Until the eighteenth century, almost nothing was known of China in the West. Marco Polo and Sir John Mandeville claimed to have traveled there, but there is so little to verify their accounts that their truth has been widely questioned. A few Catholic missionaries made their way to China, most famously Matteo Ricci at the end of the sixteenth century. They found a highly advanced civilization, in which people were not particularly impressed by either European culture or the Christian faith.
Chinese philosophy was one of the first aspects of the culture to become known in Europe. Confucius was the first philosopher to be translated (hence the fact that, unlike any other Chinese philosopher except Mencius, he was given a Latinized name that was easy for Europeans to pronounce). Voltaire and Goethe both expressed admiration for the rationality of Chinese thought. Because there was a burgeoning of interest in Chinese culture during the Enlightenment in Europe, the Catholic missionaries who visited China can be said to have failed on two fronts: they gained practically no Chinese converts to Christianity while exciting a great deal of interest from Europeans rationalist thinkers in the "godless" Chinese thought systems some of them introduced to Europe.
It is well known that the British introduced opium to China because they wanted to purchase Chinese silk, porcelain and other goods, but had little that the Chinese wanted to trade for these luxuries. This imbalance was always clear, commercially, intellectually and culturally, in Sino-European relations. Matteo Ricci records that the Chinese in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries had an entirely self-contained culture and regarded all outsiders as barbarians. One of their chief objections to Christianity was that if God had wished to communicate by sending his son to die for humanity, he would have sent Jesus to China, the most advanced culture in the world. This cultural confidence, combined with a long policy of isolation, made China an intriguing country for people in the West for many centuries. When China became better-known to the West in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the sophistication of Chinese thought and material culture only intensified the attraction.