Centuries of Myth About the Chinese


By Jonathan D. Spence

W.W. Norton

279 pp., $27.50

When Deng Xiaoping, then leader of the People's Republic of China, visited the US in 1979, Americans couldn't get enough of him. Pictures of the smiling Deng wearing a cowboy hat saturated the airways.

Why are we fascinated with things Chinese? Jonathan Spence poses this question in his latest book, "The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds."

Spence examines how non-Chinese wrote about China during the past seven centuries. Travelers, missionaries, and diplomats based their writings on actual visits to China. But then, authors such as Voltaire, Flaubert, Steinbeck, and Kafka used these images of China to relate their own literary message. The result has been a dizzying array of stereotypes that tell us more about the Europeans and Americans who believed them than about Chinese culture.

Spence, a Yale history professor, is well practiced at taking complex topics and refining them into a compelling narrative. His history text, "The Search for Modern China," became a New York Times bestseller in 1990.

Each of the 12 chapters in his latest work was originally delivered as a lecture at Yale University. In some ways, the content of the book is held hostage to this structure. Time constraints limited the amount of information.

For instance, the most prolific source of written material on China came from 19th-century Protestant missionaries, yet they are barely mentioned. Also, the lecture series was open to students as well as the general public and had to appeal to both audiences. But the finished product surmounts these challenges with ease and will captivate all levels of China watchers.

Spence starts with a discussion of Marco Polo's "The Description of the World." As in subsequent chapters, he provides a checklist of questions:

* Did the author speak Chinese?

* Did the author visit China?

* Why was the author there?

* What aspects of Chinese culture did the author notice?

* What aspects were not noticed?

The biographical sketch allows Spence to speculate as to the traveler's motives. Perhaps Polo sought to contrast Western depravity with Eastern morality. Whatever the original intent, his audience would read the descriptions of China from their own perspective. That's Spence's primary interest: tracing the impact of China books on their readers.

In that regard, Polo's book has had quite a long shelf life. Before his own famous trip, Christopher Columbus made marginal notes in his copy of "The Description of the World." Polo's comments on romantic relationships as well as China's potential as a trading partner attracted his attention.

Five hundred years later, Eugene O'Neill's play "Marco Millions" fictionalized Polo's memoirs and described Polo as an insensitive man obsessed with accumulating money. The Chinese setting is merely the backdrop for O'Neill's frustration with American culture in the 1920s.

In addition to Polo and O'Neill, Spence discusses 23 other authors and traces the development of Western images of Chinese people as exotic, sensual, ruthless, and hapless.

Which image represents the true China? Spence does not attempt to separate fact from fiction, but he suggests that reality is in the beliefs of the reader.

* Kim Risedorph taught Chinese history at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Neb.

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