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Under Western Eyes

THE CHAN'S GREAT CONTINENT: China in Western Minds;\o7 By Jonathan D. Spence\f7 ;\o7 (W.W. Norton: 280 pp., $27.50)\f7

November 29, 1998|LINDA JAIVIN | Linda Jaivin, a former contributor to Far Eastern Economic Review, coedited "New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices" with Geremie Barme

A mainland Chinese writer I know once paid a visit to a well-known Australian author in his home. The Australian asked the Chinese what he wanted to drink. "A Coke would be nice," my friend replied. His outraged host demanded indignantly to know how he, a citizen of a communist country, could possibly desire the very symbol of American capitalism, yadda yadda yadda, neo-imperialism, yadda yadda yadda, exploitation, yadda yadda yadda. Chinese people, he informed his thoroughly ear-bashed Chinese guest, drank tea. Now, that over with, would he prefer jasmine or oolong?

In "The Chan's Great Continent," Jonathan Spence relates a bizarrely similar tale. But this one is from Oliver Goldsmith's 18th century satirical novel "The Citizen of the World." A British "lady of distinction" invites Goldsmith's Chinese narrator, Lien Chi, to a dinner party in London. She expresses surprise that he hasn't brought any opium with him, makes him sit on a cushion on the floor so he'll feel more at home (though the other guests have chairs) and protests when he elects to eat with a knife and fork rather than chopsticks. As if this weren't annoying enough for Lien Chi, one of the other guests proceeds to lecture him "ignorantly and at length" about Chinese geography and culture until, Lien Chi relates with exasperation, "he almost reasoned me out of my country."

The China that lives in Western minds is clearly not always the same China in which Chinese people actually live. "The Chan's Great Continent" explains why this is so. Taking its title from Hart Crane's evocative lines ". . . biding the moon/Till dawn should clear that dim frontier, first seen/The Chan's great continent . . . ," it is a story, in Spence's words, of "cultural stimulus and response." It systematically examines the intellectual and emotional responses of Westerners to the "phenomenon of China" from the time of Marco Polo to the present day. Spence tells this story chronologically, beginning with the earliest travelers and moving through "the Catholic century," the Enlightenment and the age of chinoiserie, leading us from exotic visions to radical ones, from Ezra Pound to Edgar Snow and Italo Calvino. Peering with Spence through the eyes of these observers, China seems to slip in and out of focus, sometimes too marvelous to be true, sometimes too terrible. As Spence notes in his introduction, "assessments of China and the Chinese people [throughout history] were often coarse-grained or inaccurate; they drew on imagination and stereotype as much as on any kind of informed application of intellect."

Some of the blame for this must surely go to Marco Polo, the enigmatic Venetian whose elaborate traveler's tales have influenced occidental views of China from the 14th century to the present. His book, "The Description of the World" or "Travels," as it is more commonly known, was the first European book devoted to the subject of China. Yet as Spence relates, upon close analysis it appears to be "a combination of verifiable fact, random information posing as statistics, exaggeration, make-believe, gullible acceptance of unsubstantiated stories, and a certain amount of outright fabrication." In fact, it is conceivable that Polo never stepped foot in China at all.

If that is true, then Polo was merely the first in a long line of Western image-makers of China who never actually visited the country of which they wrote so persuasively. For many commentators, past and present, China has been but a handy mirror through which to expose the shortcomings of their own societies, a springboard for a dive into philosophy or poetics or a blank plate on which to engrave fantasies of sensualism, danger and exoticism.

"One aspect of a country's greatness," writes Spence, "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."

Westerners have generally perceived that country through the prism of their own preoccupations. Early Jesuits, for example, paid much attention to the devotional activities and rituals of Chinese life. Yet they downplayed the religious nature of ancestor worship and of Confucianism, redefining both as homage rather than religion, not because that was closer to the truth but because that stressed China's capacity for religious conversion.

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