A distinct view of the history, culture of China

August 16, 1992|By Christopher Hitchens | Christopher Hitchens,Newsday

CHINESE ROUNDABOUT: ESSAYS IN HISTORY AND CULTURE.

Jonathan D. Spence.

Norton.

400 pages. $24.95. The antiquity and complexity and density of China as a subject mean and have meant that many people have studied "Chinese studies" rather than China itself. As a result, the Middle Kingdom and Mao's Peking have come to many otherwise intelligent and well-read people as distinctly secondhand, even semi-mythical, impressions. (Alberto Moravia's little volume, "The Red Book and the Great Wall," reflects this traditional difficulty within its very title.)

Jonathan Spence is distinguished by his ability to write with skill and wit about both China and the field of Chinese studies. He possesses the relevant faculties of detachment and engagement, and he knows what the Chinese are most notorious for knowing: that history goes on for a very long time. In an amusing early digression, he demonstrates the fruits of his curiosity by showing the combined ignorance and fascination that exercised the early European mind:

"The Englishman John Webb, for instance, devoted much of his scholarly life to proving that Chinese was the world's first language and hence the 'mother' of all others; the Dutchman Isaac Vossius praised the arts and sciences of China above all others and indicated that he would rather have been born in China than in our part of the world; the Frenchman Philippe Masson 'proved' that Chinese was an old Hebrew dialect, knowledge of which could solve many a knotty Old Testament linguistic problem."

From earliest times, also, China was a challenge and enigma to the West because it seemed to argue that great peaks of civilization and sophistication could be scaled without the benefits of Hellenism or Christianity. Thus, an aura of slightly sinister mystery settled over the subject and, between the Marco Polo expedition and the advent of post-Mongol Western penetration, the very concept of "Cathay" acquired the overlay of "inscrutability" and potential barbarism that still, to a great extent, survives in common perception.

China came to Western knowledge by the lure of its artifacts, and it was as a producing and consuming country of some attainment that it fell briefly under Western sway. In a section titled "Sinews of Society," Mr. Spence covers the material substratum of things in four essays entitled "Food," "Medicine," "Taxes" and "Opium." I may not be the only reader who turns first to the opium chapter, because, apart from its link to empire and its intrinsic fascination, it was this substance more than any other (associated with the word "den") that reinforced the "Fu Manchu" image.

As Mr. Spence puts it, the importance of opium in its 19th century heyday was threefold: "It served as a substitute for money, it helped local officials meet taxation quotas and it helped finance the self-strengthening program." The expansion of trade in the interior was fueled by the stuff, as was the encroachment of foreign business concessions, and it's amusing note that duty-free morphine was known to the locals as "Jesus opium" because it was typically sold by Christians. Here, as in many of his essays, Mr. Spence demonstrates a gift for extrapolating a larger picture from a miniature or microcosmic instance.

China's tormented history has meant a long vacillation between xenophobia on the one hand and a hunger for modernization and innovation on the other. Even the ostensibly internationalist Communist cadres were determined both to expunge the influence of foreign powers and to emulate and surpass their technology. Mr. Spence shows an understanding of the nuances of this apparent contradiction, and many of his best pieces are framed within its context. As he puts it at one point: "President Nixon was invited to China when the xenophobic Cultural Revolution was still in full swing. Deng Xiao-ping threw open his country to the West and condoned or ordered both the campaigns against Spiritual Pollution and the mass killing of civilians seeking democratic change in Peking during 1989." (The chapter on "Tiananmen" -- the square and its place in history as well as in the present -- is a masterly one.)

In a closing section, Mr. Spence considers the work of the great Sinologists and the way in which they have shaped the general view of the subject. He is both generous and critical in his review of the oeuvre of the great John K. Fairbank, who, though he was among those whose work was clouded by the anti-China hysteria of the McCarthy years, nevertheless maintained a commitment to the integrity of China studies. The subject was just too big and too absorbing to be overshadowed by pedantry or bigotry. In his own writing, Mr. Spence is true to this same precept.

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