From Chinese Cosmology to English Romanticism explores the intricate early-modern English and European reception of the Chinese monistic idea tianren heyi or humanity’s unity with heaven via the Chinese rites controversy, the philosophical innovation of Spinoza, the transformation of English garden layout, and the poetic revolution of Coleridge and Wordsworth.
“Yu Liu offers a groundbreaking analysis of cross-cultural exchange by exploring the influence of Chinese philosophical traditions on English art, gardening, and literature up to the Romantic period . . . A must-read for scholars interested in Anglo-Chinese relations between 1600 and 1830.”
—Robert Markley, W. D. and Sara E. Trowbridge Professor of English, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
“In this deeply learned study, Yu Liu traces a ‘relay of ideas’ that made their way from Chinese philosophy to Western Romanticism, transformed along the way in Spinoza’s thought and in theories of English landscape gardening. A tour de force of intellectual history, his book shapes a persuasive story out of disparate strands whose significance deepens when seen in a unifying perspective.”
—Leo Damrosch, Ernest Bernbaum Research Professor of Literature, Emeritus, Harvard University
“A thoughtful and imaginative attempt to trace the migration of the ancient Chinese cosmological unity of heaven and humanity to seventeenth-andeighteenth-century Europe via the China Jesuits, Spinoza, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, leading to the redesign of English gardens and Romantic poetry.”
—D. E. Mungello, professor of history emeritus, Baylor University
“In his powerfully original monograph, Yu Liu upends the all-too-familiar asymmetry of theorizing Chinese culture through a Western conceptual structure. He mounts a carefully documented and compelling argument that the ‘idea’ of the persistent Chinese organismic worldview captured in the language of ‘humanity’s unity with nature’ set its roots in the antinomian European Enlightenment thinkers as early as the complex Rites Controversy, and then spreads out as a root system through the heretical philosopher Spinoza to shape British Romanticism in all of its parts.”
—Roger T. Ames, Peking University
Yu Liu（劉豫）is professor of English at Niagara County Community College (SUNY). In addition to over thirty-five essays in peer-reviewed journals of literature, history, and philosophy, he is author of Poetics and Politics: The Revolutions of Wordsworth (1999), Seeds of a Different Eden: Chinese Gardening Ideas and a New English Aesthetic Ideal (2008), and Harmonious Disagreement: Matteo Ricci and His Closest Chinese Friends (2015).
Series Editor’s Preface
In accounts of planetary history, scientists often elaborate on alien meteors’ impact to envisage the prehistoric momentum of the earth rock. The takeaway of such an approach is simple: it takes the dizzying ecology of the universe, or the cosmopolitanism of stars, to comprehend the long duration of our home, the planet Earth. In a similar sense, Yu Liu urges readers to open their visionary imagination to the alien contributions to the untold stories of Europe and the British Isles in much the same way as scientists take seriously the generative contributions of alien visits. This book turns us away from a vision of individuated cultures to an ecology of civilizational cohabitation and collaboration.
First, we draw your attention to another author, the anthropologist William Pietz, to borrow his cross-cultural vision in describing the civilizational significance of Liu’s project. Pietz articulates the coexistence of civilizations in his study of fetishism. He exposes a reductive understanding of fetishism that prevailed in European history. This reduction was possible because it was done in abstraction from the ecology of civilizational exchanges. Countering this appropriation, Pietz locates fetishism in a geography between the two sides of the Atlantic, which delimits an ecology of civilizational clusters. When the Portuguese interacted with West Africans in the sixteenth century, the encounters were nothing short of a sci-fi rendering.
Europeans sought to translate alien practices and perplexing thoughts of pantheism in the term of “fetish,” the pidgin word fetisso, deriving from the Portuguese word feitiço, meaning “magical practice” or “witchcraft” in the late Middle Ages (Pietz 5, 1985). Pietz accentuates the cross-cultural nature of this translation: “The idea of the fetish originated in a mercantile intercultural space created by the ongoing trade relations between cultures so radically different as to be mutually incomprehensible. It is proper to neither West African nor Christian European culture” (24, 1987). Fetishism neither derives linearly from Africa nor finds its true meaning exclusively in the African soil. Instead, it derives its new semantic affordance from alien provocation. Fetishism does not just mean idolatry; it also makes it possible that material objects can mean what the given cultural lexicons cannot articulate and becomes a vitally productive source in Western cultures.
Now, Yu Liu joins Pietz in this cross-cultural dialogue, chiming in with “monism,” which, Liu describes, emerged in an ecology of cultural crossings between East Asia and Western Europe. Historically, Europeans faced Chinese civilization in the missions of the Jesuits, parallel to the encounters of the Portuguese with West African cultures at the coast of Guinea. Europeans were as bewildered by strange rites in China as they were in Africa. The European Jesuits needed to translate an alien cosmology behind the Chinese’s rites into Christian concepts. But they did not attempt a coherent assimilation of the Chinese cosmology of tianren heyi, “humanity’s unity with heaven,” to Western philosophical concepts. One had to wait until Baruch Spinoza, Liu maintains, stabilized the coworking of Europe and China for the transmission–translation of tianren heyi in terms of monism; Spinoza’s monism belongs to neither China nor Europe, but to both. As a result of such coworking, Liu contends, monism owes everything creative to the impetus of fresh input from China. This alien monism was nothing less than a cosmological challenge to any conceptualization of how the world existed. Liu reminds the reader that monism ushered in an affordance of meaning previously unavailable in the West, which encouraged the appreciation of a self-propelling and self-ordering ecology. In fact, Spinoza’s monism still enjoys a suggestive potency in contemporary efforts to rethink the Western Enlightenment. The new-millennial philosophers of ontological materialism, by critiquing the human-centeredness of the Enlightenment, often hark back to Spinoza for the recognition of ontological self-power and self-order, as Jane Bennett does in Vibrant Matter. Liu’s thesis on the Chinese origin of monism supports Bennett’s argument, which not only goes back to Spinoza’s monistic conatus to historicize the ontology of “thing power” but also visualizes this power with the Chinese notion of shi, a historical term for imagining how ecologies demonstrate self-adjusting flows from a bird’s-eye view (34–35).
Liu’s serious historical and relational reading evinces that toward monism, intellectually productive Europeans, such as the Jesuits, Spinoza, Horace Walpole, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, entertained relationships not just of love and hate but also of hate and create. In their first encounters, Jesuits were locked in debates about whether the westernization of Chinese cosmology could facilitate the cause of the church, as an indirect result of which the Jewish Spinoza created monism. In the history of the English garden, Horace Walpole, a professed hater of China, used the monist nature, the ecological consciousness from China, creatively (and without explicit acknowledgment). Instead of imposing the geometrical order as found in the French garden, Walpole articulated a revolutionary design based on the irregularity principle, which drew on Chinese conceptualizations of nature’s self-generated ordering. Liu describes Walpole’s innovation as “evocative of [the Jesuit] Ricci’s calculated conceptual sleight of hand in the early seventeenth century,” creatively using the Chinese logic of tienren heyi without saying so (7). Liu also shows Coleridge’s precarious balance of explicit hate and implicit love of China to account for the poet’s brief span of high creativity.
Attending to civilizational crisscrossing, Liu takes a challenging path to investigate how monism thrived. The main chapters resemble historical-biographical sketches of Europeans, in which Liu depicts in narratives how from their viewpoints Europeans used resources when complex cultural crossings were the real deal. Even though such a mode of writing demands on the part of Liu the patient work of historical recoding, this unique approach avoids oversimplified ideas of cultural dissemination that map cultural influences by returning to the origin. It is important to note that on the basis of the narrative mode, Liu is well poised to explore the constitutive moments when the key players depicted in these sketches make creative leaps in the midst of genuinely making sense of cultural crossings. Monism in the six moments described in this book did not manifest itself in abstraction.
Instead, it suggested itself forcefully to the key players who had explored ecologically, having taken into serious consideration their changing environments with insights gained from an alien cosmology and having recognized the self-initiating newness of the environments in which they lived.
Thus, the East-West Encounters in Literature and Cultural Studies series editors proudly present Yu Liu, who invites readers to globally minded readings open to civilizational ecologies.
List of Illustrations
Series Editor’s Preface
Introduction: A Distinct Type of Cross-cultural Interaction and Influence
Part 1. By Chance or Design: The Detectable Route of Philosophical Transmission
Chapter 1 Behind the Book Cover: The Real Fight and Legacy of the Chinese Rites Controversy
Chapter 2 The Uncanny Resemblance: A Telltale Clue to the Unusual Cosmology of Spinoza
Part 2. For Pride or Prejudice: The Hitherto Unrecognized Route of Aesthetic Transmission
Chapter 3 From Regularity to Irregularity: The Landscaping Innovation of William Kent
Chapter 4 Changing What Is Foreign into What Is Native: The Horticultural Nationalism of Horace Walpole
Part 3. To Accept or Reject: The History-Making Choices in English Romanticism
Chapter 5 The Intrigue of Both Attraction and Repulsion: Coleridge, Spinoza, and China
Chapter 6 The Inspiration of an Originally Chinese Idea: The Conceptual Innovation of Wordsworth in The Ruined Cottage