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Sunday, February 26, 2012



III. Wu-wei in Switzerland
The Low Countries and France do not represent the complete European axis of wu-wei infiltration. Before the tolerant period of Eurasian synthesis inside Europe would cease to exist, terminated by the rise of national neo-mercantilist Revolutionism, a European mutation of the wu-wei-state was erected inside a small Alpine transit-land, Switzerland. During the 17th century, the Low Countries had provided Europe with a mass of new information on China but the “Chinezen van Europa”91 did prove unable to decipher the wu-weian message. Quesnay had based his model of reform on wu-wei – yet, Physiocracy’s influence on the political economy of post-revolutionary France was almost nonexistent. Ultimately, it was in the Swiss Confederation where the actual fusion of European, traditional practice and imported Chinese expertise, materialized. In this section we will consider two aspects of this fusion process, first, the effects of Quesnay’s theories on Switzerland, and secondly, Switzerland’s development into a European paradigm of wu-wei. The Swiss succeeded where France and the Low Countries failed; through their example, the European political unit transformed itself under the banner of China’s wu-wei. But how did Switzerland do this?

3.1 The Fusion
After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685) by Louis XIV, 25,000 Huguenots exiles had settled and revived large parts of Switzerland, economically and culturally.92 From the seven Swiss contributors to the French Encyclopédie, only two were not second generation Huguenots.93 Additionally, the traditional inter-European intellectual endeavours of the Huguenots (the ‘livre de Hollande’)94 pulled Switzerland closer to the inner-circles of the so-called ‘Republic of Letters’, whose centre was Amsterdam.95 Thus, a matured enlightened nexus had arisen in western Switzerland and the independent republic of Geneva, by the 1720s.96
During the 1760s, a distinct Sinophile block of the so-called ‘école romande du droit naturel’ (Alfred Dufour)97 and Swiss Economic Patriots, started to reprint Quesnay’s sources on China, re-creating his personal resource pool on wu-wei in western Switzerland. In 1764, de Surgy’s vital
texts were published at the ‘imprimerie de Fortunato Bartolomeo de Felice’98 in Yverdon.99 In the same year, the process continued through the posthumous publication of the Considérations by Marquis d’Argenson (*1694-†1757)100, a former classmate of the Sinophile Voltaire. The favourite maxim of the Marquis, Europe’s first ‘true free trader’101, had been ‘to govern better, one must govern less’102; which is of course analogous to the wu-wei principle of the ideal Confucian ruler, who reigns but does not rule.103 At the end of his life, d’Argenson had developed a deep sense of admiration for Chinese state craftsmanship. As he wrote in Considérations:
“The Chinese government embodies the ‘juste milieu’, [here] the Law of Confucius still exists [...], although it is as old as that of Solon, [which is] destroyed, and even caused the destruction of […] Empires. I believe in exact the description which I have just made of the Chinese government […] I propose to the nations of Europe this model [of superior government], for their own benefits.”104
Interestingly, the first edition of the famous Lyon-lecture by Poivre was published in Yverdon as well, only four years after de Surgy and d’Argenson.105
Besides replicating Quesnay’s sources on wu-wei, Yverdon was very active in diffusing various original physiocratic texts. Parallel to Poivre, a collection of Quesnay’s writings by the French Physiocrat Pierre du Pont de Nemours, the “Physiocratie, ou constitution naturelle du gouvernement”, was published.106 Once again, the strong influence of French Sinophilsm on the Swiss enlightened nexus becomes apparent by quoting Nemours on the Chinese expertise in government:
“[China’s way of government], by taking human nature into account, includes all the needed […] laws for men, and is suitable for all types of climate and countries; since four thousands years [the ordre naturel] has remained the [official doctrine] of the Chinese government.“107
Unsurprisingly, the French Physiocrats had been attracted to parts of this very sinophile part of Switzerland – especially after the foundation of the partly physiocratic Economic Society of Bern, in 1759.108
From very early on, one of Quesnay’s students, the Sinophile Marquis Victor de Mirabeau became ecstatic about the French Physiocrats’s Swiss connection.109 In 1760, he travelled to Bern and addressed the society:
“Finally the day of days has dawned which will open the eyes of mankind to the best of her truest advantages, this is because the ‘Ökonomische Gesellschaft’ is to be established in the capital of the most powerful canton of Switzerland […] Admirable citizens, soon all the dispersed pieces of knowledge will, under your favour, crystallize in your country and form a protected and secured treasure of knowledge. I cannot reveal to you what I am expecting, what I am hoping for in this deepest of moments. But do not despise the discoveries of the people who preceded you in this noble cause.”110
Indeed, one member of the society would not despise the findings of the French around the ‘Confucius of Europe’; this person was Albrecht von Haller (*1708-†1777), an influential physiologist and writer. As one of the outstanding Swiss intellectual figures of the 18th century, he chaired the Economic Society for nine years (1766, 1768, 1770-1777) and was fascinated by the works of the Sinophiles, Mirabeau and Christian Wolff.111 Haller frequently used his knowledge of the Chinese Empire to criticise anti-physiocratic writings. He condemned Galiani’s writings on the poor export power of agriculture, by drawing attention to the “entrepreneurialzation of the Chinese peasantry”112:
“Galiani, the defender [of industry, is] mistaken: the tailor from Canton, he says, can work for Paris but not the [Cantonese] peasant. [Galiani forgets that] the Chinese peasant produces [the] silk for London [as well].”113
In 1771, Haller published Usong, a Swiss Staatsroman i.e. description of the ideal state in all its aspects, whose political philosophy was deeply influenced by the principle of wu-wei.114 Although Haller’s story plays in Persia, the lessons of his Staatsroman were the lessons he had personally drawn from examining the government of virtuous China.115 Haller’s ideal state is based on China’s universally applicable laws and a bureaucracy that is governed by the principle of accountability, but most importantly on the principle of ‘action by non-action’.116 Haller’s Emperor simply rests in a state of wu-wei as the human embodiment of the authority in which laws and bureaucracy are grounded, like the ideal Confucian ruler who reigns but does not rule.117 Furthermore, the tax system is copied from the Chinese practice.118 Like in China, the system is mainly based on land-poll, and indirect taxes play only a secondary role.119 One indirect tax is known, a very low import duty. However, this duty is fixed at the lowest rate possible because it is “not the Emperor’s wish to extort riches from the merchants”120 but to increase commerce and agriculture.121 Thus, the Emperor Usong is most concerned with agriculture as the base of the state i.e. the nongben-minben ideology, but also considers evenly commerce and industry as sources of national wealth.122 Usong’s physiocratic government does not despise cities (as the Physiocrats did) but aims to protect the welfare of the urban centers to assure additional welfare for the people of the Empire.123
Therefore, by choosing China as his preferred model of government, Haller ends up praising wu-wei as a virtuous and successful instrument of government. However, most importantly, the commercial power of the city is added to Haller’s vision of the ideal state. Unlike Quesnay, who was very much focused on copying the nongben qualities of China, the economic model by Haller endorses the modern commercialism of the urban centres as a vital element for a wu-wei state in Europe. Haller states clearly that this de-linking of wu-wei erzhi from its agricultural core is done for the benefit of the whole population, including the peasants (hence minben).124
Thus, Haller urged Switzerland to transform the French-Chinese physiocratic message of wu-wei for the solely benefit of ‘the people’. He attached the component of urban freedom to the original principle, which had solely been based on the Chinese virtue of agrocracy (agriculture and peasantry-friendly)125. This inclusion of commercial wu-wei was facilitated by Switzerland’s high proto-industrialization and free trade tradition. Quesnay’s one-to-one copy of the Chinese principle had been
ideally suited to reform the autocratic, agrarian, anti-commercial ‘China in Europe’126 but for agrarian and commercial Switzerland, this so-perfect model would work no more. The Swiss, not the French, nor the British, altered the authentic Chinese ‘agrarian wu-wei’ to suit their own needs, transforming themselves into the new European paradigm of wu-wei. This additional economic freedom was embraced via Switzerland’s traditional free trade economy.


Christian Gerlach

Department of Economic History
London School of Economics


91 P. J. van Winter, De Chinezen van Europa (Groningen 1965).
92 Ian Inkster, Science and Technology in History (London 1991), p. 48.
93 Frank A. Kafker/ Serenal L. Kafker, The Encyclopaedists as individuals: Biographical Dictionary of the Authors of the "Encyclopédie”; Studies on Voltaire (Oxford 1988), pp. XX- XXIII.
94 Jonathan Israel, The publishing of forbidden philosophical works in the Dutch republic (1666-1710) and their European distribution, p. 233, in: The Bookshop of the World – The role of the Low Countries in the book-trade 1473-1941, (ed) Lotte Hellinga et al. (Goy-Houten 2001), pp. 233- 243.
95 Elisabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Press as an agent of Change: communications and cultural transformations in early-modern Europe, 2 vols. (Cambridge 1979), vol. I, p. 138.
96 Ulrich im Hof, Geschichte der Schweiz (Stuttgart, 6th ed.1997), pp. 87- 91.
97 Simone Zurbuchen, Patriotismus und Kosmopolitismus – Die Schweizer Aufklärung zwischen Tradition und Moderne (Zürich 2003), p. 50.
98 Jean-Pierre Perret, Les imprimeries d’Yverdon au XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles (Lausanne 1945).
99 De Surgy, Mélanges intéressans, (Yverdon 1764-1767).
100 René Louis de Voyer de Paulmy d’Argenson, Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France / par Mr. le Marquis d'Argenson (Yverdon/ Amsterdam 1764)
101 Julius Becker, Das deutsche Manchestertum – Eine Studie zur Geschichte des wirtschaftspolitischen Individualismus (Karlsruhe 1907), p. 7.
102 Oncken, August, Die Maxime laissez faire et laissez passer, ihr Ursprung, ihr Werden (Bern 1886), p. 61.
103 Ames, Rulership, p. 29.
104 Translated from the French: d’Argenson, Considérations (Amsterdam 1784), pp. 109- 110.
105 Poivre, Voyages (Yverdon 1768).
106 Francois Quesnay, Physiocratie, ou constitution naturelle du gouvernement le plus avantageux au genre humain / recueil publié par Du Pont, 6 vols. (Yverdon 1768- 69).
107 Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours, De l’origine et des progrès d’une science nouvelle 1768/ Dupont de Nemours ; publié avec notice et table analytique par A. Dubois (Paris 1910), p. 35.
108 Georg C. L. Schmidt, Der Bauer im Zeitalter des Frühkapitalismus – Die Wandlung der Schweizer Bauernwirtschaft im achtzehnten Jahrhundert und die Politik der Ökonomischen Patrioten (Bern 1932), pp. 112- 118.
109 August Oncken, Der ältere Mirabeau und die Ökonomische Gesellschaft in Bern (Bern 1886) p. 38.
110 Translated from the German version, in: Oncken, Mirabeau, p.21.
111 Ulrich im Hof, Albrecht von Haller. Staat und Gesellschaft, p. 48 in: Albrecht Haller (1708-1777), 10 Vorträge gehalten am Berner Haller-Symposium 6.-8. Oktober 1977 (Bern 1977), pp. 43- 66.
112 Kent G. Deng, Development and Its Deadlock in Imperial China 221 B.C.–1840 A.D., p.495 in: Economic development and cultural change, Vol. 51, No. 2, January 2003, pp. 479- 523.
113 Translated from German: im Hof, von Haller, p. 61.
114 Albrech von Haller, Usong. Eine Morgenländische Geschichte (Bern 1771).
115 Max Widmann, Albrecht von Hallers Staatsromane (Biel 1894), pp. 59-60.
116 Haller, Usong, pp. 385- 418.
117 Ames, Rulership, p. 55.
118 Haller, Usong, pp. 117- 121.
119 Deng, Imperial China, p. 490.
120 Widmann, Staatsromane, p. 48.
121 Ibid., pp. 47, 49.
122 Ibid., p. 52.
123 Haller, Usong, pp. 406- 407.
124 Haller, Usong, p. 406.
125 Deng, Imperial China, p. 497.
126 Fisher, Containing China?, p. 549.



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