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China’s View of the West, A Comparison of the Historical Geographies of Wei Yuan and Xu Jiyu

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Wei Yuan and Xu Jiyu, civil servants in mid 19th century China, were deeply disturbed by British expansion into Asia. On the theory that one should know one's enemies, both wrote pioneer historical geographies designed to introduce Chinese officials to the sources of Western power. They both made extensive use of missionary sources; however, there were significant differences between the works of Wei and Xu. Wei never abandoned the Middle Kingdom concept whereas Xu came to realize that the West had developed its own civilization, and he encouraged China's development of trade and commerce, especially in Southeast Asia. Wei and Xu's works circulated among a small number of Chinese officials on China's east coast, but it was not until after China's defeat in the Opium War, 1839-42, and the near over throw of the Qing dynasty by the Taipings that the works were reprinted and served as introductions to the West. Résumé Wei Yuan et Xu Jiyu, fonctionnaires en Chine au milieu du 19ème siècle furent profondément marqués par l’expansion britannique en Asie. Partants du principe que l’on doit connaître son ennemi, les deux hommes firent œuvre de pionnier en rédigeant des géographies historiques destinés à introduire les officiels chinois à ce qu’ils voyaient comme les racines du pouvoir occidental. Tous deux firent ample usage de sources missionnaires ; mais il y eut également d’importantes différences entre le travail de Wei et celui de Xu. Wei ne renonça jamais au concept de l’Empire du Milieu alors que Xu réalisa que l’Occident avait développé sa propre civilisation et encouragea dès lors le commerce et les échanges de la Chine, avec le sud-est asiatique en particulier. Les travaux de Wei et de Xu circulèrent parmi un nombre restreint d’officiers chinois sur la côte est de la Chine, et ce n’est qu’avec la défaite chinoise durant les Guerres d’Opium en 1839-40 et le quasi-renversement de la dynastie Qing par les Taiping que leur travaux furent réimprimés et servirent d’introduction a l’Occident.

Affiliations: 1: Profesor Emerita, Department of History, Rutgers University New Brunswick New Jersey, USA


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