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Pioneering Sociological Study of China (1885)


In the early 1860s French agricultural engineer and diplomat G. Eugène Simon traveled to China  and spent four years touring the country and studying its inhabitants and customs. During the latter part of the 1860s he served as France’s consul in China. After his return to France in 1885 Simon published from Paris La cité chinoise, a work that helped to counter the prevailing mid-nineteenth century European view of China as a stagnant, despotic and morally inferior society. Simon’s book

"idealizes China as a peasant society where liberty in all its forms—political, economic, religious, and intellectual—is realized. Simon’s book, which was very popular, prophesied that all European attempts to subject China to industrialization, colonization, or modernization would fail because of the astounding vitality of the rural nation and its naturalistic civilization. On contemporaries, Simon’s book . . . had an impact out of all proportion to its intrinsic importance. Paul Ernst, the German poet, was inspired by Simon to adulate the collectivist peasant culture of China for giving a higher place to spiritual than to material values" (“China in Western Thought and Culture,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas, I, p. 371).

One of the more unusual manuscripts that I handled during my career as an antiquarian bookseller was the autograph manuscript of Simon's book. The volume contained the autograph manuscript of La cité chinoise that Simon sent to the printer (as evidenced by typesetters’ notations on several leaves), as well as an additional, apparently unpublished shorter work entitled “Le village abandonee.” Also included was a section titled “Pages détachées,” which appeared to contain drafts, revisions or deleted pages from La cité chinoise. Some of these pages had portions cut from them; these probably corresponded to some of the pasted-in corrections in Simon’s manuscript. Simon's work reached an unusually wide audience underoing seven editions between 1885 and 1891. It was translated into English aswas translated into English as China: its Social, Political, and Religious Life in 1887.

Filed under: Social / Political