Shi Jing Qian's vision of China

May 7, 1999

In his latest book, which explores how the West has viewed China since the time of Marco Polo, Jonathan Spence describes each glimpse of "Chan's Great Continent" as a "sighting".

He borrows this term from navigation, in which a sighting is a fleeting view of the anticipated destination; from gunnery, in which it is the act of finding the range; from gaming language, in which it means cheating at dice; and from 13th-century literature in which it was used as an alternative to sighing or weeping.

Spence's own first "sighting" of China came at the end of the second world war when he listened to accounts of China's relations with foreign countries on the BBC. "In one sense, my China sighting was a sighting of courageous Chinese and how they made this road to Burma with their bare hands," he says. "That was one symbol for me." The other was its opposite - the Korean war, in which China appeared much more aggressive.

While still a schoolboy, Spence became fascinated by Chinese art. He recalls wandering around the Percival David Foundation in Bloomsbury, which houses an exquisite collection of Chinese porcelain. For him, it was an aesthetic sighting of China that balanced the two experiences of war.

For a time his Chinese interests were put on hold, while he read history at Clare College, Cambridge. But then Spence won a scholarship to Yale, which had just recruited two tutors of Chinese history.

He enrolled on a couple of Chinese courses and quickly became hooked, becoming interested in the language and art. Suddenly, he discovered he was beginning a career.

First, though, came a kind of baptism in his chosen field.

He went to Australia, to seek out Mr Fang, an expert in 17th-century Chinese history, who left China after the civil war. Every week, Spence would visit him for an informal tutorial, in which they would read Chinese documents. Mr Fang knew all the texts by heart, in the Chinese way of learning.

"The Chinese have an expression that means someone who is your real teacher, Lao Xian Sheng. In China, it is the person whose integrity you trust totally. He was mine," Spence says.

Mr Fang also gave Spence his Chinese name: Shi Jing Qian. The Shi means historian. Jing means to admire but also means "something like a sighting". Qian means to wander but is also the name of China's first great historian. So it means something like "Spence, a historian who is always moving and admiring Qian" - someone who becomes an historian because he admires another historian.

Spence was established as a historian of China before he was able to visit it. Then, in 1974, he went on an official tour with a group of Yale academics and visited five Chinese universities. It was just after the end of the cultural revolution and there were rules about what could be discussed. "I found it a very disjointed experience," he says. "I had my own vision of what things would be like. This was a very different reality. I was ready with various emotions but it was all interpreted for you."

In terms of nationality he feels somewhere between China, America and England. "By studying China and trying to organise it in English in as beautiful a book as I can handle, in as true a book as I can, it sharpens my own view of myself and sharpens my view of humanity. One can sometimes draw the Chinese experience of the past into one's ways of thinking."

Praised for his story-telling, he approaches his subject through individual narratives. He is now working on the story of a Chinese teacher in rural China in the 18th century, who tried to kill the emperor. Using Chinese texts, he is working outwards from the story of the teacher, who wrote down his motives for trying to kill the emperor and ideas for how better government should work, to discover contemporary analyses of what it was to be Chinese.

He aims to show how people then understood China even if he can never claim to understand it himself. "I respect the complexity of Chinese civilisation," he says. Excited by the way China is opening its doors to the outside world, he is also cautious about where the changes will lead. "I don't have a word for what I feel," he says. "It isn't optimism. It is a wishing-them-well concern." HS

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