In This Review

The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds
The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds
By Jonathan D. Spence
W. W. Norton, 1998, 279 pp

Spence is unquestionably the best story-teller of all historians of China, and he never fails to come up with intriguing topics viewed from original perspectives. This time he recounts the image of China in the Western mind. From Marco Polo in the thirteenth century to Jesuit missionaries and Enlightenment philosophers to contemporary China-watchers, Spence shows how Western observers have used both positive and negative fantasies of Chinese civilization to reflect the state of Western civilization. For some, China was a superior civilization with elegant manners and ancient wisdom; for others it offered dark visions of cruel rulers and hordes of devious tricksters. Henry Kissinger was as awestruck on meeting Mao as Marco Polo was before Kublai Khan. Spence's interest is purely narrative; he relates his 48 "sightings" of China rather than advancing any theoretical or moral lessons. His fascination lies with each particular imagined China, not with potential conclusions for the Western mind -- although China as a distant Other has clearly served multiple purposes for the Western psyche. Even today, exaggerated swings in U.S. policy toward China reflect American vacillation between images of a "good" and a "bad" China.