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Wednesday, August 24, 2011



This present paper focuses on the diffusion of wu-wei (an ancient Chinese concept of political economy) throughout Europe, between 1648 and 1848. It argues that at the core of this diffusion process were three major developments; firstly the importation and active transmission of wu-wei by the Low Countries, during the seventeenth century. It is revealed that the details of Chinese expertise entered Europe via the textual diffusion of Jesuit texts and the visual diffusion of million of so-called minben-images, during the ceramic boom of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thus, the hypothesis is advanced that the diffusion of wu-wei, co-evolved with the inner-European laissez-faire principle, the Libaniusian model.
In the second part it is shown that the intellectual foundation of Europe’s first economic school, Physiocracy, is a direct replica of the imported Chinese economic, agrarian craftsmanship of wu-wei; subsequently it is denied that the indigenous European Libaniusian ideology can be considered the intellectual master-model of Physiocracy and his founder Quesnay.
Thirdly, it is argued that Switzerland can be identified as the first European paradigm state of wu-wei. The crystallization process of wu-wei inside Europe ultimately ended with the economic-political reorganization of the new Eidgenossenschaft in 1848, in which Chinese agrarian wu-wei was institutionally combined with the traditional Swiss “commercial wu-wei”. In due course, this alpine paradigm enabled the endogenous Libaniusian model to verify and reflect upon its own theory of commercial society. Additionally, this third focus also demonstrates that the later development of Europe’s laissez-faire doctrine has to be seen as a Eurasian co-production – without wu-wei, Europe’s pro-commercial ideology would have never sufficiently matured.

Blaise Pascal (*1623–†1662), French philosopher1
This essay will explore the impact of inter-Eurasian webs of interconnections on Europe’s political economy from 1648 to 1848. I will start with the assumption that there has never been an autonomous civilization in history, which proved capable in providing continuous development inside a framework of political or economical autarchy. Furthermore, I claim that to assure an extensive, successful era of peace and prosperity, civilizations have to draw on ‘useful knowledge’ from other centers of civilization. In nature, as in history, there can be no knowledge without contact – human knowledge is continuously reborn by the forces of contact, ever changing, evolving towards ever more complexity.2 I will try to spell out a vision of global history that is based on investigating the European effects of such Eurasian exchanges of complexity. In 1991, the historian W. H. McNeill stressed, “the principal factor promoting historically significant social change is contact with strangers possessing new and unfamiliar skills.”3 My focus is therefore on the diffusion of such a ‘new and unfamiliar skill’, to be precise, on a particular skill of Chinese state craftsmanship. This Eastern expertise in `good government´ is best described as wu-wei, a rough approximation of what is a complex concept of Chinese political economy, governance and religion, originating from a period before the Han Dynasty. It is best translated, as action by non- action or doing nothing, yet there is nothing that is not done. What exactly does this mean?
The Chinese character  無  is literally translated as no or without, the character為 as doing or action. However, the axiom  無為  translates not into complete absence of activity or doing nothing, but what it does mean is lesser activity, or doing less. The Huai Nan Tzu, an influential treatise on political philosophy from the early Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.– 9 A.D.) defined無為 as follows:
“What is meant […] by wu-wei is that no personal prejudice [private or public will,] interferes with the universal Tao [the laws of things], and that no desires and obsessions lead the true course […] astray. Reason must guide action in order that power may be exercised according to the intrinsic properties and natural trends of things.”4
Thus, by relying on無為the state does less, yet everything is accomplished in accordance to the needs of the state. The philosophical core of this later political concept was formulated during the Shang Dynasty (~1500– ~1050 B.C.), as Slingerland’s recent book Effortless Action confirmed.5 Yet wu-wei only became a central component of classical Chinese political theory one thousands years later – as the political unit of China turned into the wu-wei Empire.

Roger Ames’s comments on the Huai Nan Tzu6 illustrated how the doctrine of doing less developed into a political modus operandi, after the chaotic Warring States period (475– 221 B.C.) of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty (771– 221 B.C.).7 During the eclectic Han period, ‘action by non-action’ was firstly adapted as a political instrument to rule over the Empire in a peaceful and harmonious way. The result was that wu-wei was quintessentially transformed into a policy of wu-wei erzhi (literally: ‘order and equilibrium will be achieved without ruler’s intervention’).8 Thus, the principle wu-wei became the “[…] appropriate description of the ideal Confucian ruler: one who reigns but does not rule”.9
To understand in which specific political context the principle of ‘doing nothing, yet there is nothing that is not done’ was adapted; we have to raise the following points. Drawing partly on Ames and Hall’s work on the ancient Confucian philosopher Mencius’s egalitarian ideology minben (meaning: the ‘people/ peasantry as the foundation’)10 and Broadbent’s work on China’s utilitarian nongben (meaning: Chinese agricultural fundamentalism)11, Kent Deng revealed that the ideology of minben (i.e. the ‘mandate of heaven’ rooted in the people) had been an integral part of the post-‘Warring States’ implementation process of wu-wei erzhi.12 Furthermore, as Deng demonstrated, it is possible to identify a prosperous nongben–minben paradigm, based on wu-wei erzhi  throughout the Tang Dynasty (618– 906 A.D.), one of China’s most prosperous and glorious periods.13 Thus, wu-wei has to be recognized as a laissez-faire instrument of Chinese political economy whose rationale was to serve China’s agricultural economy, i.e. to assure the welfare of minben. Indeed, China’s system of nongben did ‘marginalise’ the interfering state and hence relied on wu-wei erzhi for assuring its economic prosperity.
The overall objective of this paper is thus to deal with the historical process of wu-wei’s diffusion inside Europe. The process lasted for approximately two hundred years (from 1648 to 1848) and has to be seen as the assimilation of an advanced concept of Eastern economical governance that ultimately transformed Europe’s economies and the political outlook of the modern political unit to a considerably extent. To trace back the European history of wu-wei I am going to focus on three geographical areas that proved essential in transforming pieces of Eastern knowledge into European practice: the Low Countries, France, and Switzerland.
If the amount of literature on the history of wu-wei inside China is to be considered sparse, serious research on wu-wei inside Europe can be considered even sparser. Nevertheless, let us turn now to the literature on wu-wei, concerning our three geographical areas of interest, and to the issue, how this essay may add to the current research; first, we will look at the Low Countries. During the 17th century, millions of Chinese art products were diffused all over Europe by the Low Countries; and as the studies by Christiaan Jorg14 and Julia Curtis15 have repeatedly stated this import-boom   of Chinese images and products was crucial for Europe’s understanding of China. Both authors made clear, that the diffusion of Chinese artefacts and styles inside the Low Countries reached such a level of sophistication during the 17th century, that one is hardly able to compare it to the widespread intellectual hollowness of the later Chinoiserie craze throughout Europe. Only some authors have dealt with Chinese influence on the Low Countries beyond the world of ceramics. Lewis A. Maverick’s ‘A possible Chinese source of Spinoza’s doctrine’16 inspired by the original research by Ch’ên Shou-yi17 was one of the first studies to stress the closeness between Confucianism and European philosophy, during the 17th century. Yet, there exists no detailed study on how wu-wei entered the Low Countries during the 17th century; this paper seeks to correct this.
Almost all the literature on wu-wei in France concentrates on François Quesnay’s role, while the broader Eurasian network of the Physiocratic School is mainly neglected. During the late 1930s, Ly Siou Y and Edgar Schorer were the first to deal with possible influence of wu-wei on Physiocracy.18 The first text, which convincingly portrayed Quesnay’s Sinophilsm, is Maverick’s ‘China – A model for   Europe’19 but it was only with a paper by Briger Priddat that a detailed evaluation of the wu-wei behind France’s Physiocracy arrived, in 1984.20 Priddat, relying on Schwarz’s translation of wu-wei, “to let it grow”21, concluded that the system of Physiocracy indeed corresponds to the principle of ‘tun/ ohne/ tun’ i.e. wu-wei.22 Thus, Physiocracy’s claim “[…] that free trade would lead to a natural distribution of [agricultural] produce […]”23 is directly linked to Quesnay’s belief in the universal morality of agri-culture (i.e. nongben). The productive branches of industry and trade (the Industrie,- und Handelszweige), writes Priddat, form only minor parts of the all embracing ordre naturel which Quesnay imagined as a tree, which he called économie. For Physiocracy, ‘good government’ is therefore based on ‘letting the branches grow’ (s’étendre en liberté)24 i.e. Practising wu-wei erzhi. Consequently, it is this variant of the laissez-faire maxim in which the basis of Physiocracy’s ‘moral philosophy’ is to be located. Priddat’s work made clear that the wu-wei of the complete économie has to be considered central to Physiocracy; Quesnay’s call for free trade in agricultural products constitutes merely a logical sub branch of this greater structure. 25
New research by Clarke and Hobson on wu-wei in France, equally re-acknowledges the significance of the principles for Quesnay’s theories.26 However, both authors fail to explain what the diffusion of wu-wei actually means for European  history. Simply to state, that wu-wei translates into French as laissez-faire, does not clarify the stages of wu-wei’s transformation process inside Europe.27 Both authors fail additionally to locate Switzerland as the supreme centre of wu-wei in Europe, after Quesnay.
Thus, the third part of this paper tries to investigate how the wu-wei of the Physiocrats spread to Switzerland and ultimately produced the first wu-wei paradigm state inside Europe. No study so far did link the Chinese principle of wu-wei to Switzerland’s specific type of agricultural-alpine-commercial economy. The development of European Physiocracy is generally believed to have stopped soon after Quesnay’s death; I argue otherwise. This paper will try to analyse how the import of wu-wei did actually re-enforce the political-economical consolidation process of 19th Switzerland, and how wu-wei came to be at the centre of the ‘new Eidgenossenschaft’s’ political economy.


Christian Gerlach



1 Pensées, No. 822, in: Blaise Pascal, Oeuvres Complètes, ed. and with notes by Louis Lafuma (New York 1963).
2 Eric J. Chaisson, Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (Cambridge, Mass. 2001).
3 William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West (Chicago 1963; 1991 printing), p. xvi.

4 As quoted in: John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (Cambridge 2004), p. 190.
5 Edward G. Singerland’s, Effortless Action: Wu-wei as Conceptual Metaphor and Spiritual Ideal in Early China (Oxford University Press 2003).

6 Roger T. Ames, The art of rulership: a study in ancient Chinese political thought (Honolulu 1983).
7 For a different approach on wu-wei of the Han Dynasty, see: Michael Loewe, The cosmological context of sovereignty in Han times (Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol. 65, Issue 02, June 2002, pp. 342- 349).
8 Gang (Kent) Deng, The premodern Chinese economy: structural equilibrium and capitalist sterility (London 1999), p. 258.
9 Ames, The Art of Rulership, p. 29.
10 David L. Hall/ Roger T. Ames, Thinking through Confucius (Albany 1987).
11 Kieran Broadbent, A Chinese/English dictionary of China's rural economy (Slough 1978), p. 104.
12 Deng, The premodern Chinese economy, pp. 90, 92, 258.

13 Ibid., p. 92.
14 Christiaan J. A. Jorg, Interaction in Ceramics: Oriental Porcelain & Delftware (Hong Kong Museum of Art and Urban Council, Hong Kong, 1984); Christiaan J. A. Jorg, Chinese Porcelain for the Dutch in the Seventeenth Century: Trading Networks and Private Enterprise, in: The Porcelains of Jingdezhen.

Colloquies on Art & Archaeology in Asia, no. 16, ed. Rosemary E. Scott (Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, 1993), pp. 183-205.
15 Julia B. Curtis, Chinese Porcelains of the Seventeenth Century: Landscapes, Scholar's Motifs and Narratives (China Institute in America, New York, 1995).
16 Lewis A. Maverick, A possible Chinese source of Spinoza’s doctrine, in: Revue de littérature comparée, Vol. 19, No. 3, July-September, 1939, pp. 417- 428.
17 Ch’ên Shou-yi, Sino-European cultural contacts since the discovery of the sea route, in: Nankai social and economic quarterly, Vol. VIII, No. 1, April 1935.
18 Ly Siou Y, Les Grands courants de la pensée économique chinoise dans l’antiquité… et leur influence sur la formation de la doctrine physiocratique (Paris 1936); Edgar Schorer, L’influence de la Chine sur la genèse er le development de la doctrine physiocrate (Paris 1938).

19 Lewis Adams Maverick, China, a Model for Europe, 2 Vols., (San Antonio, 1946).
20 Briger Priddat, Ist das “laisser-faire”-Prinzip ein Prinzip des Nicht-Handelns? Über einen chinesischen Einfluss in Quesnay’s “Despôtisme de la Chine“ auf das physiokratische Denken (Diskussionsschriften aus dem Institut für Finanzwissenschaft der Universität Hamburg, Nr. 16/ 1984).
21 Laudse, Daudesching, E. Schwarz (ed), (Munich 1980) p. 137.
22 Priddat, “Laisser-faire”-Prinzip, p. 31.
23 Douglas A. Irwin, Against the Tide – An Intellectual History of Free Trade (New Jersey 1996), p. 65.
24 Ibid., p. 31.
25 Ibid., pp. 31- 33.
26 John James Clarke, Oriental enlightenment: the encounter between Asian and Western thought (New York/ London 1997); John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation (Cambridge 2004).
27 Hobson, Eastern Origins, p. 196; Clarke, Oriental, p. 50.




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