Joseph Marie Amiot was born at Toulon. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1737 and was sent in 1750 as a missionary to China. He soon won the confidence of the Qianlong Emperor and spent the remainder of his life at Beijing. He was a correspondent of the Académie des Sciences, official translator of Western languages for Emperor Qianlong, and the spiritual leader of the French mission in Peking. He died in Peking in 1793, two days after the departure of the British Macartney Embassy. He could not meet Lord Macartney, but exhorted him to patience in two letters, explaining that "this world is the reverse of our own". He used a Chinese name (錢德明) while he was in China.
A page from Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences et les arts des Chinois, 1780.
Amiot made good use of the advantages which his situation afforded, and his works did more than any before to make known to the Western world the thought and life of the Far East. His Manchu dictionary Dictionnaire tatare-mantchou-français (Paris, 1789) was a work of great value, the language having been previously quite unknown in Europe. In 1772 he translated 'The Art of War', one of the most influential war strategy and tactics treatises in military history, written around the 6th century BCE and attributed to General Sun Tzu, into French. The first successful translation to English would not be achieved before another 138 years, in 1910. His other writings are to be found chiefly in the Mémoires concernant l'histoire, les sciences et les arts des Chinois (15 volumes, Paris, 1776–1791). The Vie de Confucius, the twelfth volume of that collection, was more complete and accurate than any predecessors.
Amiot tried to impress mandarins in Beijing with Rameau's harpsichord pieceLes sauvages, a suite that was later reworked as part of Rameau's opera-ballet Les Indes galantes.