Hidden History

Gottfried Leibniz, the 300 Year-Old China Hand

A scientist, sinophile and bridge between east and west – Matthew Ehret

Many people would be surprised to discover that Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), a German polymath and logician best known for his discovery of Calculus, was one of the most important sinophiles of the 17th century, whose writings were instrumental in bringing the idea of Chinese culture and civilization to Europe.

Leibniz recognized the value of Chinese culture after an extensive study of Confucian texts provided to him by Jesuit scientists in Beijing. Inspired by the moral and practical philosophy that kept this ancient civilization alive (while European societies suffered nearly constant warfare), he created a journal called Novissima Sinica (News from China) in 1697. The journal was followed by an organizing effort across Eurasia to bring about a vast dialogue of civilizations, driven by the pursuit of scientific discovery and economic development.

In the first issue of the Novissima Sinica, Leibniz wrote:

“I consider it a singular plan of the fates that human cultivation and refinement should today be concentrated, as it were, in the two extremes of our continent, in Europe and in China, which adorns the Orient as Europe does the opposite edge of the Earth. Perhaps Supreme Providence has ordained such an arrangement, so that as the most cultivated and distant peoples stretch out their arms to each other, those in between may gradually be brought to a better way of life. I do not think it an accident that the Russians, whose vast realm connects Europe with China and who hold sway over the deep barbarian lands of the North by the shore of the frozen ocean, should be led to the emulation of our ways through the strenuous efforts of their present ruler [Peter I].”


Henry Wallace’s Wartime Vision for US-China Relations

A dream of post-war international cooperation that fell by the wayside of history – Matthew Ehret

Some limited moves have been made in the direction of geopolitical cooperation in our troubled age. President Trump has had favorable meetings with the Presidents of Russia and China, followed by a historic visit to North Korea to meet “his friend Kim”. Yet in other respects tensions have never been higher between the US and Eastern powers, as the US-China trade war and Russian interference in American elections leads to further decoupling of West and East. In these times, it is worth revisiting a bygone time in which a leading American political figure embraced a US-Russia-China alliance: Henry A. Wallace, Agricultural Secretary from 1933-1941, and US Vice-President from 1941-1944.

After his government service, Wallace passionately upheld a new vision of the post-war world that included the East. As he wrote in his 1944 book Our Job in the Pacific:

“Today the peoples of the East are on the march. We can date the beginning of that march from 1911 when the revolutionary movement among the Chinese people, inspired by the teachings of Sun Yat-sen, overthrew the Manchu dynasty and established a republic. This was the first time in the vast and culturally rich history of Asia that an Asiatic people turned its back on the whole principle of monarchy and hereditary rule and, in spite of the difficulties and obstacles that still remained, set out courageously toward the attainment of democracy – government of the people, by the people and for the people.”


The Father of Modern China Was Inspired by Lincoln, Not Marx

How Sun Yatsen’s early ideology traces back to the American President – Matthew Ehret

China today is a paradox: on the one side, it is a nation based upon centralized government, yet it also has a vast private sector, entrepreneurial culture and market economy. Its leaders call this “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” but there is a larger history at play, going back to the founder of the nation, Sun Yatsen. As a statesman with connections to America – in the autumn of 1911 he was on a tour of the US to speak and raise funds when the news of the Wuchang uprising that eventually brought down the Qing dynasty broke – Sun’s own political philosophy was heavily influenced by America’s early principles of governance.

Dr Sun Yatsen was not a follower of Karl Marx – whose theories of government have shaped China’s modern state – but neither was he a proponent of the liberal theories of Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill. Rather than pick an extreme on the political left or right, Sun Yatsen instead found himself firmly grounded in the moral philosophy of both Confucius and an American inspiration: Abraham Lincoln.


The American Spirit behind China’s New Silk Road

US-Chinese cooperation and the dream of a global railroad – Matthew Ehret

Until recently, the Chinese role in building America’s transcontinental railway was nearly written out of history. It was only in 2014 that the US Department of Labor inducted the Chinese railway workers into the Hall of Honor, officially recognizing for the first time the vital role and sacrifice of the Chinese, whose numbers amounted to over 15,000 workers at the peak of the project’s construction – 90% of the total Central Pacific Railway workforce.


The Passion of Giuseppe Castiglione

How an 18th century Jesuit painter revolutionized Chinese art – Matthew Ehret-Kump

Hardly anyone in the West knows of the name Giuseppe Castiglione. Even fewer know of the name Lang Shining (郎世寧). Yet if you were to ask a Chinese citizen with an elementary knowledge of painting, both of these names would invoke the greatest affinity and respect. For Giuseppe Castiglione and Lang Shining are the same individual, who fomented an artistic revolution by combining the best artistic traditions of European and Chinese culture.

Born in 1688 in Milan, Castiglione mastered the greatest artistic techniques of the Italian renaissance. After his career as a muralist had only begun, the talented young artist, who had recently joined the Jesuit order, was tasked with an incredible challenge: he was invited to China.