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Portraits of China in Western literature

Published onJan 31, 2022
Portraits of China in Western literature

The portraits of China in Western literature reveal many things about how China has been imagined, understood, and discussed in the West. Also, more generally, the portraits of China in Western literature illustrate how images of non-Western cultures circulate through Western literary networks and social imaginaries and reveal the politics of cross-cultural representation.

China began to be admired through works such as Marco Polo’s Livre des merveilles du monde (Book of the Marvels of the World, which started to widely circulate in Europe during the early fourteenth century) and Sir John Mandeville’s fictitious Travels (which began its circulation during the mid-fourteenth century). The first global best-seller about China was probably Juan González de Mendoza’s Historia de las cosas más Notables, ritos y costumbres del Gran Reyno de la China (The History of the Great and Mighty Kingdom of China and the Situation Thereof, 1585), which had a vast repercussion across Europe and shaped the understanding of China in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique, et ­physique de l’empire de la Chine et de la Tartarie chinoise (A Geographical, Historical, Chronological, Political, and Physical Description of the Empire of China and of Chinese Tartary, 1735) became the touchstone for “discussions of the language and all the things Chinese more generally” one century later.1

Interest for China did nothing but increase during the eighteenth century as references to China turned into weapons to be used in the cultural controversies and debates of the time. The increasing knowledge about China bifurcated the images of China in European culture. The tension between sinophilia and sinophobia was the most important aspect that defined the instrumental representations of China before the twentieth century. On the one hand, China was held as a positive model for philosophers such as Leibniz, Quesnay or Voltaire, who expressed their admiration for Chinese culture and for what they perceived to be a secular society that could set an example for European Enlightenment. On the other hand, depictions of China as a decadent society became prominent too, and the understanding of China became more contemptuous. Negative images of China proliferated due to a combination of factors: the cult of chinoiserie (one of the foundations for sinophilia) decayed in the nineteenth century; the Opium Wars left China in a weak geopolitical position in the 1840s; the complicity between racialist sinophobia and the imperialist drive turned China and the Chinese into an object to be dominated; and, as merchants and missionaries traveled more freely across China, their experiences brought about new kinds of perceptions.2

By the mid-nineteenth century, the remnants of sinophilia were fiercely attacked by “an increasingly harsh series of portrayals of Chinese scheming, danger, unreliability, and viciousness.”3 Around that time, images such as Daniel Defoe’s corrosive attacks to China in the second part of Robinson Crusoe (1719) or George Anson’s travels during the 1740s became very popular across Europe. These negative visions of China circled back to philosophy too. The China in Herder’s Ideas on the Philosophy of the History of Mankind, published between 1784 and 1791, or in Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy, given between 1805 and 1830, shows that, by the mid-nineteenth century, sinophobia had been strongly rooted in Europe’s imaginary and had acquired a certain intellectual depth as well.4 Paradoxically, the alleged weakness of China coexisted with the view of China as a yellow peril—a danger for Western civilization, particularly (even more paradoxically) after China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1895.

Around the nineteenth century, the authors of these writings about China became more diverse too. The study of China became systematized by the first scholars who were not part of the “scholarly missionaries.”5 The works of Robert Morrison, Julius Klaproth, Jean-Pierre Abel-Rémusat, John Francis Davis or Stanislas Julien, among others, added to popular works that featured China in one way or another following the tradition that had been established by works with an outside Chinese observer such as Jean-Baptiste de Boyer Marquis d’Argens’s Lettres chinoises (Chinese Letters, 1739–40) or Oliver Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World (1762); or by collections of oriental fiction such as Gueullette’s Les Aventures merveilleuses du mandarin Fum-Hoam, contes chinois (The Marvelous Adventures of Mandarin Fum-Hoam: Chinese Tales, 1723).6

At the turn of the century, the diversity of images of China increased even more. China played an important role in the reconfiguration of the world that saw new interconnections between goods, institutions, technology and culture. As a result, the image of China throughout Europe and the West was bestowed with an extreme richness and diversity. The sinophobic yellow peril and the sinophilic exoticism that had constituted the two extremes of the representational pendulum for centuries were still in operation. But these traditional poles now coexisted with other visions: compassion (for the consequences of the Boxer events in 1900, for the dignity of Chinese peasants), sympathy (for the development of democratic institutions in the Republic of China, for the formation of the Communist revolution), empathy (for the status of Chinese women), admiration (for Chinese volunteers who took part in World War I or in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War), geopolitical interest (for China and Japan as sites in world-wide wars and communist revolutions), or commercial attraction (for China as a future market of 400 million customers). Some of these visions had existed to some degree in previous periods, but what makes the first decades of the twentieth century unique is their coexistence, circulation, intensity and pervasiveness.

Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, travelers’ writings, missionaries’ accounts and sinologists’ essays were joined by other forms of writing about China. Following Ezra Pound’s Cathay, China played an essential role in the development of Western poetic modernism. French writers such as Pierre Loti, Paul Claudel (with a lifelong interest in China), and Victor Segalen developed a “French exoticism” that poetically combined many of these new contradictory meanings—delicacy and sensuality, but also violence and barbarism, and melancholy for “a land that stood for something forever lost” through uncaring materialism.7 Important writers such as André Malraux, Pearl Buck, Agnes Smedley, and Edgar Snow projected a more humane vision of the Chinese based on gender and class that connected China with existential concerns that were universal currency. These new views were not marginal. They reached broader parts of society well beyond the views previously held by missionaries, diplomats, and sinologists. Buck’s success—both in terms of sales and recognition—is well known. Snow’s Red Star Over China, published in 1937, quickly sold 23,500 copies in the United States, 100,000 copies in Britain and was translated into six languages.8 A radical critique of the limited ways in which China had been understood by Westerners and a claim for a more empathic relation between East and West could be found in popular cartoons such as Hergé’s Le Lotus bleu, for example.9 While sinophobic and sinophilic China could still be embodied by Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan on the pages of, respectively, Sax Rohmer and Earl Digger’s novels, multiple Chinas became normalized across a richer and more nuanced spectrum—which included exoticism and sinophobia, fascination and repulsion, but also engagement, puzzlement, humanism, excitement, frustration, open-mindedness, empathy, critical analysis or intellectual curiosity.

This pluralistic epistemology that was in full operation at the beginning of the twentieth century has remained a unique interlude in the history of cross-cultural relations between China and the West. The Cold War put a stop to that pluralism. As the yellow peril turned red, the polarized China of the past became reinforced again. Important European figures and movements were attracted to Chinese culture and politics—such as the British Left in the 1950s, Marxist humanists in the 1960s, or the Tel Quel group in the 1970s. But the pluralistic epistemology of the previous decades was reduced.

In sum, China has not been an isolated reference in Western literature across the past few centuries. China has appeared in numerous Western literary works under a variety of forms (that includes genres such as prose, poetry, journalism, and travel writing) and under a variety of understandings and concerns, even if the dichotomy sinophilia/sinophobia has remained hegemonic in almost all periods. China has usually remained an object of interest to be used in broader issues and debates that often transcend China itself. Writing about China has not been restricted to specialists nor to those who have visited the East and have written about their firsthand experiences—Kafka, Borges, and Calvino, for instance, wrote “the three aesthetically most perfect fictions about China” without having set foot in China.10 Western readers unconsciously switch between all these heterogenous, often contradictory Chinas that appear on Western literary pages.

The portraits of China in Western literature also illustrate some important workings of Western literature itself. As I argue in Secondhand China, while “the West” and “Western literature” are also heterogeneous realities, the images of China have circulated across Western languages and cultures rather uniformly. The portraits of China have contributed to keep “the West” as a homogeneous subject vis-à-vis a China that has always remained an object to be examined.11 Portraits of China in languages such as English, French, or German later circulate to other Western cultures, which tend to approach China indirectly and through the mindset provided by these pivotal centers.

What lesson could be learned from these diverse, contradictory, often overlapping images of China that have circulated across the West? How could this rich archive be used (again) to nurture the politics of Sino-Western relations with a humanistic concern in mind? Victor Segalen’s masterpiece René Leys (1921, posthumous) offers a partial answer to these questions.12 Set in Beijing in 1911, the novel tells the story of a French narrator who hires a young private tutor, René Leys, to teach him Chinese. René gradually reveals himself as an enigmatic figure: he seems to have regular access to the Forbidden City, to be part of the imperial secret police, to take part in many mysterious events in the palace. His stories become more intricate and implausible. When he claims to be the Empress’ lover, the narrator finally starts suspecting something that most readers (spoiler alert!) began suspecting many pages earlier: René may not be telling the truth—or, at least, he might be exaggerating some aspects of the fascinating stories he is telling. Most importantly, the narrator also finds out that the dubious stories that René had been telling him were originated, in fact, by the narrator’s previous interrogations about those very same topics. René’s exotic China is therefore nothing but a series of prophecies that the narrator himself had generated and that René had turned “real” for him. Facing the numerous, diverse, and contradictory Chinas at our disposal, the China we will encounter (on the pages of Western literature) depends very much on the kind of China we want to find.


Carles Prado-Fonts is an associate professor in the Department of Arts and Humanities at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya.

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