Wandering China

An East/West pulse of China's fourth rise from down under.

Napoleon’s saying about China [China History Forum]

The saying that China is a sleeping dragon is commonly reported to have come from Napoleon. Here is an interesting account that investigates the origin of the quote, one that considers the historical and intellectual context of the times.

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Napoleon’s saying about China
Source – China History Forum, published June 1, 2007

General_Zhaoyun, on June 1 2007, 07:15 PM, said:
I wonder the origin of this phrase. What is his original french saying? In what circumstances did Napoleon say this phrase? Did Napoleon know quite abit about China to say this?

Forum Response  by fcharton, on June 01, 2007
Actually, there seem to have been two quotes. The first one is attributed to Napoleon in 1803 (ie before he became emperor), he is said to have pointed to a map, on china and said (more or less, there are many versions of the quote)

“Ici repose un géant endormi, laissez le dormir, car quand il s’éveillera, il étonnera le monde” – “here lies a sleeping giant (lion in other versions), let him sleep, for when he wakes up, he will shock the world”

And then, there is a second, more famous one, which is supposed to have been said in St Helena (in which case, it might be in Las Cases Memorial of St Helena): “quand la chine s’éveillera, le monde tremblera” (when China wakes up, the world will shake).

As for Napoleon’s knowledge of China, the second half of the 18th century was a moment when Jesuit missions were quite active in China (time of Amyot, Castiglione, etc… all Jesuits who held high positions in the Qing court). The first translations of classics date from this era, and many of the translations were into latin or french. The first translation of the Daodejing, of some Confucian classics, and more importantly of the Sunzi and other military books were done in the second half of the 18th century. It is quite likely that Napoleon did read Amyot’s translation of Sunzi (in fact, a compilation of several military texts, which included the Sunzi).

Note also that all things asian, and especially chinese, were fashionable among european intellectuals from the 17th and 18th century. Leibniz was probably the first, but Voltaire took sides in the quarrels on the origin of chinese civilisation, and wrote a tragedy “l’orphelin de la Chine”, which had some success, after a translation of a chinese play based upon a story from the Shiji (the orphan of Zhao).

So, Napoleon did have some notions about china, and chinese civilisation, and was in this respect pretty typical of many young educated people in the late 18th century (or early 19th)


Filed under: Beijing Consensus, China History Forum, Chinese Model, Culture, Domestic Growth, Influence, International Relations, military, Napoleon, Public Diplomacy, Soft Power

2 Responses

  1. Michael says:

    “When China wakes up, the world will shake”

    Napoleon was a man of fate and destiny and China is too. Words of prophecy!

  2. And we have tickets to the show!

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