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Henceforth I'm going to borrow Prof. Alexander Cook's recommended format for notes on books in preparation for qualifying exams for these posts.

Bibliographic Data:
Spence, Jonathan D. The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1998.

Main Argument:
Examining the attitudes "Western" observers have brought to the discussion of "China" from the time of Marco Polo until the late C20th reveals that "one of the proofs of China's strength is its capacity to stimulate and to focus creative energies at specific movements in time" (xvii). At the same time, the attitudes with which the people in question have made these observations--which may or may not have any basis either in experience or in reality--have as much to say about how the West has constructed itself at the given moment in question as about China at that same moment.

Historiographical Engagement:
Too many to list (48 writers in all), but especially Marco Polo, Baron de Montesquieu, Italo Calvino, Karl Wittfogel. On the ideas front, covertly both with Orientalism and with systems theory, though also openly with most of the broad movements in Western intellectual life since the C13th.

Critical assessment:
It's a neat meta-textual trick that Spence plays in that the reader's--the observer observing the observers--own historical-ethical framework ultimately determines her evaluation of the sources Spence marshals in the text; he's remarkably good at presenting both very little value judgments, as well as being remarkably light on the actual history of China during the periods in question, except at the end when the observers he considers actually start considering actual Chinese history and Spence has to provide enough context to make sense of their observations for the reader. The fundamental question of why the idea of "China" has continued to exert such a pull on Western minds remains unanswered, which is both kind of begging the query and also a whole other book in itself. It's typical Spence in that the reader's preliminary answer to that question ultimately comes down to perception, and his interest in the "way that layers of reality intersect and overlap" shines through in his presentation of the material (xviii). I'm also left questioning, in an epistemological sense, the possibility of ever definitively knowing anything, and by extension whether historiography can ever actually grasp the reality it purports to report on--does the ear that hears both what it wants and what it is expecting leave any room to hear things it is is not expecting? As historians, can or should we eradicate our own intrinsic beliefs and biases entirely? I don't think so; I think we ought to acknowledge our viewpoints and passions so as to better account for them in our histories, rather than pretending futilely that they don't exist and running the risk of reducing our work to what Graham Peck called "a practical joke" (203).

My other critical note here is that Spence collapses a meaningful distinction between pre- and post-Renaissance Western civilization for the sake of readability: i.e., it was during the Renaissance and especially during the Protestant Reformation and the long C17th that the West began to know itself as "the West"; before that people talked about "Christendom," and the medieval worldview of the observers of the first few chapters could, I think, be more clearly delineated--I've read A World Lit Only By Fire and Rivers of Gold, which teach how to discern and think of it, but I would like Spence's take on it here explicitly as well. Prester John even makes an appearance, and it's hard to find a more fitting emblem of the medieval era than that. (So does Sherlock Holmes later, hah.)

Further reading:
Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism; Victor Segalen, Rene Liys; Anchee Min, Pearl of China; Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China; André Malraux, Man's Fate; John Adams, Nixon in China; Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (reread).

Meta notes:
I have a lot of thoughts about writing alternate histories secondary to this book that are out of the ambit of this blog. However, I think in one sense these observers observed can provide an object lesson, either in what not to bring to the history of Asia (i.e. Orientalism, racism, meta-narratives of civilizational "progress") or in how to bear our own experiences and beliefs in mind when writing history (Karl Wittfogel is my new hero). The other thing is not to make Ezra Pound's mistake, and to be content--as Spence manifestly is--to "leave a blank for something he did not understand, or disagreed with" and not to insist "on inserting his own words" (172).

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Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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