Christian culture 基督教文化学刊

Early Sinologists and the Debate on Chinese Ethics and the Presence of God: New Elements for Further Research

Author: Michele FERRERO, Expert at National Research Center of Overseas Sinology, Beijing Foreign Studies University



Early Western sinology was very interested in issues such as morality, ethics, customs and behavior. In their descriptions of China, most of the early sinologists (between 1580 and 1780) insist on “ethics” as one of the “sciences” in which the Chinese excel. This article focuses on three problems. The first concerns the reasons why these early sinologists were attracted by Chinese ethics. Since all the early sinologists were religious people and missionaries, they were keen to find common ground with the Chinese people for their work of evangelization; the Jesuit tradition of self-cultivation also found in Confucian ethics many similarities. The second problem is whether Ricci’s Tian zhu shi yi (天主实义) can be considered a clear example of a dialogue between Thomism and Confucianism on moral issues and ethics. The third problem is whether, in the historical debates in early sinology, Chinese ethics was or was not directly connected with the notion of “God”. Through a historical-critical analysis of original Latin texts, supported by the research of specialized historians, this paper presents the two main positions of early sinologists: those who claimed that the Chinese have a strong sense of God and those who claim that the Chinese are basically culturally atheist.



ethics, Early Sinology, Matteo Ricci, God, Atheism


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