The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds 
by Jonathan Spence.
Penguin, 279 pp., £20, May 1999, 0 7139 9313 8
Show More
Show More

‘One aspect of a country’s greatness is surely its capacity to attract and retain the attention of others. This capacity has been evident from the very beginnings of the West’s encounter with China; the passing centuries have never managed to obliterate it altogether, even though vagaries of fashion and shifting political stances have at times dulled the sheen.’ In The Chan’s Great Continent Jonathan Spence reflects on 48 ‘sightings’ or mis-sightings of ‘a great but distant culture’, stretching from the 13th century up to the Seventies.

Was Marco Polo really in China between 1275 and 1292, working as an agent of the Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan? Did Polo exist at all? (He certainly died, since he left a will.) What matters in this connection is that Polo’s book, usually known as the Travels (the original manuscript is lost, we have only copies, amended copies of copies and translations of copies), is the first work by a Westerner to claim to look at China ‘from the inside’, and much of what it reports, mixing make-believe with verifiable fact, was to be repeated in later times. The China that Polo gave to the world was ‘a benevolently ruled dictatorship, colossal in scale, decorous in customs, rich in trade, highly urbanised, inventive in commercial dealings, weak in the ways of war’. The praise Polo bestowed on Chinese girls prompts Spence to ask whether the references to their modesty and chasteness (apparently he didn’t notice their bound feet) weren’t a reverse image of licentious Venice, and intended as a model for the three young daughters mentioned in his will. That Western views of the East are frequently shaped by the West’s view of itself is one of Spence’s points.

The 16th (the ‘Catholic’) century was the great period of sightings of and insights into China. ‘Orientalism’, one might almost say, was already in full flood. Galeote Pereira, a Portuguese soldier and trader, was captured during fighting provoked by the Portuguese and contrived to bribe his way out of prison. He didn’t know the language, but his was the first detailed account by a non-clerical visitor to China since Marco Polo. His description of imprisonment and judicial torture, Spence says, became ‘a fundamental source for later depictions of the Chinese capacity for cruelty’ and a long-lasting feature in the Western image of the country. ‘Their whips be bamboos, cleft in the middle ... Ten stripes draw a great deal of blood, twenty or thirty spoil the flesh altogether ... and they are given to whoever hath nothing wherewith to bribe these executioners who administer them.’ Even so, Pereira extolled Chinese justice: because trials were conducted in public, before a crowd of people who might know the witnesses, the processes of the law could not easily be distorted ‘as sometimes happens with us’. He also reported on the use of cormorants in fishing, the building of roads and bridges, hospitals for the sick and blind, chopsticks (a hygienic device), the absence of beggars in the streets, and (possibly because of his experiences in prison) the common vice of sodomy. Christianity would prosper more than Islam, Pereira surmised, if only the missionaries would condone the eating of pork and the drinking of wine.

Gaspar da Cruz, a Dominican friar, spent only a few weeks in Canton, but eked out his impressions with material drawn from Pereira, that ‘gentleman of good credit’. Da Cruz’s memoir, published in 1570, included information on duck farming, on the use of night-soil in growing vegetables, on the ‘excellence of polity and government’, on the nature of the written language (not mentioned by earlier visitors), on the existence of printing for over nine hundred years, on footbinding (also the first mention, and ascribed to the Chinese preference for women with small noses and feet), on women prostitutes being often blind, and on tea, ‘a kind of warm water which they call cha ... made from a concoction of somewhat bitter herbs’. Da Cruz concurred with Pereira on the savage treatment of prisoners, and on the commonness of ‘unnatural vice’, adding in mitigation of the latter that no one had told the Chinese that it was a sin. Presumably no one had told them either that hair-pulling in private quarrels was unseemly, or that stuffing chickens with water or sand to increase their weight and thus the profit margin did not befit a shopkeeper.

No other Westerner approached the level of knowledge in Chinese culture, language and society attained by Matteo Ricci, the Italian Jesuit, and the subject of an earlier book by Spence, who spent 27 years there, dying in Peking in 1610. Ricci considered Confucius ‘the equal of the pagan philosophers and superior to most of them’, and saw Confucianism as the central force holding together a vast and consequently well-ordered country. He admired the market gardens, the love of flowers, the porcelain, bronzes and calligraphy. Footbinding kept women chastely at home, while the arduous labour of mastering the language discouraged young men from getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, and other delinquencies lamented by Shakespeare’s Old Shepherd. Even the Chinese mode of consuming alcohol was so well controlled that hangovers were virtually unknown. The large numbers of male prostitutes in evidence called for pity rather than censure, and for greater earnestness in praying for their salvation. Ricci’s harshest disapproval was directed at Buddhism, as being primitive and superstitious, and at the Buddhist monks who robbed and killed travellers and, moreover, took wives to themselves. The Chinese, he maintained, had ‘no conception of the rules of logic’, and he composed a series of dialogues between a Catholic priest and an indigenous scholar, designed to demonstrate the balance of logic and faith lying at the heart of the Western spiritual tradition, and hence Christianity’s superiority.

Missionaries were followed by diplomats (allowed into Peking when the Qing Government succeeded the Ming), with their more ‘realistic’ complaints about summer heat and dust, and the difficulty of keeping one’s hat in place while performing the nine prostrations of the kowtow. John Bell, a Scottish doctor attached to a Russian embassy c.1720, didn’t enjoy the way sheep were cooked, but was fascinated by the acrobats and jugglers. He reckoned that Russia was the only nation with a fair chance of conquering China, though there wouldn’t be much point in disturbing the peace. The Chinese were generally praised for their honesty, though not by Commodore George Anson (1743), who took personal exception to the delivery of ducks weighed down with gravel and hogs bloated with water. He scorned the written language as perversely complex and absurdly cumbersome, and seems to have been, if not the originator, then the promulgator of pidgin English: when his interpreter admitted there was nothing the Chinese could do about their dishonesty since it was innate, Anson transcribed this in A Voyage around the World as ‘Chinese man very great rogue truly, but have fashion, no can help.’ Still, they were an ingenious and industrious race, though not of the metal to make good soldiers. (I seem to remember a Chinese saying to the effect that you don’t use good iron to make nails.) Even the armour they wore was made from shiny paper. (In the second part of Robinson Crusoe, Defoe had ridiculed China’s trade, pitiful in comparison with ‘the universal commerce’ of Europe, and its pathetic army, furnished with erratic firearms and powder lacking in strength. What particularly annoyed Defoe in his fiction was ‘their contempt of all the world but themselves’.)

The Irish peer, Lord George Macartney, arriving on a trade mission and bearing gifts for the Emperor Qianlong from King George III (1793), was so impressed by the strong, diligent stevedores, ‘singing and roaring all the while’, and the healthy and agile women (who had plainly ‘not been crippled in the usual manner’: this was in the north of the country) that he could hardly refrain from crying out: ‘Oh, brave new world, That has such people in it!’ To the resentment of the mandarins, he negotiated a curtailed form of the kowtow (down on one knee and the head bowed) when received by the Emperor, whom he described as ‘dignified, but affable, and condescending ... a very fine old gentleman, still healthy and vigorous’, even though he was 83. However, the Emperor had remained vague on the question of trade, and Macartney perceived that his interest in the country, far from gratifying its inhabitants, had led them to regard him with suspicion. The embassy had cost a lot of money and achieved nothing.

Leibniz had earlier wanted to see the missionary process working in both directions. The Chinese lagged behind in logic, metaphysics and mathematics, and (since ‘they despise everything which creates or nourishes ferocity in men’) in military science, but they were far ahead in ‘the precepts of civil life’, whereby all their laws were ‘directed to the achievement of public tranquillity and the establishment of social order’. (More recently, Lee Kuan Yew recognised the expediency of these Confucian precepts in sustaining tranquillity and social order in Singapore.) During conversations with an educated Chinese man resident in Paris, Montesquieu learnt about social customs, ancestor worship, geomancy, the selection of concubines and the written language, but declared: ‘I do not know how one can speak of honour among peoples who can be made to do nothing without beatings.’ Voltaire’s views in his History of the Manners and Spirit of Nations (1756) are more striking. The Manchu conquerors of 1644 had ‘submitted, sword in hand, to the laws of the country they invaded’. Rather than condemning the Chinese system of metaphysics, we should admire the fact that their religion ‘was never dishonoured by fables’. (Compare Ezra Pound in a letter of 1939: only Confucius can guide a man ‘through the jungle of propaganda and fads that has overgrown Christian theology’.) And Voltaire outlined the picture of the sleeping dragon which was to inspire later dreams and nightmares. In their remote past the Chinese had made many discoveries ‘all at once’, but proved incapable of following them up, whereas the Europeans, though tardy in their discoveries, developed them and ‘speedily brought everything to perfection’. (In other words, better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay.) ‘Let the Chinese dragon sleep,’ Napoleon I is supposed to have said, ‘for when she awakes she will astonish the world.’

Spence’s chapter on women observers opens with Jane Austen. True, her brother Frank had spent some months in Canton, and in Mansfield Park Fanny Price, that heroine of principle, had a copy of Macartney’s journal lying on her table, though whether his lordship’s refusal to kowtow to the Emperor stiffened her resolve not to act in the ill-fated ‘Lovers’ Vows’, or was meant to emblematise her own strength of character, remains to be proved. The first woman to record her Chinese experiences at length was an American, Eliza Jane Gillett, wife of the missionary, Elijah Bridgman. In her Daughters of China (1853) she told of finding Chinese women ‘singularly confiding and affectionate’, sprightly and vivacious, in her conversations with them, while deploring ‘the strong folds of idolatrous superstition’ with which they chained their offspring to ‘the altars of false deities’. She noted the current of hatred and hostility towards foreign influence. So did poor Eva Jane Price, who also learnt the language, and opened a school for local girls. She lost two young sons to sickness – ‘Did you think missionaries always were bright and happy and hopeful? Well, there may be some of that kind but they are not out here’ – and in 1900, during the Boxer Uprising, she, her husband and their daughter were all killed, seemingly by Government troops.

The East travelled to the West, though not in any missionary spirit, when Chinese immigrant labourers were attracted to the United States by the Gold Rush of 1849 and the expansion of the railways. Stereotyping flourished; in The Yellow Peril (1982), William F. Wu writes that the Chinese in America ‘were viewed as inscrutable, wildly excitable, of low intelligence, and of high and complex intelligence ... as extremely able workers yet low on the evolutionary scale. Occupational stereotypes include tong killers, heartless husbands, female slaves, and torturers, as well as loyal domestic servants and successful merchants.’ Spence invokes the ‘negative stereotypes’ in Mark Twain’s newspaper pieces: ‘yellow, long-tailed vagabonds ... smoking opium, motionless and with their lustreless eyes turned inward’. Twain was duly shocked when more than twenty Chinese were killed during race riots in Los Angeles in 1870. This was the year Bret Harte wrote his ballad, ‘Plain Language from Truthful James’, about two white miners who set out to fleece the simple-seeming Ah Sin in a card-game and found him to be their superior in the art of cheating. The poem was immensely successful, its irony largely missed, and Harte tried to rectify matters with portrayals in a more amiable spirit. Such literary reparations, too, tended to feature stereotypes, but if there are negative stereotypes, there had better be positive ones as well.

The ‘French exotic’ at the end of the 19th century was led off by Pierre Loti and his Last Days of Peking, with its horrendous account of the crushing of the Boxer Uprising. (‘The parks were exquisite in spite of the corpses and the crows,’ he wrote to his wife. So much for that famous peaceableness.) More serious exponents were Paul Claudel, poet and diplomat (Shanghai, he wrote in 1896, was ‘an industrious honeycomb communicating in all its parts, perforated like an ant-hill’), and Victor Segalen, poet, novelist and physician, who travelled in China between 1909 and 1917. More completely than any other Western writer of the time, Spence says, ‘Segalen caught all four elements of the exotic: the passionate, the aesthetic, the melancholy and the violent’. Pearl Buck’s originality in her bestseller, The Good Earth (1931), was to see that perhaps the greatest exoticism lay in the most ordinary and yet the least noticed of China’s people, the countless farmers and their families: something she knew about.

Ezra Pound’s exoticism was of a more tendentious kind. Eliot called him ‘the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time’, and the word ‘inventor’ seems especially apt. For present purposes it doesn’t matter that Pound’s entry into Chinese literature was solely via the posthumous papers of an American specialist in Japanese (though it was some time before I realised that his Rihaku was actually the great poet Li Po), and it isn’t easy to distinguish between simple misunderstandings and deliberate adaptations. In the Cantos, concerned to relate Confucian values to the ideas of social order and cohesion promoted by Italian Fascism, Pound took from Confucius what literally suited his book. Much the same can be said of Malraux (Man’s Fate) and Brecht (The Measures Taken), who made use of revolutionary China for their political, ethical and fabulistic purposes. It may be that as the artistic standing of these ‘sightings’ rises, what is seen is decreasingly ‘Chinese’.

As we move nearer the present, China grows more momentous but less intriguing. The freshness wears off; we are back with the daily papers. One bright interlude, ‘a curious reprise to the past’, is Richard Nixon’s consultation with Malraux before the President’s departure for China in 1972 (a voyage of discovery code-named ‘Polo II’). ‘Mr President,’ Malraux declared, ‘you operate within a rational framework, but Mao does not. There is something of the sorcerer in him. He is a man inhabited by a vision, possessed by it.’ Nixon subsequently came to much the same conclusion, as did Henry Kissinger: Mao led a life as ‘withdrawn and mysterious even as the emperors he disdained’, and ‘emanated vibrations of strength and power and will’. You can’t get much more exotic than that. Spence comments that Lord Macartney, face to face with the Emperor Qianlong, was considerably less overwhelmed.

How equivocal our ‘sightings’ have been: self-deceiving, self-seeking, self-consoling or self-indulging. And yet there has been some truth there at times. The trouble with stereotypes is not that they are necessarily altogether wrong, but that they are snapshots extracted from their context. The Chan’s Great Continent is, as reviewers say, endlessly interesting – even if not as grimly fascinating as the same author’s Gate of Heavenly Peace (1981). Spence concludes with an admiring look at seers of yet another kind, three writers who never set foot in the country: Kafka in ‘The Great Wall of China’ (‘So vast is our land that no fable could do justice to its vastness ... The Empire is immortal, but the Emperor himself totters and falls from his throne’); Borges in ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’, with its ‘infinite series of times’ and ‘diverse futures’; and Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Calvino expands on the relationship between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan as sketched in Polo’s Travels: the Khan took delight in Polo’s tales of foreign lands, so much more enticing than the dull reports of his ambassadors. In Calvino, Kublai asks whether Polo, on his return to the West, will repeat the stories he has told him, and Polo answers: ‘I speak and speak, but the listener retains only the words he is expecting ... It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.’ This answer, Spence says, is as good as any we shall get, and it applies to the whole story: ‘The secret lies in the ear, the ear that hears both what it wants and what it is expecting.’ Seeing may be believing, but believing can be seeing.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences