The Chan's Great Continent Essay - Critical Essays

Jonathan D. Spence

The Chan’s Great Continent

In THE CHAN’S GREAT CONTINENT: CHINA IN WESTERN MINDS, Jonathan D. Spence examines the West’s long fascination with China. His discussion begins in the thirteenth century, notably with Marco Polo’s famous account of his years in China, and ends his analysis in the twentieth century with writers as varied as Pearl Buck and Franz Kafka and politicians such as Richard M. Nixon.

The West’s interest in China has frequently been a mirror to comment, favorably or unfavorably, upon Western society. From Polo onward, praise or condemnation of things Chinese is invariably a comment on the West. China has been lauded for its practical philosophy and policies by the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and damned as a dictatorship by Baron Montesquieu, admired for its culture and condemned for its luxury. Some have approved of the status of women in China, including foot binding, while others have found the practice barbaric. For some, China was exotic, erotic, and seductive, while others have found there an ethical society which the West should emulate. In the twentieth century alone, Pearl Buck wrote about the traditional Chinese peasant, Sax Rohmer (Arthur Ward) created the archetypal Oriental villain in Fu- Manchu, Edgar Snow saw the Chinese communists as revolutionary heros, Jack London and John Steinbeck used Chinese characters as victims of Western bigotry and injustice, Eugene O’Neill interpreted Polo as a corrupt capitalist, while in Mao Zedong, Henry Kissinger discovered the ancient Chinese emperor.

Spence argues that for seven hundred years Westerners have discovered in China what they wish to discover, hear what they wish to hear, and see what they want to see. Given China’s importance in today’s and tomorrow’s world, THE CHAN’S GREAT CONTINENT is valuable, in part because too often Westerners have interpreted China with preconceptions instead of attempting to understand it in its own terms.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCV, September 15, 1998, p. 172.

Far Eastern Economic Review. CLXI, October 15, 1998, p. 57.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 29, 1998, p. 4.

The New York Review of Books. XLV, December 3, 1998, p. 21.

The New York Times Book Review. CIII, November 15, 1998, p. 19.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, August 3, 1998, p. 62.

The Wall Street Journal. September 4, 1998, p. W12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVIII, August 30, 1998, p. 5.