The Chinese and the French Revolution

Wednesday (14) is the French National Day. The origin of this day is Bastille Day, the day when, 232 years ago, the French people stormed the Bastille prison and kicked off the French Revolution.

The famous British historian Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012) considered it a “dual revolution” along with the Industrial Revolution that took place at the same time, and said that almost all modern countries were the product of the “dual revolution” in the 18th century. The product of the “dual revolution” in the 18th century. It is worth noting, however, that because the Manchu dynasty deliberately kept the French Revolution under wraps, China began to study the subject almost one hundred years after the Revolution, and from this alone we can see why contemporary China is so far removed from universal values.

It is difficult to determine the exact time and means by which the news of the French Revolution first reached China, because the official documents of the Qing Dynasty that we can see do not record a single word about it. Previously, some Chinese scholars believed that the first person to tell the Chinese about the French Revolution was the British, who were hostile to the French Revolution, and that in 1793 Britain sent George Macartney (1737-1806) to China to negotiate for trade. However, it is now generally believed in Chinese scholarship that the news of the French Revolution reached the Qing court two or three years before the British envoy Macartney arrived in Beijing in August 1793. The main basis of this theory is that George Staunton, the secretary of the mission and the special envoy’s plenipotentiary in his absence, was a member of the Qing court. George Staunton (1781-1859), who was the secretary of the mission and the envoy’s plenipotentiary at the time of his absence, wrote a book entitled The Chronicle of the British Envoy’s Visit to Qianlong. For example, chapter 9 of the book, “Passing through the Wanshan Islands, approaching Macao, and driving to Zhoushan,” states, “News of the civil strife in France for the last two or three years had already been heard in Peking, and the ideas advocated there, which were disruptive of order and subversive of the government, compelled the Peking government to guard against it.” From the relevant records, it can be seen that news of the French Revolution had already reached China before Macartney’s mission came to China, but because the Qing court strictly blocked the news, the Chinese people knew almost nothing about it.

By the 1890s, the news of the French Revolution had not only spread in China, but also became a hot topic in Chinese intellectual and political circles. What’s more, against the background of the country’s growing crisis and the calls for reform, the history of the French Revolution was drawn into the whirlpool of China’s political struggle. Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, representatives of the reformist faction, used the lessons of the French Revolution to argue their political claims during and after the failure of the Hundred Days Reform. For example, in 1898, Kang Youwei, in order to promote the Reformation, submitted to the Guangxu Emperor “The French Revolution”, telling him that if he did not change the law early, it would provoke a revolution.

At the same time, revolutionaries such as Zhang Taiyan and Sun Yat-sen also used the history of the French Revolution to defend their political ideas. If Kang and Liang studied the French Revolution in order to learn from it, to promote the change of the law and the reform of the country, and to strive for limited democratic freedom on the basis of a constitutional monarchy, the revolutionaries represented by Sun Yat-sen studied the French Revolution in the opposite direction, eulogizing the spirit of the Revolution and “localizing” the ideas and doctrines of the Revolution. “On this basis, they advocated the overthrow of the imperial system, the establishment of a republic, and the implementation of the Three Principles of the People. However, it is an indisputable fact that until the Xinhai Revolution, the history of the French Revolution was discussed and disseminated by political commentators in China. Strictly speaking, up to this time, there was only the political theory of the history of the French Revolution in China, but not yet the historiography of the French Revolution.

This situation finally changed in the 30 years between the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and 1949. Chinese historians specializing in the history of the French Revolution began to appear, prominent among them being Shen Lianzhi and Yang Rendi. Shen Lianzhi studied in France in the late 1920s, majored in history and received his doctorate, during which he was introduced by a friend to Albert Mathiez, a master of the history of the French Revolution who was lecturing at the University of Dijon, and attended all of Mathiez’s courses on the history of the French Revolution. After completing his studies in China, Professor Shen Lianzhi published “Addresses on the History of the French Revolution” in September 1941. Yang studied at Oxford University in England in the early 1930s, where he studied the history of the French Revolution under Professor J. M. Thompson, a leading historian of the French Revolution. He published Saint-Just in 1945, which was the precursor of his dissertation on the political thought of Saint-Just, written under Professor Thompson’s supervision. In addition, he also translated and published such classics as Mathieu’s History of the French Revolution. By now, the study of the French Revolution did not remain only at the level of relatively superficial introduction, commentary and political theory as in the past, but gradually paid attention to the professionalism of academic research.

Unfortunately, the good times did not last long. For a long time after 1949, the Chinese Communist regime advocated studying the Soviet Union, and only a few works on the French Revolution were written by Chinese scholars during this period, and even if there were translations of Soviet works, they were written from a Marxist perspective. During the Cultural Revolution, academic research came to a complete halt. It was not until December 1978, when China adopted the policy of “internal reform and external opening”, that the study of French history in China regained its vitality. It provided a good platform for Chinese scholars interested in the study of the Revolution to exchange ideas. During the reform and opening-up phase, many Chinese scholars sought to escape the influence of dogmatism, simplification, and vulgarity, and to recognize and understand the main figures, events, and unique phenomena of late 18th-century France during the French Revolution through independent research. Unfortunately, once again, in the Xi Jinping era, historical research has fallen into the doom of backtracking.

Incidentally, Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan strongly recommended the book L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (The Old System and the Revolution) by the French thinker Alexis-Henri-Charles Clérel (comte de Tocqueville, 1805-1859), which led to its publication. évolution), which made the book expensive. In L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, Tocqueville laid out his main point about the French Revolution: although the French people tried to escape from the institutions and dictatorships of the past, they eventually returned to a strong centralized government.

Can a Chinese reader not read The Old System and the Revolution again today without sighing and sighing?