Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Arcadio Huang, Chinese Translator for Louis XIV (Part 2)

In 1713, 24-year-old Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, known simply as Montesquieu, was introduced to Arcadio Huang and became a frequent visitor. Arcadio Huang recorded that he and Montesquieu met eight times and he introduced Montesquieu to China’s politics, economy, culture, law, religion, and folk customs. The intellectual closeness of the two men inspired Montesquieu to respect Chinese culture and influenced his research on China.

Montesquieu summed up his time with Huang as notes in Geographica, tome II entitled “A few remarks on China which I have drawn from conversations I have had with M. Hoange.” In 1721, the book, titled Persian Letters, by Montesquieu became an immediate best seller. It is understood that the protagonist Usbek in the book was shaped by Huang. In his book The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu quoted from their personal conversations six times in the context of the dialogues.

A portrait of Montesquieu. (Image: Public Domain)
A portrait of Montesquieu. (Image: Public Domain)

Under the influence of Huang, Montesquieu read books such as The Chinese Sage Confucius. Huang also introduced him to China’s imperial examination system. Montesquieu believed that this system of China was conducive to improving the quality of officials. Later, China’s imperial examination system was elected by Montesquieu and became the original source of the French civil service.

Huang also introduced Montesquieu to Chinese folk etiquette. Montesquieu realized that Confucian etiquette, with filial piety as its core, was an important cultural gene for Chinese social stability. Chinese women’s moral character was very high because they had followed the “the three obediences and the four virtues” since childhood, so Montesquieu believed that the quality of women in China and other Eastern countries was really amazing.

The Chinese grammar published by Étienne Fourmont in 1742. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)
The Chinese grammar published by Étienne Fourmont in 1742. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

The popular “China fever” in France in the 18th century made Arcadio Huang a literati and scholar recognized during his lifetime. Later, France became the European Sinology Center, and Huang was eventually acknowledged for his contribution. At the end of the 18th century, the French revolution broke out and had a strong impact on traditional culture, so the “China fever” began to cool down.

In 1985, French scholar Danielle Elissreff gave a detailed insight into Arcadio Huang’s sinology propagation in France in her book about him as the Chinese interpreter to the Sun King. This work brought peoples’ attention back to Huang and people gradually got to know the pioneer of this Chinese translation. Today, Arcadio Huang’s works are collected in French libraries, while his personal journal is housed in the French National Archives.

Translated by Jean Chen and edited by Helen

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