Guillaume Barrera


1“China is thus a despotic state, the principle of which is fear” (EL, VIII, 21). The chapitre which more or less ends on this sentence has not ceased to lend itself to controversy, from 1767 to today. Montesquieu’s adversaries and the friends of China have never forgiven him for this verdict, whether he held to it, or appeared to have revised and even corrected it in the course of his writings.

2It was one of the chiefs of the school of physiocrates who opened fire by publishing in the spring of 1767 a Despotisme de la Chine in the periodical Éphémérides du citoyen. François Quesnay accomplished, against Montesquieu principally, a simultaneous rehabilitation of China and of despotism.

3Four complaints dominate this critical chapter (VII): L’Esprit des lois blackens the penal system by making a rule of an exception. The author discredits the Chinese Constitution by the abuses of an administration it should serve to control. He makes the mistake of imputing the qualities of the first to the astonishing population of the country, taking the effect for the cause. Finally he does not achieve the positive idea of a “despotism of laws”.

4This despotism of laws and natural order are the matter of the preceding chapters (I-VI). Political unity extended the length of a country invalidates by itself the theory of climates. The nation faithfully follows natural law, worships the “supreme being” (II, 1). Its wisdom derives from the joint influence of canonical books that bear on the rites, good administration and filial respect: “they do not distinguish morality from politics”, exults Quesnay (II, 5). Universal instruction propagates the love of letters throughout the empire; these letters, morality; morality, union and peace. The property of goods is assured; agriculture, which maintains an immense internal trade, is venerated (II, 7-8). Turning Montesquieu’s arms on himself, Quesnay, discussing “positive legislation”, condenses the chapters of Book XIX of L’Esprit des lois, to introduce to his praise of the Chinese Constitution, multiple tribunals, censors overseeing the administration (kolis), great works run by the state, light taxes, well ordered by the regime. China benefits from the happy conflation of the priesthood and the empire. The despot himself has only the power of having the laws executed. It runs up against the right of remonstrance. The various councils balance each other. An army of incorruptible functionaries is charged with judging and instructing the people (VI, 3).

5In chapter VII, finally, Quesnay brings out his artillery: such an authority, unique and impartial, is better than democracy or aristocracy, power of the common people where private interest reigns. Nor is it about mixing regimes: this balance of power cannot resist “the absorption of the political in the economic” that the physiocrat manages (Larrère, 1992, 244). For China stays very close to nature. Its main business is to “till the land with the greatest success”. Economic science will therefore prevail. The perpetuity of the Chinese government testifies to its excellence.

6One year later, Voltaire* in turn doubted that despotism as defined by Montesquieu had existed outside his mind. In any case, the real China would not correspond to it: there laws would reign. Everywhere the goodness of a paterfamilias government, which the word “despot” properly means, would be felt (A.B.C, 1st conversation). The Commentaire on L’Esprit des lois reiterates this critique: why should honor be unknown to the Chinese? How could they scorn emperors exhorting them to virtue like philosophers (XXXIV)? Voltaire also is thus eager to defend China, “the wisest nation”, which has shown what a natural religion, reduced to deism and morality, can do. This four thousand year-old empire, the antidote to the illusions of western, Christian historiography, still offers “the best constitution” (Essai sur les mœurs): does it not rest on the merit of the mandarins, which this commoner Arouet (Voltaire’s real name), admirer of Louis XIV, opposes to birth?

7Contemporary sinologists have relayed these criticisms. René Étiemble, caught between his love for China and his love for Montesquieu, objects to his contradictions (1988, t. ii, chap. III): on the one hand, a rigid despotism, on the other subtlety in punishments, rigor in the censure of powers, a justice in taxation incompatible with such a bad regime. These contradictions are attributed to three reasons: China does not fit the typology of regimes well; the purpose was through China to attack the Society of Jesus and its projects of evangelization from above; finally, Montesquieu never got over the words of Monsignor Foucquet, a former Jesuit he met in Rome in 1729. His former and first conviction was more nuanced, as Pensées no.1880 testifies.

8Finally, Jacques Gernet, close to Étiemble, sees in Montesquieu a fine example of Western inability to understand a China which understands itself in terms of other referents (1994, 31-44). Restoring a more complex picture of what classical China called the state, he formally denies that such a regime ever was that of one “alone” who, “without rule nor law, sweeps everything along by his will.”

9Do all these criticisms do justice to Montesquieu’s thought? Gernet, for example, specifies in the same chapter that, since the Song dynasty, (960-1279), the emperor reigned alone, supported by his men of letters, all aristocracy having disappeared. He praises the uniformity of regulations extended to the empire to assert that Chinese unity will always form anew because of the geographical continuity of the great country. In doing so, he enumerates three characteristics proper to despotism (ii, xviii, xxix). Above all, to rectify Montesquieu’s error, he insists on the importance of rites and rules, asserting that education and mores form the basis of the Chinese political order. As much as to say that in order to refute Book VIII of L’Esprit des lois, he repeats its Book XIX! Twenty years earlier, moreover, in Le Monde de la Chine, the sinologist, studying the beginnings of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) under the title “authoritary paternalism”, diagnosed the corruption already notable at the end of the Quanlong era in the precise terms used by Montesquieu in Book VII: excess of corruption and luxury, popular insurrections in the countryside.

10But Étiemble knew Montesquieu better. He nevertheless forgot that Montesquieumeant the lightness of taxation is to be understood as a sort of compensation for the loss of political freedom (EL, XIII). Moreover, it is not said that Montesquieu was as embarrassed as all that by the fact that a real regime did not fit in his typology. On the one hand, the typology served only to provide reference points, and on another, China would not be an exception: England as well contained a mixture of different regimes.

11To respond to Voltaire and Quesnay, this time, consists less in washing Montesquieu of the suspicion of incoherence than in distinguish politics. Voltaire, for example, holds the Chinese Constitution to be superior because it rests on an authority which he judges both natural and sacred. As for the king’s minister (Quesnay was physician to Louis XV), he erected a model of regime oriented toward the reproduction of goods necessary to subsistence, in conformity with the order of nature. Nature, whether it generously feeds a great people or consecrates fathers, would then speak for China.

12Montesquieu thinks otherwise. The number would be the first explanation that China could not have governed itself otherwise. But this case, all right in unique circumstances, does not suffice to prefer the “agricultural kingdom” to “trading republics”, to use Quesnay’s expressions. Next we would have to be prudent in our choice of terms: the author of L’Esprit des lois willingly discusses the Chinese government, but hesitates to attribute to it a “constitution”. A constitution worthy of the name presupposes a moderation produced by distinction and distribution of powers. For a paternal authority, finally, it “proves nothing” except that in China, domestic and political governments become conflated.

13China, one can see, remains close in mid-century. In this regard, Étiemble offers the most illuminating analysis on Montesquieu’s own situation in “Chinese Europe”. His China, indeed, must be seen in the context of disputes still lively at the turn of the century. Against the background of the quarrel over [Chinese] rituals, the thinkers of Montesquieu’s youth, up to Leibniz, were especially interested in the religious problem. Against the background of navigation and trade, the authors who will follow him, up to Turgot, will deal above all with agriculture, despotism, “enlightened” or not, and external trade. Montesquieu occupies a place in the middle, while paying attention to these two aspects. Because there was indeed for him as well as his contemporaries a “Chinese question”. This question was first one of fact: what was to be believed, who was right, the Jesuit missionaries or the detractors of their missions, travelers and diplomats? Is China a religious and well ordered nation, or a land of idolaters and crooks, tyrannically governed?

14It is also a question of law, which engages the idea that Europe has of itself, its societies, its churches, its rulers, and its laws. Beyond mandarins, or the “Chang-ti”, lord of heaven, the political thinkers affront in China a global counter-model. The entire century teeters: the Histoire des deux Indes, in 1774, still combines the praise of Raynal and the jibes of Diderot (Richter, 1993).

15Does Montesquieu damn without nuance? What, first of all, does he know about China? What does he believe by preference of the sources he possesses?

16Examination of his readings and of the collected witnesses attests in the first place an interest for China as great as it is durable: forty fragments of the Pensées, seventeen of the Spicilège, nearly a hundred fifty-seven sheets of notes on Du Halde, recorded in Geographica that are so rich in this domain, that Françoise Weil proposed naming them “Sinica”. Re-establishing these notebooks, she conjectured thus the course of his readings and encounters: conversations with the Chinaman Hoang (1713), with Monsignor Foucquet (1729), notes on the Lettres of Father Parennin to Mairan (1730-1738), reading of Father Du Halde (1735-1738), return to the Lettres édifiantes (1742-1743), conversations with Mairan (traditionally dated from 1755, but in fact earlier). It is now certain that the encounter with Hoang happened only once, and that the “conversations with Hoang” in the Geographica (OC, t. XVI, 2007, p. 109-130) are not by Montesquieu; he doubtless received them from Fréret, so greatly do they differ from the overall Geographica and everything we know about the interest Montesquieu had in the Chinese; moreover they presuppose in a Montesquieu of twenty-four a most unlikely knowledge of Chinese sciences and language (Benitez).

17On the other hand, it is clear that the compilation by Father Du Halde of letters of the Jesuit Fathers in four volumes, the Description de la Chine which appeared in 1735, furnished most of the information which Montesquieu had at his disposal, occupying the greatest part of the Geographia (OC, t. XVI, p. 133-284): the first integral edition makes it possible to appreciate the work that led to the chapters of L’Esprit des lois.

18Influenced nonetheless by the Oratorial Renaudot, by Foucquet and then Father Matteo Ripa, whom he met in Italy (Fatica), the author of L’Esprit des lois was also attentive to the viewpoint of missions opposed to the Jesuits’, before trusting the narratives of diplomats, like Lange, whose relation appeared in 1715, or English voyagers, mainly Lord Anson (whom he will not read, however, until 1749). Chapter XVIII, 21 of L’Esprit des lois give a fine demonstration of this. It is permitted to judge with Élie Carcassonne that the relations of Lange, required not to leave Peking during his entire legation, as that of Anson’s chaplain, who had seen of China only Macao, cannot compete with the letters of the Jesuits. It is also legitimate to point out, with Étiemble, that Montesquieu is mistaken, and no doubt deliberately, when he accuses the Jesuits of wishing to show the Chinese the falseness of their religion, when the whole affaire of the rituals demonstrates the contrary (1988, t. II, 70). Finally, it is nonetheless curious, that Montesquieu says nothing, despite all the philosophers, on the social mobility offered by the mandarinate.

19But it is not enough to be surprised, it is better to understand: these reading choices are writing choices. Montesquieu’s discourse is complex.

20China appears mostly in the Geographica, Pensées, Spicilège, and L’Esprit des lois. The idea of a Chinese “good government” becomes clearer especially in the latter. It first appears that China is neither a monarchy nor a republic: every trace of feudalism having disappeared, the prince’s power, centralized, encounters no intermediary power – clergy, nobility, or cities – capable of channeling it. The common people, for its part, does not hold sovereign power. Already Rhedi, in Persian Letters, affirmed that “most Asiatics have not even a notion of this form of government” (LP, 125 [131]), at the very moment when the emperor Yongzheng, of the Qing dynasty, was really condemning parties (dang) as so many factions. Montesquieu’s Chinese readers still, at the beginning of the 20th century, criticized his theory of regimes, for opposing “monarchy” and “democratic monarchy” (Xu Minglong).

21China is therefore an empire. Its expanse alone prevents its pretending to full political moderation. It is governed moreover on another scale, under the sign of the “prodigious”, a term used three times in chapter 21 of Book VIII. The emperor seems both a paterfamilias and the chief of an immense agricultural “factory”, which is essentially a rice culture (xxiii, 14).

22This “industry” produces, however, notable effects of moderation, to the point that China sets itself apart from the other forms of oriental despotism. There reigns a sort of “virtue”. Above all, it cannot be said that its “education [is] essentially nonexistent”, as is the case in all despotisms (iv, 3).

23But the empire owes to the necessity of feeding so great a people this “spirit of labor and economy as required as in any republic that may exist”, like the “fine regulations” of an emperor of the T’ang dynasty (618-907), who destroyed an “infinite number” of Buddhist monasteries in 845 (VII, 6). Luxury, the motor of trade in Western monarchies, also provokes in China the fall of dynasties. Without mentioning the idea of the “celestial mandate”, Montesquieu subscribes to the idea of a cyclical history. He does not admire antiquity because he does not see its unity: “it is not […] the same empire” (Pensées, no. 234). Still, at all times the emperors were forced to govern well out of fear of peasant revolts, those revolutions due to famines which the Chinese designate by a significant term: “withdrawal of the mandate” (Komin).

24China, open to “tartar” invasions – Montesquieu referring thus to the founders of the Mongolian as well as Manchurian dynasties, the Yuan (1271-1368) or the Qing (from 1644) – appears moreover as the opposite of the Roman Republic, free because always agitated. Isolated and self-isolating, China’s principal and general object is the “public tranquillity”, in other words interior tranquillity. Order (zhi) and disorder (luan) are therefore the key words of its organization (Jullien).

25Tranquillity is joined by the necessity of labor, a second object for legislators, first in quality in Montesquieu’s eyes. That is why the third part of the work makes an ever-larger place for the Chinese case, until Book XIX, where it occupies the most chapters. Nature and laws mention five reasons for which the Chinese are exemplary in their industriousness. They have no choice: rice demands constant labor, the people are in part owners of their land, the example of labor is given from on high, the bait of gain is encouraged. The question of property especially appears decisive. On this point, Montesquieu and Quesnay would have agreed. The first, in any case, attributes the Chinese exception among despotisms to this trait (Pensées, no.1839), inherited from the political economics of Mengzi (or Mencius, 370-290 BCE), a disciple of Confucius.

26Chinese society, for its part, is notable for an extreme separation of the sexes, which predisposes it as well to despotism as to Islam, rather than to Christiantiy. It is especially the predominance of peasants that characterizes it more specifically. The fertility of the land, vast plains, a southern climate, further favor the despotic regime, according to the combines lessons of Books XVII and XVIII. They had such an impact on Jefferson that after wishing his rising nation would follow the rural Chinese example, he wondered whether such a state could favor virtue and liberty (letter to Gates, 21 February 1798). Montesquieu for his part here marks the ambivalence of China: on the one hand, this compatibility between the specific features of this agricultural nation and the worst of regimes, on the other an activity capable of producing magnificent provinces, under the reign of the Shang (11th century BCE), then the Han, by the annexation of the Tchö-kiang (112 BCE). Montesquieu insists in so doing on the passage of a grain-culture China, the China of the Yellow River, to a rice-culture China of the south, along the Yang-tseu (Braudel, 1963).

27The chapter that praises this work (xviii, 6) deserves our attention. It needs to be compared to the one that deals with maritime republics (xx, 5). Necessity governs in both cases, for it produces freedom in one, a certain moderation in the other, by work in the one and the other. This chapter also proves that the writer does not contradict himself. Indeed, his last lines manifestly take up again the tenor of Pensées no. 1880, as Étiemble does not seem to have noticed. The double lesson to remember is first that Asia is not such a homogeneous and undifferentiated ensemble (Courtois), and secondly that China is perhaps the best of its regimes. It is none the less for that a despotic regime in both texts.

28Finally, Book XIX underscores its singularity. It appears less governed by a political regime, or by an emperor – Montesquieu invokes incidentally the theory of “non-action” (wu-wei) (xii, 25) – as by a general spirit mixing in its rites morality, politics and religion. Letters assure its transmission, notably by the Yi li and the Li ji, two canonical works which escaped the proscriptions of the year 213. Filial piety preached by the Xiao jing and civility constitute its double pillar. The second, which consists in not revealing one’s vices, refers back in fact to the pessimism of the third great Confucian, Xunzi (300-237 BCE), a contemporary of the violent Qin dynasty.

29Private and social life in this patriarchal society are thus governed by the “manners” bearing the stamp of religion. As Max Weber after him, Montesquieu, without seeing in the Chinese the “virtuous atheists” described by Bayle – he rather judges them to be idolaters – finds “nothing spiritual” in the Confucianism of rites (XIX, 17). Thus he speaks of it rather in Books XXIV-XXV.

30Thanks especially to the mandarins, this religion, unlike Islam and Hinduism, does not depend on a powerful clergy. The books are moreover “in everyone’s hands”. It even proves to be useful enough to compare it to Stoicism, and be opposed to Buddhism or Taoism, equally rejected as quietist and lazy (XXIV, 19). The writer distinguishes these three sects, unaware perhaps of the Chinese syncretism current since the Yuan and Ming.

31He is elsewhere allusive about the system of public examinations, which he does not compare to the venality of charges, as will Turgot. Finally, it is as a Chinaman that he explains what makes for good government: it reigns “when everyone obeys and everyone works” (XIX, 20). The thinker hastens all the same to invoke, and to condemn in the name of efficacity (Jullien), what is called the “legist” tendency that opted to “govern by punishment”.

32This conflation of everything in the rituals made manners so indestructible that China cannot lose “its laws”: either she “sinizes” her conquerors, or she rejects them. For this reason, evangelization presents too high a risk. One of the Pensées (no. 531) states this forthrightly: “I would not choose to have us go preach to the Chinese”. The spirit of Christianity is too violent for the spirit of China. Should it ever succeed, the first one would soon adopt another style: “the oriental Christian religion will be very different” (Pensées, no. 876).

33Finally, the third of the “great things” after liberty and religion, exterior trade, seems in turn not to suit a nation too preoccupied with assuring the purely necessary to speculate on the superfluous. Like the Muscovy of the time, this land of lettered men (che) and peasants (nong) does not yet dispose of the requisite third estate. In addition, knowing that trade modifies mores and manners, its introduction into China would have unpredictable consequences.

34Although he is intent on respecting the general spirit of each nation, it is not certain that Montesquieu would have compromised on the question of rights, which he called duties relative to human nature (Leys). It is to them he refers to judge despite all China as a despotic regime.

35More surprisingly, he nevertheless does not find in imperial and mandarinal China an example of dangerous alliances between bureaucracy and absolute power stigmatized by Tocqueville in the France of the Ancien Régime as of the Revolution.


Montesquieu, Geographica (Extraits et notes de lecture, I), OC, t. XVI, 2007, dir. Catherine Volpilhac-Auger (extracts of the Description de la Chine of Du Halde annotated par Sylviane Albertan-Coppola).

Eighteenth-Century Authors

François Quesnay, Despotisme de la Chine, par M. A, in Les Éphémérides du citoyen, March-June 1767, p. 563-660.

Turgot, Questions sur la Chine adressées à MM. Ko et Yang, Œuvres complètes, 1844, t. i, p. 310-322.

Voltaire, Essai sur les mœurs (1756); Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751); Dictionnaire philosophique (1764).

Critical Bibliography


René Grousset, Histoire de la Chine, Paris: Fayard, 1942.

Fernand Braudel, Grammaire des civilisations, Paris: Belin, 1963.

Jacques Gernet, Le Monde chinois, Armand Colin, 1972; Chine et christianisme, action et réaction, Paris: Gallimard, 1982; L’intelligence de la Chine, le social et le mental, NRF, 1994.

Simon Leys, La Forêt en feu: essais sur la culture et la politique chinoises, Paris: Hermann, 1983.

René Étiemble, L’Europe chinoise, Paris: Gallimard, NRF, « Bibliothèque des idées », 1988.

François Jullien, La Propension des choses: pour une histoire de l’efficacité en Chine, Paris: Seuil, 1992.

Catherine Larrère, L’Invention de l’économie politique au XVIIIe siècle, Paris: PUF, Léviathan, 1992.

Jean-Patrice Courtois, Inflexions de la rationalité dans L’Esprit des lois, Paris: PUF, 1999.

Jacques Pereira, Montesquieu et la Chine, Paris, L'Harmattan, 2008.


Élie Carcassonne, “La Chine dans L’Esprit des lois”, Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France 31 (1924), p. 193-205.

Françoise Weil, “Le manuscrit des Geographica et L’Esprit des lois”, Revue d’histoire littéraire de la France, 1952, p. 451-461.

Michele Fatica, “Le fonti orali della sinofobia di Montesquieu” Cahiers Montesquieu 2 (1993), 395-409.

Xu Minglong, “Montesquieu en Chine au début du XXe siècle”, La Fortune de Montesquieu, Montesquieu écrivain, Bordeaux, 1995, p. 187-194.

Miguel Benítez, “Montesquieu, Fréret et les remarques tirées des entretiens avec Hoangh”, Bordeaux 1999, p. 111-126 (reprinted in OC, t. XVI, p. 419-434).

Catherine Larrère, “Qu’est-ce qu’un bon gouvernement?”, Économies et sociétés, Oeconomia, Histoire de la pensée économique, séries P.E, no. 29, 8, 1999, p. 7-27.

Bibliographical reference

Barrera Guillaume , « China », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :