The Role of China in Montesquieu's "Esprit des lois"
- Pauline Kra (see profile)
- CLCS 18th-Century, LLC 18th-Century French, LLC Modern and Contemporary Chinese
- French literature, Philosophy, Political literature
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- enlightenment, european literature, intellectual history
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- Montesquieu's ideas on China have been the subject of much study and controversy. The purpose of this paper is to suggest that, as discussed in twenty-two books of the Esprit des lois, China serves to illustrate Montesquieu's fundamental principles and to elucidate his method. References to the empire appear frequently in the concluding chapters of books or at the end of sequences of arguments to show how relations between various factors can be reversed by special circumstances. China is an exception and a paradox. Montesquieu's insistence on the fact that the Chinese Empire is a despotic regime aims to convey that his definitions of types of government are theoretical and that in reality they encompass a variety of forms determined by particular circumstances. China also plays an important role in the development of Montesquieu's theory of climate demonstrating how the relations between physical and moral causes can be reversed. Wise Chinese policies, such as the creation of feudatory states and constructive treatment of conquered nations, are described as the counterpart of destructive practices. The analysis of the interaction between the distinct elements of the esprit général is offset and cofirmed by their exceptional fusion in Chinese rites. Chinese overpopulation and birth control are the turning point in the book on propagation.The importance of China for the opening of trade routes to Asia is recognized in the context of the history of commerce. The discussion of the expansion of European foreign trade concludes with a comparison to the vast extent of Chinese internal trade. In the penultimate chapter of the book on the composition of laws China is invoked once again to confront theory with experience and legislative uniformity with diversity.
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