Chinese whispers

The Chan's Great Continent
October 1, 1999

The western fascination with Chinese silk symbolises something deeper, says Jessica Rawson on the 50th anniversary of thepeople's Republic.

China has fascinated and entranced, but it has nonetheless remained elusive. Why has persistent attention by western traders, diplomats, missionaries and writers filled so many pages and yet brought us little nearer to understanding that extraordinary country?

Jonathan Spence raises this question through his new book, which examines accounts of China by westerners as diverse as Marco Polo and Lord Macartney, Mark Twain and Ezra Pound. He calls the glimpses of China "sightings", and of course, as he emphasises, these sightings reveal more about the viewers than about what they saw. The subtitle signals the subject of the book and, as the author explains, "This is a book about cultural stimulus and response as much as it is in any way a book about China."

As with everything that Spence has written, we are led elegantly and effortlessly through a great array of material, some of it beguiling, some intriguing and much disturbing. Each chapter examines in a chronological and thematic sequence a range of different authorities and authors. Very few of them pursued their subjects in any depth. As expected, these texts raise more questions than they answer. Why did Marco Polo not record tea, calligraphy or paper money? Perhaps he did not go to China. Why did the Jesuits and Dominicans not reveal to Europeans the full range of differences between Chinese religious beliefs and those of the West? Why did the West come to focus on the surfaces of porcelain and silk, in other words, on chinoiserie? And why in the 19th and 20th centuries did the West vacillate between elegance and elusive poetic creations in the works of Pound, Leys and Victor Segalen and the brutal and contemptuous treatment of the Chinese in western society described by Mark Twain? The books ends with a chapter on what the author describes as the "aesthetically most perfect fictions": Kafka in "The Great Wall of China"; Borges in "The Garden of Forking Paths"; and Calvino in Invisible Cities . The last perhaps explains all that China was for most westerners - a fiction or a dream.

But can we get any further in understanding why a persistent search to describe this extraordinary country had such dream-like and sometimes nightmarish qualities? The accounts examined by Spence certainly give us a couple of clues. The first of these is the surface glitter remarked on in many descriptions. Columbus read of the luxuries of the East in Marco Polo's account of his travels and was propelled westwards in search of them. From that time onwards Europeans wondered at what they saw. As the Dominican Domingo Navarette wrote in the mid-17th century: "The Curiosities they make and sell in the Shops amaze all Europeans. If four large Galeons were sent to the city of Nan King, to that of Cu Cheu [Su-chou], to Hang Cheu, or any like them, they might be loaded with a thousand varieties of Curiosities and Toys such as all the World would admire, and a great Profit be made of them, tho sold at reasonable Rates."

He went on to say that all these curiosities were worthy of a prince's house, even though they cost very little. Here Navarette is onto something very significant. The Chinese could produce what to European eyes were great luxuries in woven silks, porcelains, gilded woodwork and carved stone. They could produce them in many intriguing varieties, in huge numbers and very cheaply.

These features are noted again and again and repeated second-hand as defining things and situations Chinese - by John Evelyn, Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain and Paul Claudel. Yet, while these glittering surfaces drew attention, not always approving attention, what lay behind them was not described and, we can surmise, not usually understood.

The Chinese had for hundreds of years, perhaps even for more than two millennia, been able to mass produce metalwork, silks, porcelains and stone carvings by subdivision of labour. Whereas we in the West think of mass production in terms of machines and the production lines of Ford Motors, in China the early kings and emperors controlled huge workshops where labour was specialised and where large numbers of items could be made without modern steel machines by dividing the manufacturing process into specialisms, each in the hands of a separate workman. Inscriptions on first-century-AD lacquers and on the third-century-BC terracotta warriors demonstrate this phenomenon, as does the high quality of the artefacts.

A consequence of this method of manufacture was that by slow increments very complex technologies were developed, for example silk weaving. By the Han period, that is the late third century BC, the Chinese were able to weave complex patterns in silk that the Europeans were to envy for the best part of 2,000 years. But it was not simply because of their complex looms. The Chinese had mastered silkworm rearing, silk reeling and spinning, loom construction, loom use, pattern design and, of course, dyeing. All these sub-crafts were subdivided in turn. The fineness of silk meant all these had to be carried out on an enormous scale if sufficient quantities of cloth were to come off the looms to meet the needs of a populous nation with greedy customers.

What is more, once the most complex designs had been mastered, every form of simplification was to hand, producing the variety that amazed foreigners. None of this could have happened in typical European workshops,with one or two single craftsmen and a few assistants. Large labour forces had to be organised and the foremen and officials who controlled supply of materials, taxation and government requisitions were essential to the process.

By the 18th century, the Europeans were searching for the secrets of the astounding products of the Chinese, especially porcelain. Pere d'Entrecolles, a Dominican who visited the great porcelain centre of Jingdezhen in central southern China in the 18th century, described the materials required and the way one piece might pass through the hands of 70 workmen. We could argue that when S vres and Wedgwood and the silk mills at Lyons came to imitate their Chinese counterparts they took over not just a technique of mass production of consumer goods, but a whole social trend.

Until that point, admiring foreigners were unaware of the system of mass production that supported these Chinese luxuries. They were also unaware of the official controls on many industries and the official structure of distribution networks for the finest goods. Unaware of the factory process and the bureaucratic control and use of the products, western visitors must have regarded these luxuries as miraculous. Their impressive appearance fed dreams, while veiling the methods of manufacture that would have enabled westerners to replicate the skills. It also hid the reality of the strong official arm within Chinese industries, which might have helped them understand the government.

This lack of understanding - or perhaps lack of examination - of China's official structures had an effect on the written reports of embassies and trading missions. People visiting China to trade, negotiate and preach had to grapple with Chinese officialdom. Such encounters - such as the well-known story of Macartney's refusal to kowtow to the Qianlong emperor - were often unsatisfactory. But some related more favourable impressions. Galerote Pereira, a Portuguese trader in China in the 16th century, praised the legal flexibility of the Chinese courts. But he counterbalanced this with his pain at the brutal floggings he witnessed. Others also witnessed and described this brutality.

Here, as with the manufacturing process, westerners saw the outcomes of a system that they did not comprehend. The Chinese had from the fourth century BC, perhaps earlier, organised government with large bodies of literate officials. Laws, taxes, armies and transport required systems that by the third century BC were extended uniformly across a huge land mass. These did not always work. But the intention was there and so were the necessary social structures, the education and the cultural assumptions.

Visiting observers' ignorance of the reasoned and measured qualities of Chinese government and what were seen as its arbitrary and brutal qualities were not anticipated and so occasioned wonder. Similar wonder would have been expressed about European state practices if these writers had known as little about their own societies as they did about China. One key most of them lacked was the language, especially the written language, crucial to all official matters. Those who did not know the language could not begin to guess the complexities of the systems of regulations, ranks and rites.

Some, of course, did know Chinese and did seriously try to understand China on its own terms. But such objectives also required time and a degree of empathy that only a few possessed. The Jesuit Matteo Ricci, for instance, dedicated to China several decades of his life in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Indeed, the Jesuits became one of the great conduits that informed the studies of writers such as Leibniz and Montesquieu. But while well known, these serious works are to be balanced by the admiration for skill and luxury and also by very sad, even dreadful personal encounters on both sides. The accounts of the lives of western women in China are some of the most heart-rending in the book. The tragedies seem yet greater because the depravity and brutality of the East and the West were, in the perceptions of the other, arbitrary and unjustified. The harsh as well as the beautiful is inexplicable. From such material is fiction woven.

This is a book about responses. Although the author maintains the fiction by leaving the explanations unrecorded, the many and contrasting stories that he tells are a warning. Fictions about beautiful countries with strange governments make good telling, but when negotiation is at stake, personal or governmental, they can also produce tragedies. In the 20th century we have seen both.

Jessica Rawson is warden, Merton College, Oxford.

The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds

Author - Jonathan Spence
ISBN - 0 713 99313 8
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00
Pages - 9

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