The Case of John Hu in the Historical Context

May 7, 2020
folder_opencategory: History

The relationships between different cultures may be difficult in the early stages before the full understanding of the general cultural perspective in light of mutual collaboration and multicultural approach. The first relationships between the European Jesuits and Chinese people were marked by the stigma of mutual misunderstanding presupposed by the lack of information about each other. Thus, the case of John Hu described by Jonatan D. Spence provides a significant example of unsuccessful contact between the Europeans and a Chinese man that took place in the early XVIII century. Hu was a Chinese assistant of Jean François Foucquet, a Jesuit missionary who returned to France with a great collection of Chinese sacred texts and needed a native-speaker to correctly interpret them. Thus, in France, Hu was considered to be mentally insane, and this way he was transported to an asylum in order to get some psychiatric aid that took few years before he could return to his homeland. The question of Hu (as the book is titled) concerns the nature of Hu’s insanity; in fact, the author doubts whether Hu was really insane or simply incorrectly understood by the Europeans who had a poor experience of interrelations with Chinese people. The point here is that the book by Spence is not a primary source; thus, the story of Hu is told in light of today’s approach to the history on the basis of such cultural phenomenon as orientalism. Thus, the case of Hu is not typical of the Europeans only because in the early XVIII century not only Europeans but all peoples had the lack of information about others. In this way, orientalism in a form of inadequate acceptance of others was characteristic of all cultures of that epoch.

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In The Question of Hu, Spence describes both Chinese people and the Christians ambiguously with the accent on the Christian point of view. Thus, for example, he provides at least two general types of a western man who explore another culture. The first one is Jean François Foucquet who tries to justify the Chinese culture in Christian terms in order to establish an effective collaboration with it. Thus, Foucquet is very interested in the Chinese science and spirituality, and he tries to collect a great library of Chinese texts that should provide the Europeans some new points of view that may help them resolve practical issues of science and technologies. Furthermore, the second objective of this library was to show the Europeans that there are no ‘barbarians’ or ‘savages’ in China, and that people of China are the same as the Frenchmen. In this way, Foucquet tried to resolve both scientific and humanitarian problems by the same activity oriented on the exploration of new knowledge of the Chinese civilization. For example, regarding sacred texts of the Chinese Taoists, Foucquet considered that the Chinese term ‘Tao’ means the same as the Christian term ‘God’ and in this way tried to legitimize the Chinese cultural heritage as divinely inspired as well as the Bible (Spence 14).

As the counterpart of Foucquet in the context of the relationships with the Chinese civilization appears the Christian civilization in general because French people as the representatives of this civilization did not accept the ‘otherness’ of Hu and treated him as insane. Moreover, in this regard, Spence tries to avoid any direct objections and doubts whether Hu was really insane or not. If Hu was insane, the Frenchmen did right because it was proper to provide the man some medical aid (even in case he went mad due to the cultural clash he experienced after the journey from China to France). In this case, there was nothing wrong in the action of the Frenchmen, and the problem of Hu was simply an accident. Furthermore, according to another possible interpretation of the situation, the Frenchmen treated Hu as insane simply due to his cultural difference that looked so strange that made them believe in Hu’s madness. In this case, the Christian civilization looks very oppressive and intolerant. In fact, the main conclusion of the book by Spence may equally lead to any of the assumptions taking into account the chosen point of view.

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As long as the author leaves the question of Hu’s insanity doubted, it is clear that he wants the reader to reconsider the possibility of cultural background of that insanity. Undoubtedly, the most attractive interpretation is that the Europeans simply did a mistake when considered that Hu is insane owing to their lack of respect to his culture that is significantly different from their own. It is also clear that the author provides a hidden comparison between the Chinese society where Jean François Foucquet successfully collected books and explored the Chinese culture and the European society where a foreigner is considered to be insane only due to his strangeness. This cultural phenomenon of the Western chauvinism was described by Eduard Said in his book that mostly concerned the relationships between the Arabian world and Europe. Despite that, the concept of orientalism may be widely used. Orientalism in general means the widespread point of view the Westerners cultivate toward the ‘East,’ the representatives of which are regarded as those who “in everything oppose the clarity, directness, and nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race” (Said 39). Such position toward foreigners could justify their imprisonment to asylums as in the case of Hu; thus, the general inclination of the narration provided by Spence resembles the texts that uncover the orientalist features of different issues and phenomena. Therefore, Spence aims to show that the Christians were not as tolerant and civilized as Chinese people were. In fact, such prism that contrasts ignorant westerners and peaceful foreigners forms today a stereotype that is widely used in cinematography, fiction and different works of art. Moreover, it is important that such position is also grounded on a hidden form of orientalism because its followers consider that only Western culture elaborated such an aggressive approach to others.

The orientalist approach is connected with the power, and it is not a genuinely European phenomenon. This conclusion is clear from the research of Arif Dirlik who claims that even today’s China experiences the so-called “self-orientalization,” which became the result of the growth of political and economic power of Chinese elites that started to cultivate the orientalist approach to their own culture (96). In this way, orientalism is primarily dependent on power and does not accompany solely Western point of view. At the same time, Bruce Mazlish tries to explain why the narration provided by Spence advocates for China and is so suspicious with regard to the Europeans. According to Mazlish, the reason for that is the today’s methodology used by Spence when he analyzes and reinterprets the ancient texts on which his book is grounded. The researcher compares The Question of Hu with other historical narratives and concludes that “it is not a true piece of historical narrative” but rather a today’s reflection of such pieces through actual social issues (Mazlish 143). In this way, The Question of Hu by Spence despite all of its advantages reflects today’s beliefs concerning the clash of civilizations rather than the real situation of the early XVIII century. The result of that is the inability to judge the case of Hu solely through the text of Spence. What is more, it seems that a correct judgment concerning the issue may be grounded on the mentioned considerations of Dirlik. As long as orientalism and suspicious relation to others is characteristic of any society that is more powerful than those ‘others,’ it is clear that the case of Hu was typical of his time. Furthermore, the comparison of Hu with Foucquet is incorrect because there were many missionaries who established some conditions for Foucquet’s relatively comfortable activity in China, while Hu was alone in the foreign state without any support from his homeland. In this way, the case of Hu may be considered a typical one, despite the fact whether Hu was really insane or not.

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Thus, through the analysis provided, it seems that the case of Hu would be typical of any society of the early XVIII century, not only the French one. In fact, adequate cultural interrelation is the result of the centuries of misunderstandings and mistakes. In fact, every culture and every society to some extent participated in this process. Therefore, that is the reason why it would be incorrect to consider that French people did not accept Hu only due to some aggressive or ignorant feature of their civilization. Orientalism is characteristic not only of the Western but also all powerful states, and the denial of this statement would be considered to be a form of latent orientalism. In this way, notwithstanding the fact whether Hu was really mad or not, such situation could take place in any powerful state of the early XVIII century with any sole adventurer whose culture and language are totally strange for people of a state to which he or she had arrived.

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