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"A Conversation with a Chinese" by Voltaire

The following is the complete text of Voltaire's "A Conversation with a Chinese." To see all available titles by other authors, drop by our index of free books alphabetized by author or arranged alphabetically by title.

Visit these other works by Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet)
An Adventure in India
Ancient Faith and Fable
Andre des Touches at Siam
The Black and the White
Dialogues: The Chinese Catechism
Dialogues: The Gardener's Catechism
Dialogues: The Japanese Catechism
Dialogues: Liberty
The Good Brahmin
Grecian Metamorphoses and Mysteries of the Egyptians
Jeannot and Colin
Memnon, the Philosopher

Of Bacchus
Of Idolatry
Of Miracles
Of Oracles
Of the Egyptian Rites
Of the Greek Sibyls
Of Zaleucus
Plato's Dream
The Study of Nature
The Travels of Scarmentado
The Two Comforters
The World As It Goes

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"A Conversation with a Chinese" by Voltaire



In the year 1723, there was a Chinese in Holland, who was both a learned man and a merchant, two things that ought by no means to be incompatible; but which, thanks to the profound respect that is shown to money, and the little regard that the human species pay to merit, have become so among us.

This Chinese, who spoke a little Dutch, happened to be in a bookseller's shop at the same time that some literati were assembled there. He asked for a book; they offered him Universal History, badly translated. At the title Universal History --

"How pleased am I," cried the Oriental, "to have met with this book. I shall now see what is said of our great empire; of a nation that has subsisted for upwards of fifty thousand years; of that long dynasty of emperors who have governed us for such a number of ages. I shall see what these Europeans think of the religion of our literati, and of that pure and simple worship we pay to the Supreme Being. What a pleasure will it be for me to find how they speak of our arts, many of which are of a more ancient date with us than the eras of all the kingdoms of Europe! I fancy the author will be greatly mistaken in relation to the war we had about twenty-two thousand five hundred and fifty-two years ago, with the martial people of Tonquin and Japan, as well as the solemn embassy that the powerful emperor of Mogulitian sent to request a body of laws from us in the year of the world 500000000000079123450000."

"Lord bless you," said one of the literati, "there is hardly any mention made of that nation in this world. The only nation considered is that marvelous people, the Jews."

"The Jews!" said the Chinese, "those people then must be masters of three parts of the globe at least."

"They hope to be so some day," answered the other; "but at present they are those pedlars you see going about here with toys and knicknacks, and who sometimes do us the honor to clip our gold and silver."

"Surely you are not serious," exclaimed the Chinese. "Could those people ever have been in possession of a vast empire?"

Here I joined in the conversation, and told him that for a few years they were in possession of a small country to themselves; but that we were not to judge of a people from the extent of their dominions, any more than of a man by his riches.

"But does not this book take notice of some other nations?" demanded the man of letters.

"Undoubtedly," replied a learned gentleman who stood at my elbow; "it treats largely of a small country about sixty leagues wide, called Egypt, in which it is said that there is a lake of one hundred and fifty leagues in circumference, made by the hands of man."

"My God!" exclaimed the Chinese, "a lake of one hundred and fifty leagues in circumference within a spot of ground only sixty leagues wide! This is very curious!"

"The inhabitants of that country," continued the doctor, "were all sages."

"What happy times were those!" cried the Chinese; "but is that all?"

"No," replied the other, "there is mention made of those famous people the Greeks."

"Greeks! Greeks!" said the Asiatic, "who are those Greeks?"

"Why," replied the philosopher, "they were masters of a little province, about the two hundredth part as large as China, but whose fame spread over the whole world."

"Indeed!" said the Chinese, with an air of openness and ingenuousness; "I declare I never heard the least mention of these people, either in the Mogul's country, in Japan, or in Great Tartary."

"Oh, the barbarian! the ignorant creature!" cried out our sage very politely. "Why then, I suppose you know nothing of Epaminondas the Theban, nor of the Pierian Heaven, nor the names of Achilles's two horses, nor of Silenus's ass? You have never heard speak of Jupiter, nor of Diogenes, nor of Lais, nor of Cybele, nor of -- "

"I am very much afraid," said the learned Oriental, interrupting him, "that you know nothing of that eternally memorable adventure of the famous Xixofon Concochigramki, nor of the masteries of the great Fi-psi-hi-hi! But pray tell me what other unknown things does this Universal History treat of?"

Upon this my learned neighbor harangued for a quarter of an hour together about the Roman republic, and when he came to Julius Caesar the Chinese stopped him, and very gravely said:

"I think I have heard of him, was he not a Turk?"

"How!" cried our sage in a fury, "don't you so much as know the difference between Pagans, Christians, and Mahometans? Did you never hear of Constantine? Do you know nothing of the history of the popes?"

"We have heard something confusedly of one Mahomet," replied the Asiatic.

"It is surely impossible," said the other, "but that you must have heard at least of Luther, Zuinglius, Bellarmin, and Oecolampadius."

"I shall never remember all those names," said the Chinese, and so saying he quitted the shop, and went to sell a large quantity of Pekoa tea, and fine calico, and then after purchasing what merchandise he required, set sail for his own country, adoring Tien, and recommending himself to Confucius.

As to myself, the conversation I had been witness to plainly discovered to me the nature of vain glory; and I could not forbear exclaiming:

"Since Caesar and Jupiter are names unknown to the finest, most ancient, most extensive, most populous, and most civilized kingdom in the universe, it becomes ye well, O ye rulers of petty states! ye pulpit orators of a narrow parish, or a little town! ye doctors of Salamanca, or of Bourges! ye trifling authors, and ye heavy commentators! -- it becomes you well, indeed, to aspire to fame and immortality."

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