Under eastern eyes

The Chinese always knew as much about us as we knew about them. T H Barrett finds holes in the Wall
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The Independent Culture
Whether due to chance or calculation, the simultaneous appearance of two excellent historical books on China - one covering the Western understanding of China and the other China's understanding of the rest of the world - seems almost too good to be true. The pair are quite closely linked, since Jonathan Spence's praise for Joanna Waley-Cohen's work represents the proud evaluation of a former student by her teacher. Her writing shows that she has been well taught, especially in later Chinese history, where she clinically dissects the tale of the first British mission in the late 18th century in order to demonstrate the fatuity of our stereotypes of China.

Take the Emperor's famous letter to George the Third, declaring that his regime was completely uninterested in Western technology. Bertrand Russell pontificated that "no one understands China until this document has ceased to seem absurd". Far from being absurd, she shows that the Emperor, partly because of domestic rivalries invisible to the linguistically incompetent British, was simply bluffing. The "Sleeping Dragon", to use Napoleon's phrase, was never asleep at all, just playing possum.

True, lack of military competition in Asia meant that China had fallen somewhat behind the West technologically, and was forced to pay the price. But mark that the Emperor had just defeated the Gurkhas - foes who proved so formidable to British imperialism that they have been bought as mercenaries ever since.

Where she still has something to learn from her teacher is in matters of style. This, her second book, is narrated smoothly enough, but Spence positively dances from topic to topic over an almost equally long span, starting with Marco Polo in the 13th century and ending with Italo Calvino, yet leaving the reader wishing the story even longer. In between he has managed to introduce us to 16th-century Portuguese sea-dogs, 17th-century Italian Jesuits, 18th-century French intellectuals and 19th-century American missionary wives - all before tackling some of the great names of our century, from Pound through Kafka to Brecht. Even so, his desire to avoid a mere catalogue means that much significant material has been left out.

With a text based on a series of 12 lectures, all Spence could aspire to was the presentation of a selection of "sightings" of China, with neither time nor space to consider such questions as influence or readership. As a result, one sensational narrative of an English family's experience of China, which went through 22 editions in a little over half a century, is not even mentioned.

As to what it all means, almost the last word is left to Marco Polo as imagined by Calvino. He tells his master and confidante Kublai Khan: "I speak and speak, but the listener retains only the words he is expecting." Spence does permit himself a final paragraph of his own: "The curious readiness of Westerners for things Chinese was there from the beginning, and it has remained primed, over the centuries, by an unending stream of offerings. Precisely why this should be so remains, to me, a mystery."

Such diffidence, coming at the end of over 250 pages of remarkable erudition worn with a shimmering lightness, leaves the reader with much to think about, and not only about the mystery of our understanding of China. For what happens if we go back to look at Waley-Cohen's book? Here there are no such doubts, but is that not because knowledge painfully acquired tends to suppress any expression of ambiguity?

By this I do not mean to suggest that her book is in any sense untrue or inaccurate. So far was China from being a "Walled Kingdom" that even after the Great Wall we find so fascinating was erected in the 15th century, China remained just as alert to the outside world as ever.

One late 16th-century work, for example, contains not simply a detailed description of Bengal but also a vocabulary of over 300 Bengali words, a good century before the publication of the pioneering glossary of Indian terms in English by John Fryer in 1698. Such an awareness of India had deep roots, given that Indian materials translated by Buddhists outweighed literature from China's own antiquity by about five to one. But I suspect that, were anyone interested in Chinese cosmopolitanism able to read Classical Chinese as painlessly as English, then problems of balance and selectivity would complicate the steady narrative Waley-Cohen sustains.

Some, for example, have tended to depict Chinese criticisms of the Catholic missions of the 17th century as materials to illustrate a grand clash of world views. Yet a closer look at the anti-Catholic writers shows that the great majority were Buddhists, as much at loggerheads with their fellow Chinese as the Jesuits and Dominicans whose mutual polemics do much to enliven Spence's account. The idea that the Chinese subsequently preferred to forget these first contacts after the departure of the missionaries is amply falsified by Japanese censors in the 18th century. The Japanese were much more firmly opposed to the spread of foreign religion, and found themselves constantly having to delete passages about it from books imported from China.

Wisely, then, Waley-Cohen eschews grand theory for a much more pragmatic analysis of the reasons for the failure of Christianity. She tellingly points out that in the 18th century, after its banning, the rate of conversion to Christianity in West China actually went up. Even more extraordinarily, foreign priests continued to travel to West China at this time, all the way from the South China coast. Yet no one in the intervening provinces ever turned them in - testimony to the absence of inherent Chinese xenophobia.

Of course, once rid of our preconceptions, some things become clear enough. When the first British mission arrived from a country crawling with excise men to preach the virtues of free trade to the Chinese, its leaders naturally expressed polite horror at the severity of Chinese punishments. It was left to the ambassador's butler, in his below-stairs account of the mission, to record how shocked the Chinese were at the sight of a British seaman being flogged. Only in Chinese materials introduced by Waley-Cohen, however, do we find an account of the racial tensions between British and Indian troops in the Opium Wars.

The most important conclusion that can be drawn is that our imaginary knowledge of China outstrips by far our understanding of the complexity of perceptions of the non-Chinese world in Chinese civilisation. The linguistic reasons for this are set to keep us in ignorance of the problem for the foreseeable future, at least over here. Only a small fraction of our universities teach Chinese at all. Of these the majority, driven by the dismal economics of education, concentrate solely on modern Chinese.

Since Classical Chinese takes more than the three or four years of a degree course to master, generally only those fortunate few who win a graduate scholarship - as Spence did to Yale - ever get the chance to study China independently. For such morsels as these two books, written by expatriates living where Asian Studies are taken more seriously, we should be truly thankful.

Professor T H Barrett teaches in the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University