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The US Founders and China: The Origins of Chinese Cultural Influence on the United States

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Walking from the east entrance up the steps to the Supreme Court building, one can see a sculpture of Confucius along with Moses and Solon. The sculpture may serve as an indicator of the impact of Confucius in the formation of American culture. Indeed, Chinese cultural and technological influence on what would become the United States started even before this country was born.

Chinese culture became important when some of the US founders looked for resources that could be mobilized in their efforts to build a new nation after declaring independence from Great Britain. Chinese contributions to early America were varied. In their efforts to cultivate personal virtue and to educate the younger generations to be virtuous, several founding fathers sought guidance from Confucian philosophy. The founders also adopted Chinese inventions to facilitate the social and economic development of colonies and introduced elements of Chinese agriculture to North America.

Facing British trade sanctions after the Revolutionary War, US political leaders initiated efforts to build direct economic connections with China. Robert Morris and George Washington were directly involved in the opening of trade with China with support from other American founders. One important reason behind Thomas Jefferson’s quest for westward expansion through the acquisition of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 was the search for a shortcut to China, and late in his presidency, he communicated the desirability of creating something like a US-China policy.

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