The Chan’s Great Continent

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Jonathan D. Spence is the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University and the author of a number of major works on Chinese history, including the highly praised best-seller The Search for Modern China. Spence’s previous studies have largely explored the history of China and the Chinese or, occasionally, the tale of western residents in China, such as in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. In The Chan’s Great Continent Spence discusses the impact that China—or perhaps even more, the idea of China—had on the West over the centuries, from the era of the Venetian traveler and storyteller Marco Polo to that of Richard M. Nixon, who used the phrase “Polo II” in planning for his meeting with Mao Zedong in the 1970’s. The West’s contacts with China, which reflected one perceived reality or another, were frequently fantasy creations that had little to do with the actual China and invariably said as much about the West as they did about China.

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Originally delivered as the William Clyde DeVane lectures at Yale University in 1996, Spence’s elucidation of the western reaction to Chinese civilization was presented for a general audience rather than for experts in Chinese history, although the author notes that his remarks and now writings are scholarly enough to satisfy academic specialists. Nevertheless, the hallmark of Spence’s work has always been its accessibility, not least in that he is a fine writer and can tell a fascinating tale. Spence notes that modifications were made in bringing his oral lectures to written form, particularly in the inclusion of lengthy quotations to more fully illustrate his themes, an obvious advantage to the reader.

The Chan’s Great Continent takes its title from Marco Polo’s story of his long sojourn in China with his father and uncle in the late thirteenth century. Polo was not the first westerner to write about contact with the Chinese. That honor belonged to William of Rubruck, a Franciscan friar, who, although he got to China itself, was sent in 1253 to request Khan Mongke’s support in the struggle between the Christian West and Islam. Polo’s great significance is that he related his service under Kublai Kahn, China’s Mongol ruler, to Rusticello of Pisa, who put Polo’s tale into an existing popular format that may or may not have reflected precisely what Polo had said. When published in 1485, shortly after the invention of the printing press, one diligent reader was Christopher Columbus, who was intent on achieving his own Chinese experience. There are difficulties in Polo’s written account, as he does not mention either tea, calligraphy, or foot binding, for example, although these lapses could well have been due to Rusticello rather than Polo himself. But in the broader sense, Polo anticipated later commentators, whether they actually experienced China in person or not, by using comparisons with China as a means to comment on aspects of western civilization.

Many of Spence’s westerners will be familiar but others less so. One of the latter is Galeote Pereira, a Portuguese who visited China in the mid-sixteenth century. He noted the severity of punishment, a theme discussed by many western writers, but he praised the government-supported hospitals and rest homes and the system of Chinese justice. Gaspar da Cruz, a Dominican friar, read Pereira’s account and was the first westerner to comment on the foot binding of women, the language, and tea. A Jesuit priest, Matteo Ricci, arrived in China in 1583 and remained there until his death in 1610. Spence has devoted a full monograph to Ricco elsewhere but notes here that Ricco’s account of China was highly favorable: He praised China as a well-ordered, unified country, unlike sixteenth century Europe, which was caught up in religious wars. Ricco also admired Confucius but noted that so- called...

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