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China is Near

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 military view, and began to adopt a more critical tone. When he comes to the nineteenth century, Spence looks not only at Westerners in China but at the Chinese in America, and gives some sense also of the interplay of travel literature and fiction in the literary creation of a romantic exoticism. In the twentieth century, too, he continues to move between the imaginative and the actual, giving us Edgar Snow and Richard Nixon on the one hand, Brecht and O’Neill on the other.

It is intriguing to learn from Spence’s early chapters how soon many of the conventional Western ideas of the Chinese were formed: for example, their refinement, decorousness, and use of elegantly self-demeaning language. On the debit side, early travelers were shocked by the cruelty they saw. When one considers the varied dreadfulness of the punishments employed in Europe at the time, these visitors’ vivid and evidently sincere sense of horror can be chilling. Yet Pereira, despite suffering imprisonment and torture, continued to praise Chinese justice and Navarrete, who also underwent imprisonment, remained sure that China was the “noblest Part of the Universe [and] the Seat of that, the most Glorious Empire in all natural respects, that the Sun ever shines upon.”

It is indeed striking how favorable the early accounts of China are—so favorable that as early as the 1670s Francisco Pimentel, a Portuguese Jesuit, who himself found much to praise, felt moved to protest against “the zeal and attention with which some people so exaggerate the civility of the Chinese that they prefer it to our Europe.” As Spence observes, some of the early descriptions have a Utopian character; that is to say, they depict not a paradise but a world which challenges our preconceptions by being radically and intelligently different from the one which we know. It has become fashionable to deride European Orientalism for having been contemptuous, self-gratifying, and full of bad faith, but Far-Orientalism at least, if one may call it so, has not typically been like that. To be sure, China was not a political and military threat like the nearer East; remoteness imparts glamour, and it was vastly more remote than the Ottoman Empire, about which too much was known. Moreover, Islam and Christianity were rival exclusivities; they could not readily lie down together.

Chinese religion, however, was not in direct competition with Christendom, and indeed Matteo Ricci sought an accommodation between his own faith and Chinese ancestor worship, while back in Europe Leibniz argued that Chinese belief was in accord with natural theology: “It is pure Christianity, insofar as it renews the natural law inscribed in our hearts—except for what revelation and grace add to it to improve our nature.” In any case, though the coarse nationalisms of the twentieth century may lure us into supposing that people’s typical attitude to all alien societies is one of haughty disdain, it has not generally been so. Spence notes that medieval traders and diplomats in many parts of the world mingled “what we now call ‘marvels’ with their sober detail” when they told what they had seen, and this tradition goes back to the earliest origins of Western historiography. Herodotus conceived of ethnography as part of history (an insight that has only been recovered in our own century) and when he described peoples he commonly began by listing their marvels (so much so that he opens his account of Lydia by remarking that it lacks marvels).

Such investigations encouraged the spirit of relativism. The Indians eat their dead, the Greeks burn them, and each is shocked by the other; so it is true, says Herodotus, that custom is the king of everything. But most travelers’ tales concerned societies that the tellers could regard as more primitive than their own: when they encountered a civilization that was equally formidable, a new element enters the picture. “O Solon, Solon,” said the Egyptian priest, “you Greeks are always children, and there is no Greek who is an old man. You are all young in your souls, and you have in them no old belief handed down by ancient tradition, nor any knowledge that is hoary with age.” The significance of the story is that it is a Greek story (it comes in Plato’s Timaeus): it was fascinating for the Greeks to contrast their own newness with Egypt’s unfathomable depths. And thus exploration becomes self-exploration, and another culture is studied not with blindered complacency but out of a genuine curiosity. The other culture is fascinating both in its own right and for what it may tell human beings about themselves.

China has been able to represent to the more recent West, as Egypt did to the classical Greeks, a model of profound antiquity and perennial changelessness. Compared to China, said Leibniz, we are “newly arrived…and scarcely out of barbarism,” so that it would be presumptuous of us to condemn their ancient doctrines. Europe did indeed encounter another very ancient and highly developed culture in India, but there were some differences. Though India was older than Britain, in the broader view British civilization was merely an offshore offshoot of a larger European civilization; so India was not obviously more ancient than the West. And the West tended to suppose that Indian culture and society were manifestly inferior to its own; with the Chinese they were not so sure. In any case, India had been more subject to outside influences: the dominant Mogul culture was not old at all, and Urdu was possibly the newest language in the world. China, on the other hand, could be seen as immemorially immutable; if the Mongol rulers were perceived as foreign invaders at all, they could be imagined merely as brief eddies in the eternal flow. When Matthew Arnold wrote,

The East bow’d low before the blast
In patient, deep disdain:
She let the legions thunder past,
And plunged in thought again

he had in mind the farther limits of the Roman Empire, but the idea seems drawn from a remoter Orient. At all events, it contains two elements recurrent in the Western conception of China: submission and persistence.

It is interesting that Herder (whose opinion of the Chinese was not favorable) conceived their nation to resemble “an embalmed mummy, wrapped in silk and painted with hieroglyphics.” Here the Egyptian comparison is used to belittle China. But indeed the fascination of Chinese otherness was that it could be understood in diverse ways, as part of the process of self-exploration; like a prism, it could be turned, to give off different lights. China might seem static and uninventive, in contrast with European dynamism; or in contrast with European restlessness and instability, stable and serene. We can indeed detect self-consciousness in a fair number of Spence’s witnesses: often the Westerners looking at China became aware that the Chinese were looking at them. Sometimes there was the uneasy sense that perhaps they were laughing at us; when Henry Kissinger saw in Chairman Mao “a smile both penetrating and slightly mocking,” he was the inheritor of an old notion.

The idea that you could not tell what the Chinese were thinking was teasingly combined with the game of guessing what they were thinking, of seeing yourself through other eyes. “To me, a barbarous Englishman…” says a missionary in a short story by Borges. “Crowds of people came to look at us…that they might gaze at the ‘barbarians’,” Jane Edkins, a real missionary’s wife, had written a century before. John Bell was invited to a stage performance which included a comic European covered in gold and silver lace. In O’Neill’s play Marco Millions Marco Polo is presented as a “strange, mysterious dream-knight from the exotic West.” In sober reality, late-eighteenth-century British envoy Lord Macartney learned of the marvels he was supposed by the Chinese to have brought from the fabulous Occident: dwarfs less than a foot high, an elephant the size of a cat, a horse no larger than a mouse, a singing bird as big as a hen that fed on charcoal, and an enchanted pillow which instantly put to sleep anyone who laid his head upon it and carried him to any place in the world that appeared in his dreams. Goldsmith even looks at a Chinese looking at the English looking at the Chinese: in The Citizen of the World, the imagined letters home of Lien Chi, a fictional philosopher visiting London, he makes his hero wax indignant at those English who “pretend to instruct me in the ceremonies of China.”

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