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Limits to Despotism: Idealizations of Chinese Governance and Legitimizations of Absolutist Europe

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Abstract The term “oriental despotism” was used to describe all larger Asian empires in eighteenth century Europe. It was meaningful to use about the Ottoman, Mughal and Chinese empires. However, this did not mean that all Europeans writing on Asian empires implied that they were all tyrannies with no political qualities. The Chinese system of government received great interest among early modern political thinkers in Europe ever since it was described in the reports that Jesuit missionaries had sent back from China in the beginning of the seventeenth century. The descriptions of an ethical and political bond between emperor and administrators in China and of specific administrative organs in which age-old principles were managed made a great impression on many European readers of these reports. Although it did not remain an undisputed belief in Europe, many intellectuals held China to be a model of how the power of a sovereign could be limited or curbed within an absolutist system of government. This article investigates three cases of how the models of China were conceived by theorists reading Jesuit reports and how they subsequently strategically communicated this model to the courts of Prussia, Austria, and Russia. These three ambitious European monarchies have been regarded to give rise to a form of “enlightened absolutism” that formed a tradition different from those of England and France, the states whose administrative systems formed the most powerful models in this period. Rather than describing the early modern theories about China’s despotism as a narrative parallel, but unrelated to the development of policy programs of the respective states, this article documents how certain elements of the model of China were integrated in the political writings of Frederick II of Prussia, Joseph II of Austria, and Catherine II of Russia. Thus, in addition to the history of political thought on China, the article adds a new perspective to how these monarchs argued for fiscal reforms and a centralization and professionalization of their administrations.

Affiliations: 1: Aarhus University


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