Thursday, April 19, 2007

027.The Official Website for Benjamin Franklin's 300th Anniversaty Carries the Paper Benjamin Franklin and China

Benjamin Franklin and China---A Survey of Benjamin Franklin’s Efforts at Drawing
Positive Elements from Chinese Civilization during the Formative Age
of the United States

Dave Wang Ph.D
Manager of Hollis Library
Adjunct Professor of St. Johns University

Benjamin Franklin “has a special place in the hearts and minds of
Americans.”1 How special it is? His story has been regarded as “the story of the birth of America - an America this man discovered in himself, then helped create in the world at large.”2 He certainly was “the most eminent mind that has ever existed in America.”3 Americans show respect to him because he was “generous, openminded, learned, tolerant” in the formative period of the United States – a special period in American history, a “period eminent for narrowness, superstition, and
bleak beliefs.”4 He had a clear vision of the road America should take and he spent time in helping to make sure that it would be achieved.5 His ideas and visions helped to lay the foundation for the United States of America, as we know it today.

1 Gordon S. Wood, The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin, New York: Penguin
Press, 2004, p.1
2 Alan Taylor, For the Benefit of Mr. Kite, in New Republic, March 19, 2001, vol. 224
issue 12, p.39.
3 Carl Van Doren, “Meet Doctor Franklin,” in Charles L. Sanford ed., Benjamin Franklin
and the American Character, D. C. Heath and Company, 1961. Boston, p.27.
4 Phillips Russell, Benjamin Franklin: The First Civilized American, Blue Ribbon Books,
New York, 1926, 126, p.1.
5 Benjamin Franklin: Glimpses of the Man,

Franklin is a figure we want to understand if we want to understand the
American character.6 We owe much to him for the formation of the civilization we call American civilization today. No other figure has had such a clear vision concerning the future of American civilization and how American civilization could grow out of European civilization. Scholarship on the study of Franklin’s image for the past two centuries shows that Franklin’s “legacy had a distinctive place in American culture. Few national heroes have played a more significant posthumous
role in shaping the American way of life than Franklin.”7

Franklin “knew that the breaking of the old world was a long process, in the depths of his own under-consciousness he hated England, hated Europe, and hated the whole corpus of the European being. He wanted to be American.” 8 How to be an American? Or put it in another way, how to build an American civilization? In this paper, I will survey Franklin’s hard work in drawing valuable elements from Chinese civilization, in hit efforts to build an American civilization.

I believe that Franklin’s attempt to draw positive elements from Chinese
civilization in order to build an American civilization carried much weight in Franklin’s contribution to the formation of American civilization. With the great

6 Peter Baida, Poor Richard’s Legacy—American Business Values From Benjamin
Franklin to Donald Trump, William Morrow and Company, Inc, New York, 1990, pp.39-
7 Nian-sheng Huang, Benjamin Franklin in American Thought and Culture, 1790-1990,
Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1994, p.240.
8 D. H. Lawrence, “Benjamin Franklin,” in Studies in Classic American Literature,
Copyright 1961 by the Estate of the late Mrs. Frieda Lawrence. Reprinted by permission
of the Viking Press and Laurence Pollinger Limited, see Brian M. Barbour ed. Benjamin
Franklin: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall Inc, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.

vision in the “narrow eighteenth-century ideas about other cultures,”9 Franklin “kept his eyes open to a “world that went far beyond the wharves jutting out into Boston Harbor and far beyond the canons of Puritanism.” 10 Franklin “was very fond of reading about China.”11 His correspondence and miscellaneous papers throughout his life indicate that Franklin was familiar with Chinese culture. It is not beyond the fact to say that Franklin was “the first and foremost American Sinophile” in the United States.12 Franklin was an expert on China, even according to today’s academic standard. His understanding of Chinese
civilization was better and deeper than many of today’s scholars. Franklin explored almost every aspect of Chinese civilization, from spiritual to material. His interest in China included Confucius moral philosophy, industrial product, industrial technologies and agricultural plants. He endeavored to use Confucius moral philosophy to improve his own virtue. Through his autobiography, he tried to pass
on his these personal experiences to the younger generation.
Franklin’s Early Contact with Chinese Civilization During the formative age of the United States, China was not a stranger to the
inhabitants of Britain's north colonies. The information about China "was almost as
9 James Campbell, Recovering Benjamin Franklin—An Explanation of a Life of Science
and Service, Open Court, Chicago and La Salle, Illinois; 1999, p.236.
10 Arthur Bernon Tourtellot, Benjamin Franklin—The Shaping of Genius: The Boston
Years, Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York, 1977, pp.177-178.
11 Benjamin Franklin, “A Letter from China,” in John Biglow ed., The Complete Works of
Benjamin Franklin, Vol. VIII, New York and London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1888, p.474.
12 A. Owen Aldridge, The Dragon and the Eagle: The Presence of China in the American
Enlightenment, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1993, p.25.

widespread and as readily available in America as in Europe."13 By the end of the eighteenth century, every major European work about China "could be found in American libraries and bookstores." 14
Chinese civilization enriched "American life in many, many ways."15 Before American independence, the colonialists had been well aware of China and its products. During the early colonial period Chinese cultural influence in North America was characterized as “novelty".16 For those Americans who lived a Puritan life, China was a source of tea and silk.17 During the mid-eighteenth century, the colonists bought a huge amount of "Chinese Chippendale" furniture, Chinese wallpaper, silk, and porcelain. Some Chinese products, such as chinaware
and less expensive handicrafts "had spread among less affluent sectors of
American society."18 Chinese tea had become a popular drink for the majority of colonists. Significantly, the American Revolution had relations with China. On a famous night in December 1773, the patriots dumped into the Boston harbor the tea from Xiamen (Amoy) in Fujian Province of China, protesting Britain’s control of American trade with China.
13 Ibid., p.264.
14 Ibid.
15 C. Martin Wilbur, "Modern America's Cultural Debts to China," in Issues & Studies: A
Journal of China Studies and International Affairs, vol. 22, No.1, January 1986, p.127.
16 William J. Brinker, Commerce, Culture, and Horticulture: The Beginnings of Sino-
American Cultural Relations,” in Thomas H. Etzold, ed., Aspects of Sino-American
Relations Since 1784, New York and London: New Viewpoints, A Division of Franklin
Watt, 1978, p.11.
17 Tea had become part of daily fare in New England as early as the 1720s, and by the
early 1780s most Americans had acquired the tea-drinking habit. See Michael H. Hunt,
The Making of a Special Relationship: The United States and China to 1914, New York:
Columbia University Press, 1983, p.7.
18 Warren I. Cohen, America's Response to China: A History of Sino-American Relations,
(4th edition), New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, p.2.

In 1723, at the age of seventeen, Franklin moved from Boston to Philadelphia.This was an important move that changed his life forever. Philadelphia had become an “exceptional cosmopolitan center” within the later part of the colonial period.19 It was known as “a town of remarkable intellectual activity.”20 Within the British
Empire, Philadelphia was “the third only to London and Edinburgh in intellectual activity.” 21

It was in Philadelphia where Franklin had the opportunity to access his
knowledge of Chinese civilization. Philadelphia was the center of Chinese culture in North America. In the 18th century, “things Chinese, or in the Chinese style, then began a steady infiltration of the homes of the American city-dwelling merchant.” 22 The Philadelphian inhabitants “had access to more reliable knowledge concerning this aspect of Chinese life than readers anywhere else in the West”.23 It was popular
for the residents of Philadelphia to use Chinese wall paper to decorate their homes. Powel Room, located at 244 South Third Street in Philadelphia, was decorated with beautiful Chinese wall paper.24 Chinese products, including teas, silk, porcelain, and cloth “became part of the social milieu of colonial and post-Revolutionary Philadelphia.”25

19 Jean Gordon Lee, Philadelphians and the China Trade, 1784-1844, Philadelphia
Museum of Art, 1984, p.23.
20 Carl Van Doren, “Meet Doctor Franklin”, in Charles L. Sanford ed., Benjamin
Franklin and the American Character, Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1955, p.29.
21 Alan Taylor, “Poor Richard, Rich Ben,” in New Republic, January 13, 2003, vol. 228,
22 Jean Gordon Lee, p.23
23 A Owen Aldridge, p.83.
24 The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City duplicated the room. The original
owner of the House was Charles Stedman (1765-1769) and Samuel Powel (1769-1793).
The room exhibited in the Museum and was located on the second floor of the building.
25 Jean Gordon Lee, p.23.


Powel Room, located at 244 South Third Street in Philadelphia, was decorated with beautiful Chinese wall paper. The Picture was taken by this author in Metropolitan museum of Art in New York City.
It is a well-known fact that the Empress of China, the first American ship to sail to China from the new nation, started its long journey from New York instead of Philadelphia largely because the Delaware River in Philadelphia was frozen in February 1784.26 Actually, we could say that American trade with China was started by the Philadelphians.27 The China trade fever, started by the Empress of China,

26 Ibid, p.11.
27 The sailing of the Empress of China was initiated by John Ledyard (1751-1789), a
famous traveler. Ledyard was believed to be the first United States citizen to see China
with his naked eyes. Impressed by the richness of China and the tremendous profits from
trade with China, Ledyard developed a plan to organize trade between the United States
and China. In early 1783, he came to New York City, to convince the merchants to take
the adventure. Although he failed, Ledyard was not discouraged, and he turned his eyes


was so high in Philadelphia that almost all of the ‘old families’ of the city gained interest in China.28

It was in Philadelphia that Franklin accessed books about China. In 1738,
Franklin studied Description of the Empire of China, published in Paris in 1735 by Du Halde, in which Du Halde collected many kinds of texts about Chinese culture written by Jesuits who had been to China.29
Franklin was deeply impressed by China. Due to the limited communication between China and the United States, Franklin was forced to use extra efforts to collect information on China. Unsatisfied with the books he read, he tried to contact people who had been to China. In order to obtain information on Chinese life and customs, he contacted the “sailors on the Packet who had previously made the trip
to the China seas.”30 Franklin obtained “his knowledge of Chinese navigation from Captain Truxtun who in the following year himself made the voyage to China.” 31 He even tried to visit China personally, and told his friend, “If he were a young man e should like to go to China.” 32

to Philadelphia. With his “revolutionary new plan for China trade,” Ledyard contacted
Robert Morris (1734-1806), the “Financier of the American Revolution,” and currently
Superintendent of Finance of the United States.” Morris accepted the plan. Under
Morris’ support, the Empress of China sailed to China on February 22, 1784.
28 Jean Gordon Lee, p.11.
29 A. Owen Aldridge, p.18.
30 Ibid. p.84.
31 Ibid., p.89.
32 Benjamin Franklin, “A Letter from China,” in John Bigelow ed., The Complete Works
of Benjamin Franklin, Vol. VIII, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1888, p.474.
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