Montesquieu

Before ending this book, I shall ans­wer one objec­tion that can be made to eve­ry­thing I have said so far.

Our mis­sio­na­ries tell us of the vast empire of China as an admi­ra­ble govern­ment that com­bi­nes in its prin­ci­ple fear, honor, and vir­tue. It is the­re­fore a vain dis­tinc­tion I have posi­ted when I esta­bli­shed the prin­ci­ples of the three govern­ments.

I do not know what honor they are tal­king about, among peo­ples who can be made to do some­thing only by bea­ting.1

Besides, our mer­chants have not by any means given us a notion of the vir­tue our mis­sio­na­ries are tal­king about ; you can consult them on the ban­di­try of the man­da­rins.2

Besides, the let­ters of Father Parrenin3 on the trial brought by the empe­ror against neo­phyte prin­ces of the blood who had dis­plea­sed him4 show us a regu­larly fol­lo­wed plan of tyranny, and vio­lence to human­kind metho­di­cally per­pe­tra­ted, which is to say in cold blood.

We have fur­ther the let­ters of M. de Mairan5 and the same Father Parrenin on the govern­ment of China. After some very sen­si­ble ques­tions and ans­wers, the mar­vel disap­pea­red.

Might it not be that the mis­sio­na­ries had been foo­led by an appea­rance of order, that they had been struck by the conti­nual exer­cise of the will of a sin­gle man, by which they them­sel­ves are ruled, and whom they are so fond of fin­ding in the courts of the kings of the Indies, because as they are going there only to make major chan­ges, it is easier for them to convince the prin­ces that they can do any­thing than to per­suade the peo­ples that they can bear any­thing.6

Finally, there is often some­thing true even in errors. Particular and per­haps uni­que cir­cum­stan­ces could make the govern­ment of China less cor­rupt than it should be. Causes deri­ved in the main from the phy­sics of cli­mate might have for­ced the moral cau­ses in this coun­try, and work won­ders of sorts.

China’s cli­mate is such that it pro­di­giously favors the pro­pa­ga­tion of the human spe­cies. Their women have such great fer­ti­lity that nothing com­pa­ra­ble on earth is known. The cruel­lest tyranny there does not halt the pro­gress of pro­pa­ga­tion. That prince can­not say, like Pharaoh, “Let us oppress them wisely.”7 He would rather be redu­ced to for­mu­la­ting the wish of Nero, that the human race have but one head. Despite the tyranny, the cli­mate will always assure that China will popu­late, and triumph over tyranny.

Like all coun­tries where rice grows,8 China is sub­ject to fre­quent fami­nes. When the peo­ple are dying of hun­ger, they dis­perse to seek means of sub­sis­tence ; bands of four or five ban­dits form eve­ryw­here. Most are qui­ckly eli­mi­na­ted, others swell, and are again eli­mi­na­ted. But with such a great num­ber of pro­vin­ces, and so far-flung, it can hap­pen that some group stri­kes it rich. It main­tains and for­ti­fies itself, assu­mes the form of an army corps, goes straight to the capi­tal and the chief mounts the throne.

Such is the nature of the thing that the bad govern­ment is the first puni­shed. Disorder sur­ges sud­denly, because the pro­di­gious popu­la­tion lacks sub­sis­tence. What makes it dif­fi­cult in other coun­tries to reco­ver from abu­ses is that they do not have pro­noun­ced effects ; the prince is not aler­ted in a prompt and obvious man­ner, as he is in China.

He will not feel, like our prin­ces, that if he governs badly he will be less happy in the after­life, and less power­ful and weal­thy in this one. He will know that if his govern­ment is not good he will lose the empire and his life.

Since des­pite their expo­si­tion of chil­dren, the popu­la­tion still grows in China,9 it takes tire­less work to make the land pro­duce enough to feed them. That requi­res of the govern­ment an effort that is not made elsew­here. It has at every moment an inte­rest in seeing that eve­ryone can work without fear of being rob­bed of his labors. It must be less a civil govern­ment than a domes­tic govern­ment.

Such is the ori­gin of the sta­tu­tes that have been so much tal­ked about. They have tried to make laws reign with des­po­tism ; but what is joi­ned with des­po­tism no lon­ger has any strength. In vain has this des­po­tism, pres­sed by its mis­for­tu­nes, tried chain itself : it arms itself with its chains and beco­mes yet more ter­ri­ble.

China is thus a des­po­tic state of which the prin­ci­ple is fear. Perhaps in the early dynas­ties, the empire being not so vast, the govern­ment was decli­ning somew­hat from that spi­rit. But not today.

It is the rod that governs China, says Father du Halde.

See Lange’s relation, among others.

Dominique Parrenin (1665–1741), missionnaire jésuite en Chine.

On the Sourniama family, Lettres édifiantes et curieuses, 18th volume.

[Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan, a prominent French scientist and member of French and English academies.]

See in Father du Halde how the missionaries make use of the authority of Kanghi to silence the mandarins, who always said that by the country’s laws a foreign religion could not be established in the empire.

[Venite sapienter opprimamus eum ne forte multiplicetur (Exodus 1:10 : ‘Let us oppress them wisely, lest they multiply’).]

See below, Book XXIII, ch. xiv.

See the memoir of a Tsongtu for clearing fallow lands, Lettres édifiantes et curieuses, 21st volume.