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China in Western Minds

by Jonathan D. Spence

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-393-02747-3
Publisher: Norton

A brilliant account of seven centuries of the Western fascination with China, told by one of America’s greatest, and most prolific, historians of China. Spence (Yale; The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, 1994; The Search for Modern China, 1990; etc.) is a confident and experienced enough historian to admit what he doesn—t know; here he doesn—t know why China has had and retains such a hold on the Western imagination. Nonetheless, the fascination is there: from Marco Polo’s 13th-century account of the court of Kublai Khan to Nixon’s and Kissinger’s musings on the mystery and greatness of Mao, from the 19th-century French passion for all things Chinese to the fiction of Kafka, Borges, and Calvino. Spence is also a subtle enough historian to not attempt to bring some overall grand meaning to his narrative. Rather, he presents what he terms “sightings,” to imply the fleeting, often woefully inaccurate depictions of China that have been delivered in the West. Such sightings have allowed us to get our bearings, or seemingly so. Whether China has been praised as enlightened and progressive or reviled as cruel and despotic (and both have dominated Western thinking on China, often simultaneously), the purpose has been, inevitably perhaps, to examine ourselves, the West. And so, to mix an aural metaphor with the visual, understanding the China of the West requires, for Spence, understanding “the ear that hears both what it wants and what it is expecting.” Spence’s prodigious and eclectic scholarship is on full display here, ranging freely over seven centuries of the sightings of adventurers, novelists, politicians. Some of his sources are well known (Karl Marx, Max Weber, Mark Twain), some are more obscure (the French novelist Pierre Loti, American writer Eliza Jane Gilbert); yet within Spence’s skilled writing they all intrigue. Seldom does scholarship this detailed grab the reader so. This has always been Spence’s genius. A wonderful book. (Author tour)