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The Confucius of Europe, The Tillotson of China: Oliver Goldsmith and the Construction of Chinese Otherness

About the Author: Scott Lee

Scott Lee is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in political science and English. His critical literature interests include modernist and post-modernist American literature, while his broader research interests include international security and contemporary Chinese foreign policy in the Middle East. Scott plans on attending law school in the near future. His paper was originally submitted for a class on China in eighteenth-century English imagination.

By Scott Lee | General Essays

Imagining his own epitaph as written by a Chinese man of letters, eighteenth-century author Oliver Goldsmith once described himself as “justly styled the Sun of Literature and the Confucius of Europe” (Spence 73). As generous a designation as it is, why Goldsmith would liken himself to the figure of Confucius is somewhat unclear. Perhaps it had something to do with Goldsmith’s widespread celebrity or his advocacy of certain social and political mores. More probably, this name derived from Goldsmith’s shallow association with the East through his literary alter ego in The Citizen of the World, Lien Chi Altangi. Indeed, Goldsmith’s link to China in his epitaph is in some ways just as puzzling as the character Lien Chi’s own relationship to China. Set against the historical backdrop of the West’s increasing interaction with the East, The Citizen of the World presents the imaginary tale of a citizen of China who visits England and records his observations in letters home. Goldsmith alternately characterizes Lien Chi as a metonym for the “otherness” of Confucianism, while paradoxically insisting that Lien Chi is not unlike the English people in bearing and mindset. Citizen, then, presents in miniature the eighteenth-century European debate on China and Confucianism as a binary between exotic and familiar. Ultimately, Goldsmith’s simultaneous othering Confucius (embodied in the philosophers Lien Chi and Fum Hoam) and likening him to John Tillotson respectively satirizes European moral virtues and instead promotes a sense of moderation.

Originally published serially in the Public Ledger from 1760-1761, Goldsmith’s “letters” were compiled into Citizen of the World in 1762 following meteoric popularity. As an epistolary novel, Citizen takes the form of a series of letters – Lien Chi’s “letters” back to China containing observations of contemporary English society. In this manner, Goldsmith cleverly couches his critiques of England through the lens of the “other.” Doing so grants him a certain degree of legitimacy, as well as safety, since it creates the illusion of objective third-party observation. For the purposes of comparison, Goldsmith reifies this “other” in China’s Confucian values, which many contemporary critics of the time saw as an intellectual and moral counterpoint to the Western tradition. At this time, Europeans had a rather unfocused definition of “Confucianism” and applied the moniker to everything from religion, philosophy, and social ethic to, as Goldsmith himself puts it, “a system of philosophy in the department of morals and politics” (Citizen 37). But as Lionel Jensen asserts in Manufacturing Confucianism, these generalized descriptions are less important than the powerful role Confucius played as “the iconic representation of Chinese native otherness” (Jensen 8). Essentially, Europeans fostered a singular appreciation for Confucius because his doctrines functioned as a nexus of East-West parity, ultimately spawning profound “European debates about self, society, and the sacred” (Jensen 9). To this effect, Lien Chi operates as a stand-in for Confucius within The Citizen of the World: his role as a Chinese philosopher, his humility and learnedness, and even invocations to the great sage indicate that he is steeped in an entirely alien intellectual and cultural tradition. The construction of Lien Chi is identical to what Jensen describes as the “manufacturing” of Confucius—both are significant because they “reflect how Westerners understand, or wish to understand, themselves” (Jensen 4).

Lien’s Chi’s role as a symbol of Confucian virtue casts aspersions on Western, and particularly Christian, morality. As Goldsmith annotates in Letter VII, Confucius did not subscribe to “any particular religious persuasion” insofar as he did not derive his moral system from divinity à la Christianity (Citizen37). And yet the Chinese were able to develop “natural religion—moral truths about right and wrong discernible through human reason and without divine revelation” (Mungello 91). Not only did Confucian morality spring from a different font, but Confucian ethics seemed to locate its moral truths elsewhere. As a philosopher, Lien Chi lives a life of ascetics, moderation, and humility that is at odds with Europe’s decadence. Writing to thank his merchant friend in Amsterdam for shelter and travel money, Lien Chi is only able to offer in return his “gratitude and esteem, the only tributes a poor philosophic wanderer can return” (Goldsmith, Citizen 2). Although he may lack worldly goods, he is rich in spirit. He then goes on to justify his poverty: “You have been bred a merchant, and I a scholar; You consequently love money better than I. You can find pleasure in superfluity, I am perfectly contented with what is sufficient” (3). As a representative of Chinese virtue, Lien Chi immediately sets himself apart from Western materialism by underscoring his humility and poverty. At best, his comment to the merchant is a backhanded compliment; at worst, it is an undeniable criticism of Western avarice.

The contrast becomes more apparent when Lien Chi comments on the self-indulgence of English material culture. Writing to his mentor in China, Fum Hoam, the “sage disciple and follower of Confucius” (Goldsmith, Citizen 39), Lien Chi remarks with amusement how industries like “nose-borers, feet-swathers, tooth-stainers, eye brow pluckers…employ much fewer hands in China than in England” (7). Goldsmith’s direct comparison of England’s material culture to that of China’s suggests that Confucian culture’s aversion to decadence has helped it avoid the frivolities that plague English society. Goldsmith even goes so far as to insult the masculinity of English men and beauty of English women. Lien Chi comically remarks on how the English man “betailed and bepowdered…attempts to look hideously tender” (8). Meanwhile, the English woman “is herself every whit as fond of powder, and tails, and hog’s lard as he” (8). The author deliberately conflates men and women by highlighting their shared love of powder, nodding to the idea that self-indulgent society produces effeminate men. He also links both genders to swine through the references to tails and hog’s lard. The effect of these porcine characterizations is to display the piggish nature of English haute couture.

Goldsmith levies another critique against Europe through a second facet of so-called Chinese virtue: religious tolerance. In a letter to Lien Chi comparing China and European history, the Confucian acolyte Fum Hoam extols China as “an empire as large as Europe, governed by one law…and experiencing but one revolution of any continuance on the space of four thousand years” (Goldsmith, Citizen 178). Indeed, he believes that China is peerless in the success of its culture and government. In stark contrast, Fum Hoam blasts Christianity for engendering endless enmity throughout Western history. He cites “Romans extending their power over barbarous nations, and in turn…when become Christians, engaged in continual wars with the followers of Mohamet; or more dreadful still, destroying each other” (178). The violence of Christianity is fatalistic, cyclically destructive toward both other religions and itself.

In contrast, Fum Hoam asserts that China observes “no religious persecutions, no enmity between mankind, for difference in opinion” (Goldsmith, Citizen178). This is despite the existence of several competing quasi-religious Chinese sects, such as “the disciples of Lao Kium, the idolatrous sectaries of Fohi, and the philosophical children of Confucius, [who] only strive to shew by their actions the truth of their doctrines” (178). Unlike Europe, beset by Crusades and even intra-Christian wars, China’s constituent religious groups live in relative harmony. For contemporary European intellectuals and Sinophiles such as Voltaire, these sects’ “peaceful coexistence suggests, rather, a laudable ‘spirit of tolerance,’ and imperial magnanimity toward religious dissenters that only confirms the wisdom and security of the official creed” (Porter 129). Thus, Goldsmith others China and the religious tolerance ingrained in its moral code so as to castigate European belligerence. Fum Hoam’s remarks paint China as “the virtuous paragon of natural religion and tolerance, while Christianity stands condemned for its vicious sectarianism, narrow-mindedness, and violence as a grotesque perversion of these Chinese ideals” (Porter 82).

The last aspect of Confucian ethics that Goldsmith highlights is filial piety; he shows how its extension into government and politics offers a viable counter to Western-style governance. The notion of filial piety, a sense of reverence for and deference toward elders and particularly father figures, was seen as an integral part of the Chinese family unit. Because “the whole state may be said to resemble one family, of which the Emperor is the protector, father, and friend,” a government founded upon Confucian principles must take filial obedience as “the first and greatest requisite of a state” (Goldsmith, Citizen176). As Fum Hoam would have it, China’s reliance on this pillar of Confucian thought is the key to its enduring past and continued success. This remarkable continuity between Confucian ethics, society, and government impelled Sinophiles like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to believe that Europeans were “surpassed by the Chinese in practical philosophy,…the adaptation of ethics and politics to contemporary life” (Mungello 90-91). Leibniz was but one of many prominent European philosophers who looked to Confucius and his morals as a measuring stick of progress for Europe.

In contrast to this vision of an ordered and ideologically uniform Confucian society, Goldsmith uses the outsider perspective of Lien Chi to characterize English civilization as boorish and chaotic. While Confucian society promotes a rigid hierarchy typified by utmost respect for the Emperor, “An Englishman is taught to love his king as his friend” (Goldsmith, Citizen 10). Yet the connotation here is not quite positive: Lien Chi observes this English norm as form of pride, which “seems the source not only of their national vices, but of their national virtues also” (10). Rather than represent the sovereign-subject relationship as egalitarian, Goldsmith instead suggests that it is a product of a particular vice among the people—arrogance. To Lien Chi’s bemusement, English social relations upend Confucianism’s ethic of respect by opening the door for “the lowest mechanic” to use “language that might seem haughty, even in the mouth of the great emperor who traces his ancestry to the moon” (11). This lack of courtesy inverts Confucian respect and deference.

Lien Chi’s examination of the concept of “liberty” informing English political culture is even more telling. In Citizen, Letter IV, the Chinese philosopher overhears a conversation between an imprisoned debtor, a soldier, and a porter discussing the threat of an impending French invasion. The prisoner cries out, “the greatest of my apprehensions is for our freedom; if the French should conquer, what would become of English liberty? My dear Friends, liberty is the Englishman’s prerogative” (Goldsmith, Citizen 11). As an outsider, Lien Chi is entertained by the situation at hand, for he has encountered the ironic sight of an imprisoned man declaiming French incursion upon his freedom and liberty. In England, Lien Chi remarks, “thousands might be found ready to offer up their lives for [liberty], though perhaps not one of all the number understands its meaning” (11). If the prisoner is right about liberty being “the Englishman’s prerogative,” then this scene provides us with a comparison of two principle values respectively underlying Chinese and English society: filial piety versus liberty. While Fum Hoam’s explanation of filial piety is imperialistic in its clarity and directive, liberty remains a nebulous concept even to those who ostensibly hold it in such high esteem.

Throughout the text, Goldsmith others Confucius in the form of Lien Chi; this manufactured identity allows Goldsmith the satirist access to a new way of assessing and critiquing European norms. Specifically, Confucius offers a competing vocabulary of moral truths in the notions of moderation and humility, religious tolerance, and filial piety that either clashes with or is at least identical to its European correlates. Deist intellectuals of the eighteenth-century zeroed in on these elements of Confucian morality because they were “logically consistent and offered practical benefits to the individual and society…confirm[ing] their belief that it was possible to have morality without Christianity” (Mungello 119). As a caveat, however, it is important to note that Goldsmith never explicitly promotes Confucian morality over Western morality—“the Chinese philosopher is merely a satirical vehicle, and there our author stops” (Hsia 296). For Goldsmith, Confucius is useful in pointing out the flaws of English society, but not necessarily serving as a substitute for Christian morality.

As quick as Goldsmith is to exoticize China and its Confucian virtues, he also constructs many moments of surprising cultural parity. In “The Editor’s Preface” to Citizen, Goldsmith succinctly elucidates his philosophy: “The truth is, the Chinese and we are pretty much alike. Different degrees of refinement, and not of distance, mark the distinctions among mankind” (ii). So what does the author achieve in playing both sides of the exotic-familiar binary? As a literature review from 1796 explains, working through the “supposed medium of a foreigner, whose different views of things, as tinctured by the particular ideas and associations to which his mind has been habituated, often afford an excellent scope for raillery” (The Critical Review 243). On the other hand, evoking the cultural similarities between England and China cautions the West against drawing artificial cultural differences that may not necessarily exist. Edward Said’s tour de force Orientalism defines orientalism as “a manner of regularized (or Orientalized) writing, vision, and study, dominated by imperatives, perspectives, and ideological biases ostensibly suited to the Orient” (Said 202). Certainly other characters in Citizen Orientalize Lien Chi by grouping him among other Asian ethnic groups or by making unwarranted assumptions about his personality by virtue of his Chinese-ness. In fact, his construction by Goldsmith is itself an iteration of Orientalism. The process of othering Confucius as a mode of comparison, a common practice among eighteenth-century intellectuals, fulfills these criteria as well. Yet during multiple instances in Citizen of the World, Confucius is invoked as equivalent to a Western figure of intellectual or religious authority. This process of familiarizing Confucius to readers is part of Goldsmith’s enjoinment toward moderation, a crucial aspect of which is the aversion toward excessive Orientalization.

Confucius is often favorably compared to classical Western philosophers to emphasize China’s comparable intellectual tradition. In Letter LX, Lien Chi writes to Fum Hoam and makes a direct comparison between two intellectual heavyweights: “In succeeding ages, Confucius and Pythagoras seem born nearly together, and a train of philosophers then sprung up as well in Greece as in China” (Goldsmith, Citizen 278). China not only yielded an equivalent to the pre-eminent mathematician-philosopher Pythagoras, but the two were roughly contemporaneous, depicting China and the West as intellectually on track with one another. This is an especially flattering portrayal of Confucius, and it fits in with Europe’s fetishization of ancient authority. In fact, given that Confucian tradition and wisdom spanned multiple millennia, this obsession with antiquity fueled much of European interest in Confucius. The comparison of Confucius’s teachings to those of familiar Western icons thus narrows the divide between East and West.

The dinner guests that Lien Chi describes in Letter XXXII are unwilling to look past their preconceptions toward the greater truth that Goldsmith promotes. When one of the English guests absurdly pontificates to Lien Chi about the “true eastern idiom,” Lien Chi takes offense and demands of the man: “how, Sir…can you pretend to determine upon the eastern stile, who are entirely unacquainted with the eastern writings?” (Goldsmith, Citizen 138). Here we see Goldsmith’s proto-Orientalist critique: a scathing rebuke against one whose presumed knowledge of an othered location is “dominated by imperatives, perspectives, and ideological biases” [Said 202]. Lien Chi then embarks on a long tirade equating crucial aspects of Chinese and English societies. This claim of cultural equivalence is elegantly summed up by his claim that “a page of our Confucius and of your Tillotson have scarce any material difference” (Goldsmith, Citizen 140). So, who is this Tillotson, and what does Goldsmith’s equation of Confucius and this man lend to our understanding of the author’s satire?

John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1691 to 1694, was famed for delivering sermons characterized by practical enjoinments of morality and moderation. In his essay “The Augustan Age in England,” Goldsmith offers his opinion on the archbishop: “[H]is manner of writing is inimitable; for one who reads him, wonders why he himself did not think and speak in that very manner” (175). Clearly, Goldsmith felt great respect for the archbishop; hence, he speaks very highly of Confucius in drawing a connection between the two. Like Tillotson, Confucius famously promoted the principle of “the golden mean,” which emphasized self-restraint and moderation. Goldsmith nods to this concept in CitizenLetter XXXV, where the Confucian pupil Hing Po makes a facile attempt at reaffirming his virtue, asking, “What, shall I in a transport of passion give up the golden mean, the universal harmony, the unchanging essence?” (Goldsmith, Citizen 151). Although the concept of “the golden mean” was one of Confucius’s teachings, it was also central to Tillotson’s philosophy. As Louis Locke writes, “One of the great characteristics of Archbishop Tillotson’s thought is its moderation, a quality which colors almost all of his writings and, we may be sure, his life as well” (Locke 68). Of course, this notion of the “middle road” espoused by both men finds analogue in Aristotle’s “doctrine of the mean.” Clearly, the way in which the theme of moderation is threaded through both Western and Chinese intellectual tradition points to a transcultural aspect of Confucian thought.

In England, Tillotson exercised the principle of moderation through a fairly unconventional technique to preaching Christianity—he was willing to stray from more orthodox Anglican methods in favor of an apologist approach. This was because Tillotson emphasized that “the great business of religion is to make men truly good, and to teach them to live well,” not to answer esoteric points of theoretical divinity (Locke 103). To that effect, Tillotson deemphasized dogma and even divinity to promote his “true concern…the higher morals of Christian living” (102). Indeed, Tillotson seemed less interested in Christianity itself than he was in its practical results, since in accomplishing his end, “Tillotson’s appeal was constantly to reason rather than to authority” (106). Likewise, under the auspices of Fum Hoam, Goldsmith refers to Confucian-style government as “established by laws which nature and reason see to have dictated” (Goldsmith, Citizen 176). The link between Tillotson and Confucius then becomes clearer: both men placed a premium on morality and harmony within the citizenry, seeking to promote these social goods in a manner that was dominated by logic, moderation, and “free alike from fanaticism and from superstition” (Locke 69).

The similarities become more pronounced in the realm of politics and government—namely, both discouraged popular uprisings against the status quo. As Archbishop of Canterbury, Tillotson occupied the highest office open to a subject of the king, exerting significant spiritual and civil influence over the nation. Like Confucius, whom Goldsmith portrays as promoting societal harmony through filial piety, Tillotson believed in the importance of social order implemented through government, once noting, “Government is necessary to the welfare of mankind, because it is the great band of human society, the guard of its peace…without [it] we should be in a most wretched condition” (Locke 75). Just as Confucius advanced a strict and immobile social hierarchy, “Tillotson was an unwavering advocate of obedience to the civil law and of the doctrine of non-resistance to those in authority” (75). Naturally, as an advocate for the stabilizing power of government, Tillotson—at least initially—disapproved of revolution because it upset the inherent social order. To a degree, both Confucius and Tillotson encouraged the populace toward moderation, or perhaps more accurately, toward complacency.

Confucius and Tillotson both figured prominently into England’s famous Glorious Revolution of 1688 in their own ways. At the time, John Tillotson was the Dean of Canterbury. True to the Anglican doctrine, he encouraged the people toward passive obedience and against resistance to the reigning King James II. But it was not long before he made an about-face and supported the invader, William of Orange, recognizing that the “day belonged to Social Contract, not to Divine Right” (Locke 42). Interestingly, English intellectuals looked to Confucius as well during the close of the Glorious Revolution. Drained by the schismatic and factionalized civil war,

certain segments of English society would have wanted a rational exemplar of the status quo, especially one so given to toleration. Confucius and his moral sayings served, then, to buttress the Restoration, representing the virtue of the universal against the scourge of factionalism…the purported empirically attested cohesiveness of Chinese life under the aegis of Confucius proved inspirational in the imagining of new communities. (Jensen 120-121)

Confucius and Tillotson both offered the English a sanguine and harmonious vision of the future in their capacities of moral and political power.

Goldsmith’s Confucius-Tillotson comparison places both China and England into the same frame of reference, allowing us to see that ultimately, the two cultures may not be as different as one might first assume. Before departing the dinner party from Letter XXXII, Lien Chi fumes at how the guests reject him for “appearing rather a reasonable creature, than an outlandish ideot” (Goldsmith 140). The guests endow Lien Chi with a set of othering characteristics, effectively transforming him into an object of Chinoiserie, the exotic items of Chinese porcelain and silk so popular amongst wealthy English ladies of the 1700s. Like some of his contemporaries, Goldsmith was “on the whole unfriendly to the current vogue of ‘Chinese taste,’” displaying his obvious distaste to Orientalization through Lien Chi’s reaction during this scene (Hsia 295). Crucially, then, the comparison of Confucius and Tillotson as essentially one-in-the-same contributes to Goldsmith’s satire by undercutting much of the exoticism that granted Confucius his firestorm popularity. Invoking these two paragons of moderation is an attempt to curb excessive Chinese mania by appealing to Sinophiles on their own intellectual level; it seems to say that one not need search far-off lands for a figure of virtue and morality at home.

Some might object that Goldsmith’s positive presentation of Eastern virtues contradicts his ultimate goal of promoting moderation and reining in Sinophilia at home. However, it is important to note that Goldsmith is “not so much interested in Confucius’ ideas as in his own” (Hsia 294). By othering Confucian morality, he merely uses it as a foil for European virtue to point out the West’s flaws and insufficiencies—not necessarily to promote a wholesale adoption of Eastern morality. The exotic “other” of Confucius is an agent for satire, while Confucius’s familiarization serves to bring readers back home to thinkers like Tillotson—a circuitous, although ultimately effective, technique. This trans-global, universal understanding of morality finds its most powerful reinforcement in Letter XVIII, when Fum Hoam tells Lien Chi: “Confucius observes, that it is the duty of the learned to unite society more closely, and to persuade men to become citizens of the world” (Goldsmith, Citizen 89). Ultimately, Goldsmith is encouraging us to assess our own social morality through neither a Western nor an Eastern perspective, but from an objective and cosmopolitan standpoint. After all, whether Chinese, English, Tartaran, or French, we are all citizens of the world, bearing common needs and common wants.

Works Cited

Goldsmith, Oliver. "The Augustan Age in England." The Bee (1764). Web.

Goldsmith, Oliver. The Citizen of the World or Letters from a Chinese Philosopher Residing in London to His Friends in the East.Vol. Volume 1. London, 1792. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Pennsylvania Library. 15 Dec. 2011 

Hsia, Adrian. The Vision of China in the English Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Hong Kong: Chinese UP, 1998. Print.

Jensen, Lionel M. Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions & Universal Civilization. Durham [u.a.: Duke Univ., 2003. Print.

Locke, Louis G. Tillotson: A Study in Seventeenth-Century Literature. Denmark: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1954. Print.

Mungello, David E. The Great Encounter of China and the West: 1500-1800. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. Print.

"Oliver Goldsmith and His Chinese Letters." The Vision of China in the English Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Hong Kong: Chinese UP, 1998. 283-99. Print.

Porter, David. Ideographia: the Chinese Cipher in Early Modern Europe. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2001. Print.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon, 1978. Print

Spence, Jonathan D. The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. Print.

The Critical Review, vol. 17 (July 1796): 241–249