From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 9-11:
There were good reasons why the East India Company did not do anything else that might put their little foothold in China at risk. In the eyes of Europeans in the late eighteenth century, the empire of the Qing dynasty was an unequaled vision of power, order, and prosperity. It had long been, as Adam Smith described it in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations, “one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world.” Smith believed China to have been at a stable climax of development for eons—at least as far back as Marco Polo’s visit in the thirteenth century—which meant that although it did not have the capacity to develop any further (an advantage he reserved largely for Europe), it nevertheless showed no signs of retreating from its pinnacle of prosperity. “Though it may perhaps stand still,” he insisted, “[China] does not seem to go backwards.”
Enlightenment champions of reason saw in China the model of a moral and well-governed state that needed no church—a secular empire, founded on rational texts and ruled by scholars. “Confucius,” wrote Voltaire with admiration in his Philosophical Dictionary of 1765, “had no interest in falsehood; he did not pretend to be a prophet; he claimed no inspiration; he taught no new religion; he used no delusions.” In reading extracts from Confucius’s works, Voltaire concluded, “I have found in them nothing but the purest morality, without the slightest tinge of charlatanism.” The state that had been founded on those works was, he believed, the oldest and most enduring in the world. “There is no house in Europe,” he observed, “the antiquity of which is so well proved as that of the Empire of China.”
China’s political unity in the later eighteenth century was dazzling not just to British economists and French philosophers but to Americans as well, once they began to emerge as a nation of their own. In 1794, a U.S. citizen of Dutch descent, who had served as interpreter for an embassy from the Netherlands to China, dedicated the published account of his voyage to George Washington, celebrating in particular “the virtues which in your Excellency afford so striking a resemblance between Asia and America.” China was for him the standard by which Western countries could be measured: Washington was virtuous because he exhibited some of the qualities of a Qing dynasty emperor. The highest hope that the writer could muster for the future of his new nation was that Washington, in his “principles and sentiments,” might procure for the United States “a duration equal to the Chinese Empire.”
These were not just Western fantasies. China in the eighteenth century was not only the most populous and politically unified empire on earth, but also the most prosperous. The standard of living in its wealthy eastern and southern cities was easily a match for the companion regions of western Europe, as was life expectancy. To measure by the consumption of luxury goods such as sugar and tea, the quality of life in eastern China in the 1700s appears to have left Europe behind. At the same time, however, due to the Qing government’s tight strictures on foreign trade and residence, China was also seen from outside as impossibly guarded and remote, “the only civilised nation in the world,” as one British writer put it, “whose jealous laws forbid the intrusion of any other people.” The immense riches of the empire were—to the eternal frustration of westerners—always just out of reach.