How to Kowtow

D.J. Enright

  • The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds by Jonathan Spence
    Penguin, 279 pp, £20.00, May 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9313 8

‘One aspect of a country’s greatness 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.’ In The Chan’s Great Continent Jonathan Spence reflects on 48 ‘sightings’ or mis-sightings of ‘a great but distant culture’, stretching from the 13th century up to the Seventies.

Was Marco Polo really in China between 1275 and 1292, working as an agent of the Mongol ruler, Kublai Khan? Did Polo exist at all? (He certainly died, since he left a will.) What matters in this connection is that Polo’s book, usually known as the Travels (the original manuscript is lost, we have only copies, amended copies of copies and translations of copies), is the first work by a Westerner to claim to look at China ‘from the inside’, and much of what it reports, mixing make-believe with verifiable fact, was to be repeated in later times. The China that Polo gave to the world was ‘a benevolently ruled dictatorship, colossal in scale, decorous in customs, rich in trade, highly urbanised, inventive in commercial dealings, weak in the ways of war’. The praise Polo bestowed on Chinese girls prompts Spence to ask whether the references to their modesty and chasteness (apparently he didn’t notice their bound feet) weren’t a reverse image of licentious Venice, and intended as a model for the three young daughters mentioned in his will. That Western views of the East are frequently shaped by the West’s view of itself is one of Spence’s points.

The 16th (the ‘Catholic’) century was the great period of sightings of and insights into China. ‘Orientalism’, one might almost say, was already in full flood. Galeote Pereira, a Portuguese soldier and trader, was captured during fighting provoked by the Portuguese and contrived to bribe his way out of prison. He didn’t know the language, but his was the first detailed account by a non-clerical visitor to China since Marco Polo. His description of imprisonment and judicial torture, Spence says, became ‘a fundamental source for later depictions of the Chinese capacity for cruelty’ and a long-lasting feature in the Western image of the country. ‘Their whips be bamboos, cleft in the middle ... Ten stripes draw a great deal of blood, twenty or thirty spoil the flesh altogether ... and they are given to whoever hath nothing wherewith to bribe these executioners who administer them.’ Even so, Pereira extolled Chinese justice: because trials were conducted in public, before a crowd of people who might know the witnesses, the processes of the law could not easily be distorted ‘as sometimes happens with us’. He also reported on the use of cormorants in fishing, the building of roads and bridges, hospitals for the sick and blind, chopsticks (a hygienic device), the absence of beggars in the streets, and (possibly because of his experiences in prison) the common vice of sodomy. Christianity would prosper more than Islam, Pereira surmised, if only the missionaries would condone the eating of pork and the drinking of wine.

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