Jonathan D. Spence’s title is the imagining of an imagining. “The Chan’s Great Continent” is a phrase drawn from Hart Crane’s “The Bridge”—a phrase, moreover, which describes not China itself but Christopher Columbus’s fancy of the land which he expected to find. And that fancy is presented in the poem as hazy and distorted, for the great Chan or Khan ruled China in Marco Polo’s day, two centuries before the Santa Maria sailed. Thus Spence adapts Crane who invents a Columbus who imagines a China colored by Marco Polo; China shifts its tone and hue as it passes from pen to pen, or mouth to mouth, in a game of Chinese whispers.
Spence’s book is not long but his subject is vast: the place of China in the Western mind from the thirteenth century to the present day. Originating in a series of lectures given at Yale, which were required to be scholarly but also accessible to the general public, it is avowedly a somewhat miscellaneous book. Instead of the comprehensive study of the subject which would be half a lifetime’s work, Spence offers a selection of what he calls “sightings”—that is, images or ideas of China expressed by particular men and women, mostly Europeans, some of whom had seen the country for themselves, others knowing it only by hearsay. He includes, by his own estimate, forty-eight such sightings, having cut the number down, he says, from a list that was originally three times as long.
In the earlier part of the book at least he skillfully combines this staccato method with a developing story, told lucidly and with elegance. For centuries Europe knew China only dimly, through travelers’ tales: much as in a Chinese landscape painting a shapely peak or two floats above the mist, so in the Western perception of China the occasional sharp piece of reality rose out of what was otherwise romantic obscurity. Starting with the friar William of Rubruck, the first man to discuss the Chinese in a European language on the basis of personal experience (he reached the Mongol capital of Karakorum, though he did not get to China itself), Spence proceeds to Marco Polo, and then to the adventurers, merchants, friars, and priests who penetrated China in the period which we call the Renaissance, among them the Dominicans Gaspar da Cruz and Domingo Navarrete, the Jesuit Matteo Ricci, and the soldier and trader Galeote Pereira.
Thereafter the story becomes more complex and varied: writers like Defoe and Goldsmith, without firsthand knowledge of the country, used China and the Chinese as the material for “deliberate fictions”; travelers like John Bell, a young Scottish doctor who visited Peking in the early eighteenth century, began to analyze Chinese customs instead of merely describing their strangeness; intellectuals like Leibniz, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Herder looked for an overall understanding of Chinese culture and polity. The British naval men George Anson and George Macartney took a more practically political and …