Chapters 21

The Empire of China

by Montesquieu Icon

Our missionaries inform us that:

  • the Imperial Chinese government is admirable
  • it has a proper mixture of fear, honour, and virtue.

Consequently, I must have given an idle distinction, in establishing the principles of the three governments.

But I cannot conceive what this honour can be, among a people who act only through fear of being bastinaded.

Our merchants* do not give us such accounts of the virtue so much talked of by the missionaries. They tell us of the robberies and extortions of the mandarins. The great lord Anson supports this.

*Superphysics note: This is because merchants compete with other merchants

Father Perennin’s letters wrote of the emperor’s proceedings against some of his prince-relatives who had converted. They show a settled plan of tyranny, and barbarities done in cold blood.

We have, likewise, monsieur de Mairan’s, and the same father Perennin’s, letters on the government of China.

Were our missionaries deceived by an appearance of order? Might not they have been struck with that constant exercise of a single person’s will?

An exercise by which t hey themselves are governed, and which they are so pleased to find in the c ourts of the Indian princes; because, as they go thither only in order to i ntroduce great changes, it is much easier to persuade those princes that th ere are no bounds to their power, than to convince the people that there ar e none to their submission.

The Chinese government is not so corrupt as one might expect. The climate, and some other physical causes, may, in that country, have had so strong an influence on their mo rals, as, in some measure, to produce wonders.

The climate of China is favourable to the propagation of the human species. The women are the most pro lific in the whole world. The most barbarous tyranny can put no stop to the progress of propagation. The prince cannot say there, like Pharaoh. Let us deal wisely with them lest they multiply. He would rathe r be reduced to Nero’s wish, that mankind had all but one head.

In spite of tyranny, China, by the force of its climate, will be ever populous , and triumph over the tyrannical oppressor.

China, like all other countries that liv e chiefly upon rice, is subject to frequent famines.

When the people are ready to starve, they disperse, in order to seek for nourishment= in consequence of which, gangs of robbers are formed on every side.

Most of them are extirpated in their very infancy, others swell, and are likewise suppressed. And yet, in so great a number of such distant provinces, some band or othe r may happen to meet with success. In that case, they maintain their ground , strengthen their party, form themselves into a military body, march up to the capital, and place their leader on the throne.

From the very nature of things, a bad ad ministration is here immediately punished. The want of subsistence, in so p opulous a country, produces sudden disorders. The reason why the redress of abuses, Edition= current; Pa ge= [164] in other countries, is attended with such difficulty, is, becaus e their effects are not immediately felt; the prince is not informed in so sudden and sensible a manner as in China.

The emperor of China is not taught, like our princes, that, if he governs ill, he will be less happy in the other life, less powerful and less opulent in this. He knows, that, if his government is not just, he will be stripped both of empire and life.

China grows more populous everyday despite the exposing of children. Its people are incessantly employed in tilling the lands for food. This requires a very extraordinary attention in the government. It is their perpetual concern that every man should have it in his power to work, without the apprehension of being deprived of the fruits of his labour. Consequently, this is not so much a civil, as a domestic, government.

Such has been the origin of those regulations which have been so greatly extolled. They wanted to make the laws reign in conjunction with despotic power. But whatever is joined to the latter loses all its force.

In vain did this arbitrary sway, labouring under its own inconveniences, desire to be fettered; it armed itself with its chains, and is become still more terrible.

China is therefore a despotic state, whose principle is fear.

Perhaps, in the earliest dynasties, when it was smaller, the government might have deviated a little from this spirit,


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