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Voltaire in Korea

Thursday, 4 February, 2021

Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction

‘Voltaire: A Very Short Introduction’ has just appeared in Korean, published by Humanitas. The author of the book, Nicholas Cronk, collaborated with his translator, the Enlightenment scholar Minchul Kim, to write this preface specially aimed at readers in South Korea.

‘The more I would like to extend my knowledge of history, the more I realise that it is necessarily limited. An Asiatic, an inhabitant of the vast country of China scarcely knows of our existence, and our Europe is for him what Korea and northern Japan are for us.’

Jean-Baptisite Du Halde, Description de l’Empire de la Chine

Jean-Baptisite Du Halde, ‘Description de l’Empire de la Chine’ (Paris, 1735). (Swaen)

So writes Voltaire in one of his notebooks. He had an enduring interest in non-European cultures, as the books in his scholarly library of 6000 books clearly testify. This led him to write one of his most ambitious works, his Essay on manners (in French, Essai sur les mœurs), which is a pioneering attempt to write a universal history. Before Voltaire, so-called universal histories, like that of Bossuet written in the late seventeenth century, tended to confine themselves to the history of Christian Europe, and Voltaire set out to write a history of all nations across the globe. Not only does he seek to describe the political and military history of all the world’s nations, he also aims to talk about their religious beliefs and their culture more generally; in particular, when he can find the information, their literature. He possessed a book called Description of China (in French, Description de la Chine), published in 1735 by the Jesuit Du Halde, a hugely popular work describing many aspects of Chinese culture; and it was here, in this huge compendium of information, that he uncovered the text of a thirteenth-century Chinese play, The Orphan of Zhao (translated into French by Joseph-Henri de Prémare as L’Orphelin de la maison de Chao).

Ji Junxiang, L’Orphelin de la Maison de Tchao

Ji Junxiang, ‘L’Orphelin de la Maison de Tchao’, in Du Halde, ‘Description de la Chine’. (Wikimedia Commons)

Voltaire was so excited by this discovery that he used the play as the basis of his tragedy The Orphan of China (in French, L’Orphelin de la Chine), a tale of love, duty and final forgiveness set in the imperial palace in Beijing at the moment when Genghis Khan had invaded China. First performed at the Comédie-Française in Paris in 1755, the play enjoyed an enormous success, and such was Voltaire’s fame as a writer that translations soon followed into other European languages: English (1756), Italian (1762), German (1763), Dutch (1765), Swedish (1777), Portuguese (1783), Spanish (1787), Danish (1815) and Polish (1836). Voltaire’s use on the stage of a thirteenth-century Chinese drama thus reached an enormously wide audience all across Europe, and the play was so successful that it had an influence on European culture even beyond the theatre. Voltaire was a French writer but he was never satisfied with a purely French readership, and even in his own lifetime he enjoyed celebrity status as a writer all across Europe.

Korea is indeed mentioned in The Orphan of China, but most references to Korea in Voltaire’s writings are to be found, not surprisingly, in his historical works, especially in his universal history. In the opening chapter of the Essay on manners, he speaks of Korea as part of the vast Chinese (he means Mongol) empire, ‘at the eastern extremity of our globe’, and he describes the various conquests of Genghis Khan, including that of Korea. Voltaire is clearly frustrated by the lack of information available to him, and he freely admits that Korea is one of those countries that remains poorly known in Europe.

Reading Voltaire’s L’Orphelin de la Chine at the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier

Reading Voltaire’s ‘L’Orphelin de la Chine’ at the Salon of Mme Geoffrin, by Anicet Charles Gabriel Lemonnier (1812). (Wikimedia Commons)

While Voltaire is always interested in learning more about such nations, he is also eager to point out that the countries of the Middle East, for example, have ‘many fables’ remarkably similar to those of the Europeans – by which, of course, he means the Christian Bible (a dig at the so-called singularity of the Catholic Church). Habits in different countries from the Dardanelles to the ends of Korea may be different, Voltaire writes, and yet the basic foundation of ethical thinking is the same in all nations. There are also traditions and habits in civil life common to all parts of the globe, he claims, so for example, on the first day of the year, in Japan as in France, relatives and friends offer each other gifts. Behind the superficial differences between nations, Voltaire wants to insist that man is fundamentally the same across the globe. He is particularly keen to argue this point with regard to religion: each culture has its own way of praising God, he believes, but fundamentally we all praise the same supreme being, who created the Universe and who teaches us goodness.

This is a view that is easy to criticize. Historians of religion will point to substantial differences between some of the world’s religions. Other critics accuse Voltaire of what Edward Said calls ‘Orientalism’, that is, the patronizing colonial gesture of measuring the cultures of the Middle East by the yardstick of Europe, rather than judging them at their own value. But to be fair to Voltaire (who in any case is writing before the European colonisation of the Middle East), the sources available to him were limited, and he does try to master what scant information there is. Moreover, he is always quite explicit about his aim, which is deliberately to identify the elements of humanity that are common to all cultures. Voltaire can be accused of being Euro-centric – he could hardly be anything else – but his fundamental wish is to describe the qualities and values common to all humanity. In 1760-1761 the Anglo-Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith published The Citizen of the World, or Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, a collection of letters written by a fictional Chinese philosopher Lien Chi Altangi, who was supposedly living in London. The expression ‘a citizen of the world’ became current in Europe in the eighteenth century, and it would be no exaggeration to describe Voltaire as one of the first ‘citizens of the world’.

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Notwithstanding Voltaire’s stature as the representative figure of European Enlightenment, and notably of its most popular version which demanded resistance to the fanaticism and dogmatism of established religions, Korean readers have so far not been treated well with books to introduce them to his world. There is only a small number of scholarly articles written in Korean by and for scholars of European studies: in the fields of history, literature, philosophy, and political theory. As for books, overshadowed by the publishing success of Rousseau’s On the Social Contract, Korean publications relating to Voltaire have been confined to translations of a small set of ‘canonical’ fictions and treatises: Candide, Oedipe, Zadig, Micromégas, Lettres philosophiques, Dictionnaire philosophique, Précis du siècle de Louis XV, and the Treatise on tolerance. Very recently there have been published a small number of works on Voltaire, almost exclusively concentrating on his thoughts about China and Confucianism, sometimes producing, from a wishful selection of quotes, a far-fetched argument about the place of ancient Chinese philosophy in European Enlightenment. Among all these books, the only ones that are frequently read are Candide and the Treatise on tolerance. There is not a single book published on Voltaire the man as a whole.

A study guide to Candide in Korean

A study guide to ‘Candide’ in Korean.

This is a lamentable lacuna, one which must be filled first in order to let the public know that there had indeed been a huge hole. The reading public is hungry for a succinct yet authoritative account of the man himself. South Korea is emerging as one of the world’s most dynamic and robust democracies and has recently experienced a completely peaceful yet remarkably successful revolutionary movement: the Candle Revolution of 2016–2017. Accordingly, its public sphere, aided by all kinds of old and new media, is witnessing the birth of debates which are resistant to dogmatism of all sorts and open to considering new world-views. This is the world of Voltaire, the sceptic poet who often dared not hope too loudly as he put forth his optimistic accounts of a future rid of fanaticism and despotism, a future in which the people are politically liberal and culturally refined. This is a world of gradual perfectibility, a world that can be transformed for the better by human will, an optimism part strategic and part sincere that has not always been favoured but is clearly the dominant rising voice in South Korea today. This is the world of Voltaire, crooked and complex, but also moving, demanding, and liberating.

Nicholas Cronk and Minchul Kim