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.”

Spence’s splendid chapter on “The French Exotic” is perhaps the heart of the book, for here several sightings come together, like a pair of photographs in a stereoscope, to form a fully three-dimensional picture. He picks out four elements in nineteenth-century France’s cult of the Chinese exotic: first, an appreciation of Chinese grace and delicacy, seen as the basis of an entire aesthetic; second, sensuality, initially tied to this aesthetic but moving out to embrace “something harsher and ranker,…composed of scent and sweat, of waves of heat and festering night air”; third, a sense of barbarism, cruelty, and uncontrollable passion; fourth, “the idea of China as the realm of melancholy.” All this is very well said, indeed poetically said. And other elements in the Western conception of China might be added: oldness, continuity, serenity, stasis, graceful obliquity, and that style of elegantly religious worldliness which makes up the popular notion of Confucianism. James Hilton’s Shangri-La, though placed in Tibet, is a version of this idea: the high lama who turns out to be a former Catholic priest hundreds of years old (perhaps based in part on Matteo Ricci) exhibits a faith that has become attenuated to the fineness of silk or porcelain.

Some of the elements in the West’s idea of China are not obviously compatible with others, but therein lay the charm of China as a complex phenomenon. One way of dealing with the contradictions has been to present the Far East as a place of paradoxical extremes, very gentle and very cruel. “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” was the image that Ruth Benedict applied to Japan, but the idea behind it has been directed to China equally. Spence, who makes a few forays into popular culture, rightly finds space for Sax Rohmer’s Dr. Fu-Manchu, who combines “the cool, calculated cruelty of his race” with elegance of manner (and superintelligence, another element in the Western myth of the Far East); he stands as the ancestor of those world-domination baddies who stroke pedigree cats or intimate to Mr. Bond, in the most cultivated language, that his next hours will be regrettably uncomfortable.

If Fu-Manchu is an example of chinoiserie in its vulgar aspect, the Kai Lung tales of Ernest Bramah represent its frivolous side. Spence does not mention these stories, but they offer an interesting commentary on his theme through being both chinoiserie and a parody of chinoiserie. The game is that everything is expressed with mandarin politesse, unruffled and oblique. Thuggishness itself is made graceful, not coarsely as in the cases of Fu-Manchu and Dr. No, but with wit:

[Hien’s] father had been the chief tax-collector of the Chun-ling mountains, beyond the town, and although the exact nature of the tax and the reason for its extortion had become forgotten in the process of interminable ages, he himself never admitted any doubt of his duty to collect it from all who passed over the mountains, even though the disturbed state of the country made it impossible for him to transmit the proceeds to the capital. To those who uncharitably extended the envenomed tongue of suspicion towards the very existence of any Imperial tax, the father of Hien replied with unshaken loyalty that in such a case the sublime Emperor had been very treacherously served by his advisers, as the difficulty of the paths and the intricate nature of the passes rendered the spot peculiarly suitable for the purpose, and as he was accompanied by a well-armed and somewhat impetuous band of followers, his arguments were invariably successful. When he Passed Beyond, Hien accepted the leadership, but solely out of a conscientious respect for his father’s memory, for his heart was never really in the occupation. His time was almost wholly taken up in reading the higher Classics….

Even the bandit has intellectual leanings. Yet the manner that Bramah is mocking here was not wholly a fantasy: when Lord Macartney, quoted by Spence, describes the Manchu officials negotiating with “art, address and insinuation” to get him to perform the kowtow to the emperor, it might be Kai Lung himself telling the story:

They began by turning the conversation upon the different modes of dress that prevailed among different nations, and, after pretending to examine ours particularly, seemed to prefer their own, on account of its being loose and free from ligatures, and of its not impeding or obstructing the genuflexions and prostrations which were, they said, customary to be made by all persons whenever the Emperor appeared in public. They therefore apprehended much inconvenience to us from our knee-buckles and garters, and hinted to us that it would be better to disencumber ourselves of them before we should go to Court.

Spence restricts himself to the written word: he touches on the rococo taste for chinoiserie decoration only in passing, and does not mention music at all. The restriction is presumably deliberate, but it seems nonetheless a limitation, for the West has got its idea of China above all through the eye. To the Western mind the classic product of China is, after all, china; and the Western idea of Chinese culture as a whole has most often adopted what one might call the porcelain model. Chinese art and even Chinese life are conceived as delicate, decorative, sophisticated, mannered, conscious of their own artifice, ceremonious, playful, not profound. China as a whole becomes a willow-pattern world. Robinson Crusoe observes “porcelain buildings”; Pierre Loti, not in fiction but in life, writes to his wife that he lives “under a porcelain roof, in front of a lotus lake” with a jade goddess for company; John Bell sees fields and scattered cottages among rocks “much resembling those romantick figures of landskips which are painted on the China-ware… These are accounted fanciful by most Europeans, but are really natural.”

Despite the Great Wall, Chinese art, in the Western mind, produces nothing large. Cao Xueqin’s huge novel The Story of a Stone, also known as The Dream of the Red Chamber, has not sunk into the Western consciousness; Spence needs to give it only one passing mention. If you asked the man in the street—the street being in, say, Cambridge, Massachusetts—to name the first work of classic Japanese literature that came into his head, the chances are that he would answer with The Tale of Genji. Ask him for his idea of classic Chinese literature, and he would probably envisage some small and perfect lyric—plum blossom and a soft wind from the mountains and the poet sitting in his bamboo cabin contemplating the evanescence of life.

A sense that Chinese art is itself playful has encouraged a playfulness in the act of imitation: it is perhaps significant that we use the imported word “chinoiserie.” Marie Antoinette did not dress as a shepherdess, she dressed as a figurine of a shepherdess, a knowingly artful transformation of reality. Similarly, chinoiserie has often been the sport of dressing up, not direct imitation of China but pretending to be the French pretending to be Chinese, or the eighteenth century pretending to be Chinese.

The term “japonaiserie” is also current, and yet there has surely been a difference: artists like Whistler and Van Gogh really did admire the Japanese aesthetic and wanted to follow it; but Chinese patterns and motifs in Western art have usually seemed more like counters in a game. The persistence of the porcelain model can be seen in its appearance in the wrong places. For example Pearl Buck’s selling point was that she wrote about the humble farmers toiling on the land; she had the good earth under her fingernails. But when it comes to the sex scene quoted by Spence, she merely tinkles: “Then he heard laughter, light, quick, tinkling as the silver bell upon a pagoda shaking in the winds….” This is willow-pattern passion, after all.

And perhaps Puccini is not ultimately so very different. For all its noise and elaboration Turandot conforms in the end to the porcelain model: despite the pretense of barbarous decadence we feel that it is playing at love, lust, death, and torture rather than enacting them. And the opera knows this. The omnipresent pentatonic motifs are in conscious tension with the lush orchestration and chromatic harmony: the “Nessun dorma” chord, repeated again and again in the first part of that notorious aria, contains five different tonal elements, two of them chromatically altered, as against the usual three or four. In a way this represents Oriental exoticism, but it also draws on the full resources of post-Wagnerian musical language to re-create not the East but a Western nightmare of the East. This is the most spectacular example of chinoiserie in twentieth-century art; music also provides the greatest, in Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, set to Hans Bethge’s paraphrases of Chinese poems with additions by the composer himself. In the second and third movements, where China is most directly evoked, Mahler’s choice of poems is telling. The third depicts a pavilion of porcelain and a bridge of jade; people sit beautifully dressed and compose verses; a triangle tinkles to accompany the pretty melody.

The second movement is suffused with the melancholy that Spence finds to be one element in the French exotic, and it is a melancholy distinctly à la chinoise, exquisitely painted. Even nature aspires to the condition of art; the grass in Bethge’s text is touched with frost in the autumn mist and the blossoms look as if an artist had scattered powdered jade over them. Jade again!—here we have the essence of literary chinoiserie, semiprecious substances evoked in semiprecious prose. Matching this tone, the exquisitely thin translucency of the orchestration—nothing at first except oboe and muted violin—is the eggshell cup made into sound. And perhaps chinoiserie enters even into the other movements too, the fusion between the poets’ “sweet archaic song” and the music’s modern, late-romantic yearnings becoming part of the aesthetic effect.

Spence’s chapter on women observers displays both his book’s value and its weaker side. Its first witness, with engaging improbability, is Jane Austen, who includes the memoirs of Lord Macartney among Fanny Price’s reading in Mansfield Park. Spence seems to have swallowed a literary critic’s claim that there is a Chinese theme running through the chapter in question, and that the presence of Macartney’s book symbolizes Fanny’s refusal to kowtow. That is not so; but what the passage does show is the solidity of Jane Austen: Crabbe’s Tales and the Idler lie on the table beside Macartney, a lifelike representation of a literary young woman’s mixed reading, verse and prose, old and new, home and abroad.

With Austen disposed of, the chapter is then given over to the letters home of diplomats’ and missionaries’ wives. It is hard to feel that a distinctively female viewpoint, in any important sense, emerges from this anthology, or that these testimonies differ much, except in accidentals, from travelers’ tales from many other parts of the world, but on the other hand some of these women’s stories are so poignant that it is good to hear them speak. There is Jane Edkins, who arrived from Scotland with her husband at the age of twenty, eager, perceptive, and open-minded. In less than three years she was dead; taken in her sickness to a more salubrious climate, and still enchanted by the beauty of the scenery, she would walk on the veranda of her “sea-side temple house,” a “pale-faced English lady, wrapped in a great brown plaid.” In that description she seems herself to become part of the Oriental picture, like a figure in a Chinese landscape painting or one of those sad, solitary women in the later part of The Tale of Genji.

More painful still is the story of Eva Jane Price from Des Moines, living in a small mission station in a remote inland province. Her letters bravely confess to fear and loneliness: “Did you think missionaries always were bright and happy and hopeful?” A daughter was born to her in China; her two young sons, who had come to China with their parents from America, fell ill and died. When the Boxer Rebellion broke out, local troops, under the guise of safe escort, took the Prices and their child from the town, killed all three, stripped them, and left their bodies in a ditch.

The last chapters, though they have some very good things in them, sometimes lose their sense of direction; Spence’s choice of “sightings” is bound to be a matter of taste to some extent, but here it seems to become excessively arbitrary and not always to have much point. Karl Wittfogel’s significance to Spence is that he was “the sole system-building theorist of China” to have lived in the country and known the language: but whatever the importance of his theory of “oriental despotism,” it is perhaps surprising that he should be given more space than anyone in the entire book except Marco Polo, and his political journey from left to right seems typical of many Western intellectuals who had been Marxist in youth before living through the age of the great dictators. The play The Measures Taken (Die Massnahme) by Brecht, once Wittfogel’s friend, seems even less apropos—a study of the mentality of Communist agitators which happens to have a Chinese setting. In his final chapter Spence seems to give out; he takes three fictions, by Kafka, Borges, and Calvino, gives a summary of each, and then stops dead. The reappearance of a chunk of Marco Polo, already quoted in the first chapter, may be a sign of haste.

Among Spence’s more recent witnesses it is ironically, though perhaps not surprisingly, the statesmen who seem most in thrall to the older literary idea of China. Nixon saw Mao as an heir to the sixteenth-century emperors, and reported that the Chairman himself agreed; Kissinger thrilled to the great man’s “vibes,” writing in terms that Spence effectively compares to Marco Polo’s description of Kublai Khan. Well, it is no doubt a great privilege to meet mass murderers, provided they have murdered on a grand enough scale, but one may wonder whether democratic politicians would at any time have written about Stalin or Hitler in quite such glamorized tones: the old romance and prestige of China influence even modern statecraft. Though Spence tells a story that changes from century to century, his book does indeed suggest long continuities in the Western idea of the Chinese: they seemed to Marco Polo, as they still more or less seem to us, what Defoe called them, an “ancient, wise, polite and most ingenious people.”

This Issue

December 3, 1998