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Nonfiction in Brief

THE STAR RAFT China's Encounter With Africa by Philip Snow (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $19.95)

August 14, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

"I'll love you dear, I'll love you," wrote W. H. Auden, "till China and Africa meet / and the river jumps over the mountain / and the salmon sing in the street." Auden's love may have been true, but nearly 75 years before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, China and Africa did indeed meet, as a Ming Dynasty Star Raft, buoyed up by 2,000 years of political unity and resistance to foreign culture, landed in Africa, described here as a continent "bombarded by foreign influence and plagued by inner doubt, yet at the same time lively and groping, however uncertainly, for a new identity of its own."

Philip Snow, a U.K.-China trade consultant and son of British writer C. P. Snow, would be sympathetic to Auden's oversight and to our own tendency to perceive world history as a dynamic between West and non-West. His exotic history shows that China's ties with Africa are especially obscure to us because the proudly nationalistic Chinese have long separated themselves from the mainstream of Third World struggles. They protested, for instance, when black intellectuals such as Marcus Garvey included the Chinese among "the darker races of mankind." The Chinese also had trouble mixing socially with the Africans because they hated the food and shied away from the exuberant drinking and dancing. Undaunted, however, the Chinese "went home, assessed their mistakes and returned with new policies better attuned to the continent's aspirations and needs."

Snow's account of this conflict and camaraderie is spirited and vivid, but it is also of more than academic interest now that China-Africa (as well as Brazil-Africa and Middle East-Africa) ties are strengthening while the Western tide recedes from Africa. "As African countries slowly become more stable and more prosperous," Snow writes, pointing to the likelihood that blacks will soon rule South Africa, "their leaders can be expected to grow increasingly impatient with the continent's unhappy state of disunity and dependence on Western funds and advice . . . . The Chinese continue to nudge the continent gently out from the Western shadow. Their business activity on the continent has grown as their political maneuvers have subsided . . . . We are going to have to accept the fact that the various non-Western peoples are likely to come together with increasing frequency."

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