pure East, to taste the air of the Patriarchs."

To Westerners tiring of the Baroque style, the characteristic asymmetry of Chinese art provided a fresh aesthetic vision. Europe began to manufacture huge quantities of Chinese-style glassware, silk, furniture and wallpaper, and even architecture and landscape gardening began to reflect Chinese influence.

The Chinese Pagoda in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew was opened in 1759.

Louis XIV's love of luxury was legendary. In 1670, he had the idea – apparently inspired by the Ming dynasty Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing - of building a "Chinese palace" for his mistress, Madame de Montespan. That winter, a Chinese-style "porcelain garden" - the Trianon tea garden – magically appeared at Versailles.

Countless European landscape gardens feature Chinese-style pavilions and pagodas. But it is worth drawing attention to the particular influence of the Porcelain Pagoda of Nanjing. The "Temple of Repaid Gratitude" as it was officially known, was built in the early 15th century by the third Ming Emperor, Zhu Di, in honor of his mother. Although the original pagoda was destroyed in 1856 during the Taiping Rebellion, its overseas "relatives" continue to bear witness to the enormous influence of Chinese style on European architecture and landscape gardening.

Europe's "Chinese Dream" was a vision of an imagined East. At the time, Europe was tiring of the classical Greek style and China – and the East in general – appeared on cue as the exotic "other" to complete Europe's artistic self-expression. The warmth and humanity that characterized Chinese culture was particularly apt for the times. This was a period when Europe displayed extraordinary enthusiasm for Chinese art and culture, which, on a deeper level, represented a humanist passion and respect for man's ancient history and civilizations.

Written by Ji Yanjing, Zhang Dan, Yang Ruiming and Mao Feng.