HANNAH BEECHNo country has stoked the western imagination more than China, that vast realm whose elaborate history defies simple description. French novelist Pierre Loti called it one of the remaining bastions of ancient humanity, as incomprehensible to us as it was fabulous. Scottish housewife Jane Edkins wrote: I am so in love with 'the flowery land.' And Franz Kafka, in a fit of angst, detected a certain feebleness of faith and imaginative power that prevented China from raising the empire out of its stagnation. Such musings, which never quite hit the mark, fill Jonathan Spence's fascinating The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds (W.W. Norton; 279 pages), a collection of 48 colorful accounts, from the wide-eyed observations of 13th-century traders to the short-sighted pronouncements of 20th-century statesmen. Spence, a Yale historian and gifted writer, is less concerned with fact than with the various fictions that foreigners have imposed on the Middle Kingdom. After all, China has endured countless incarnations in Western minds: the ruthless empire, the benevolent giant, the skilled innovator, the lost backwater, the mystical utopia, the despotic kingdom. Yet each successive rendering of China is more a revelation of the writer's own culture than an unveiling of the Chan's (an alternate spelling of Khan's) Great Continent.
One of the first to straddle the gulf between real and imagined China was Marco Polo. While purists debate the veracity of his journeys (how could a visitor to China fail to mention the Great Wall or bound feet?), Spence focuses on how the Italian merchant embellished the place into all that his degenerate Venice was not. Polo even referred to the exalted chasteness of Beijing women, in an unsubtle attempt to curb his own teenage daughters. The favorable view persisted into the 1500s when missionaries like Matteo Ricci glorified Confucian orthodoxy for keeping China well-ordered, in contrast to Europe, which was cleaved into querulous states by the Thirty Years' War. To the Jesuits, China was a place where even drinking was so well-regulated that hangovers were rare.
The utopian picture shattered after the defeat of the Ming dynasty by the Manchu hordes in 1644. Westerners, flush with racial colonial rhetoric, tore at the image of civilized China. Swashbuckling British Commodore George Anson, who anchored his man-of-war in Guangzhou harbor in 1743, belittled Chinese armor as not steel but a particular kind of glittering paper. And British author Daniel Defoe went on to add that the Great Wall may look imposing, but it is needless and the British could batter it down in 10 days.
Anti-foreigner pogroms during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion added a tinge of menace to the notion of a vulnerable China. The shift in thought coincided with an influx of Chinese immigrants into the United States, and American fiction obsessed over the yellow peril. The cloistered lanes of U.S. Chinatowns were suddenly filled with crafty and impassive Chinamen. Decades later, Henry Kissinger echoed the myth when he described Mao Zedong as withdrawn and mysterious even as the emperors he disdained.
Spence strings together these wildly varying views of China skillfully, but the resulting mass is overwhelming and underachieving. The reader is left with an eclectic jumble of armchair speculations and blinkered first-hand accounts. For all the efforts, China is too protean a nation ever to pin down. Its historical burden is to absorb a thousand competing perceptions and maintain its amorphous form. And that ever-shifting shape will fascinate generations of China-watchers to come.