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The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds

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"Like everything else written by Jonathan Spence, The Chan's Great Continent is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in China. Spence is one of the greatest Sinologists of our time, and his work is both authoritative and highly readable." ― Los Angeles Times Book Review China has transfixed the West since the earliest contacts between these civilizations. With his characteristic elegance and insight, Jonathan Spence explores how the West has understood China over seven centuries. Ranging from Marco Polo's own depiction of China and the mighty Khan, Kublai, in the 1270s to the China sightings of three twentieth-century writers of acknowledged genius-Kafka, Borges, and Calvino-Spence conveys Western thought on China through a remarkable array of expression. Peopling Spence's account are Iberian adventurers, Enlightenment thinkers, spinners of the dreamy cult of Chinoiserie, and American observers such as Bret Harte, Mark Twain, Ezra Pound, and Eugene O'Neill. Taken together, these China sightings tell us as much about the self-image of the West as about China. "Wonderful. . . . Spence brilliantly demonstrates [how] generation after generation of Westerners [have] asked themselves, 'What is it . . . that held this astonishing, diverse, and immensely populous land together?' "-- New York Times Book Review

302 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1998

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About the author

Jonathan D. Spence

69 books264 followers
Jonathan D. Spence is a historian specializing in Chinese history. His self-selected Chinese name is Shǐ Jǐngqiān (simplified Chinese: 史景迁; traditional Chinese: 史景遷), which roughly translates to "A historian who admires Sima Qian."

He has been Sterling Professor of History at Yale University since 1993. His most famous book is The Search for Modern China, which has become one of the standard texts on the last several hundred years of Chinese history.

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 22 of 22 reviews
Profile Image for Mel.
3,229 reviews181 followers
December 13, 2012
This book started really well, I thought his look at the early Western writing on China, starting with the Jesuits and moving on to the embassies was quite interesting. However once the book hit the 19th century it seemed to loose coherence and I wasn't entirely sure why he picked the examples he did, and why he ignored much of what he did. Spence writes popular history books about China, however you'd need a grasp of what was going on in the history to know the background of events being written about. He also used primarily secondary sources, quoting people quoting the books, which seemed particularly odd as he was using English language sources. It was disappointing that so much of the latter chapters focused on the fictional accounts of China, and ignored any of the actual meeting between cultures. For me I think the most impressive chapter was the one looking at women missionaries in China, who embraced the culture or rejected it outright. It was moving to read accounts of people that were killed in the Boxer uprising and unlike a lot of the fiction based chapters gave an actual feel for interaction between cultures. This book was ok, though I think Barnes, and Barrett, did the same thing much better.
1,074 reviews105 followers
November 27, 2017
The Great Wall is a Mirror

Jonathan Spence's work on China is amazingly erudite and interesting. I have never read a bad book by him. This one is no exception. Though it is about China in one sense, it really concerns the reflection of China in the eyes of the West. From Marco Polo to Kafka, Borges and Calvino, Westerners have looked at China with fascination, but what they wrote about it mirrors either what they wanted to see or what their own culture predisposed them to see. Spence does not really say so, but it seems to me that this is natural for any people---if we examined Chinese writings on the West or Islamic writings on Southeast Asia for example---we would find the same trend. Anthropologists spend a lifetime trying to get beyond their own cultural concerns and prejudices but often fail. So, on our smoothly written and well-researched journey from the 13th century at Kublai Khan's court to the discourse on oriental despotism by Wittfogel in the 1950s, we run across numerous instances of travelers, writers, missionaries, soldiers, and merchants (not forgetting such philosophers as Liebniz and Montesquieu) who gazed at China--up close, from afar, or at the Chinese in their midst--and came to conclusions that, in the end, reflected themselves more than China itself. Only a few spoke Chinese or had access to Chinese people. Many tried to describe China for their readers, but it more than once reminded me of the Indian story about six blind men describing an elephant by touch. Others tried to draw moral lessons, or add their views to overarching theories of politics or human existence. All in all, it's a fascinating compilation of the history of Western knowledge about China, such a large chunk of the human race. It's also a monument to, not the Western, but the human predilection for summarizing, trying to collect disparate facts and amalgamate all of them into a single viewpoint. It seems to me that when you try to do this, you wind up with a mirror in which the main sight is your own face. China, for example, remains far more than the sum of what Westerners wrote about it. This is really a good book.
Profile Image for Tocotin.
761 reviews108 followers
July 25, 2015
Super interesting. It's divided by periods, starting from Marco Polo and his less-known predecessors and contemporaries, and deals with adventurers, explorers, merchants, missionaries and writers like Pierre Loti and Kafka. It's hard to put down, really, very accessible, funny too, although there is a lot of terrifying stuff. I didn't realize that China was so idealized by European intellectuals prior to the 19th century, but then when you think about all the chinoiserie, kiosks, pavilions, vases, yeah, absolutely - and it wasn't only art and fashion.
My fav person writing about China was a Spanish Dominican named Domingo Navarrete who, when Jesuits demanded an examination of his Tratados on China, marched to the office of the Inquisition with the book under his arm and suggested they burn both him and his work in the public square.
75 reviews
June 17, 2022


Profile Image for Nemo.
244 reviews
May 7, 2022
Definitely a well researched book, but it is also a dull book to read. It covers Western works talking of China, Chinese people, culture, and politics. From Marco Polo till today. From priests in Ming Dynasty to novelists like Kafka.

Actually this is a smart idea to generate a book. But:
1, it lacks something coherent when the book moves from one writer to another, with a rapidly shifting talking points. I may read a page about Nixon meeting Mao and next page it talks about a novel imagining the life of Qin Shihuang.
2, the book used way too many quotations and many whole paragraphs of original docs. So it makes the reading very tough to follow. And it won't let you learn much when you dredge through those pages after pages of original poems and novels and various artistically written stuff.

At least half of this book reads not like a history book at all, but like a literature analysis or appreciation course material.

I have to find its Chinese version to help finish the reading.
September 21, 2013
I love the approach he takes with this book. The various western perspectives if China, and the beliefs and experiences that led to them, are explained and examined. Excellent, intelligent writing.
Profile Image for Patrick.
422 reviews
February 25, 2018
I really could have used this book back when I was doing my first research project in the summer of 2013. Ironically, I bought this book that summer used on sale from an online seller. I never touched it until now, when it does not serve my interests anymore. Such is life.
Profile Image for Bryce Pinder.
216 reviews2 followers
April 27, 2018
Expected more of an anthropological view of China/West relations but this was a summary of western literature on China. It was hard to follow and difficult to draw out any meaning. Not helpful for learning about China or China/West relations.
Profile Image for Tsai Wei-chieh.
Author 5 books66 followers
March 17, 2022
Jonathan Spence, the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, is undoubtedly one of the most eminent storytellers of our era. He is concerned with not only the history of Late Imperial and Modern China, but also the relationship between East and West. Spence delivered the DeVane lectures at Yale University, a series of twelve speeches to popular audiences, in the spring of 1996. This book is an expanded and improved version based on this lecture. In this eye-opening book Spence attempts to show his readers how westerners developed their impressions of China over the past eight hundred years. The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds unfolds in twelve chapters and investigates a huge works of forty-eight “sightings” of China, including famous travelers, writers, playwrights, missionaries, diplomats, journalists, and philosophers. Some of them had been to China and took down some first-hand material. However, others encountered China only in their imaginations.

In this book, Spence has argued that firstly Western travelers, such as Marco Polo, regarded China as an advanced civilization. Later, after the Enlightenment, Western observers and writers about China tended to view China as corrupt, archaic and menacing. In the late nineteenth century, some Chinese migrants who came to the West in Western popular culture were depicted as a “jabbering idiot,” or “mental vacuum.” But other Chinese image was cunning, cruel, and evil, such as the character of Fu-Manchu. The polemical images may be seen as the ambivalence of Westerner’s attitude to Chinese migrants.

In the beginning of the twentieth century, Edgar Snow’s positive coverage of the Chinese Communist Party in Yan’an may reflectthat the Marxism was the hope of China. The Marxian analysis of Karl Wittfogel’s The Oriental Despotism, A Comparative Study of Total Power attempted to provide a great model to explain the historical development of China, like his predecessors Leibniz, Montesquieu, and Voltaire.

In this book Spence chose forty-eight representative figures culled from a number over one hundred similar ones. However, I am really interested in those omitted figures. They could be also quite important in this analysis. For example, when Spence mentioned the character of Fu-Manchu as a representative of nocuous and negative Chinese image, it could be a dread omission that he did not mention the other coexistent character in Western popular literature, Charlie Chan. He is a character created by Earl Derr Biggers in 1925. Charlie Chan is wise and courageous detective and could be a representative of a positive Chinese image different to Fu-Manchu.[1] Of course, Spence may omit this case because this is a compact book. However, if Spence put Charlie Chan in his analysis, the result could be quite different.

Furthermore, Spence has demonstrated how Westerner’s attitudes towards China in this book. However, it is unfortunate that it lacks the description that how Western perceptions of China changes Westerner’s viewpoints about the world around them. What is the changes of the West after encountering China?

In the end of this book, Spence cited a passage of Calvino’s Invisible Cities. In this passage, Kublai Khan asks Marco Polo: “When you return to the West, will he repeat to your people the same tales you tell me?” Marco Polo tells the Khan:

I speak and speak, but the listener retains only the words he is expecting…It is not the voice that commands the story: it is the ear.
This means that whatever Chinese speak the Westerners always hear what they want and what they are expecting. Because of this story, Spence argues that China does not need to fasten itself into Western minds. However, a further and practical question raise in my mind is how China need not attach itself to Western minds. After the Deng’s reform, China has more and more inclined towards a capitalist society and integrated itself into a globalization process. Western political and economic superiority cannot be ignored by China. Chinese indeed feel anxious in the age of globalization because they have to relocate their place and identity in the global society.[2] This question may be a little digressing and beyond the theme of Spence’s book. However, I think that this could be a question deserving serious discussions.

Taken together, despite such incompleteness, we cannot deny the great value and achievement of The Chan’s Great Continent. In this compact book Spence has shown his readers a broad historical horizon and his erudition. This book will not be an end of a lecture, but a beginning of further exploration of the interaction between East and West.

[1] Zhiqin Jiang 姜智芹, Fumanzhou yu chenchali 傅滿洲與陳查理 [Fu-Manchu and Charlie Chan]. Nanjing: Nanjing University Press, 2007.

[2] Xudong Zhang 張旭東, Quanqiuhua shidai de wenhua rentong 全球化時代的文化認同 [Cultural Identity in the Age of Globalization]. Beijing: Peking University Press, 2005.

Summer 2008
Profile Image for Tom.
192 reviews120 followers
August 2, 2007
This book was fascinating, Spence's erudition flowing from every page. Jonathan Spence, perhaps the Anglo world's foremost historian of China, chronicles perceptions of China in the West from Marco Polo's sometimes-precise, sometimes-fantastical travelogues of the late 13th century to the imaginative, infinitely expansive short stories of Borges and Calvino in the late 20th century. All the while, such figures as Franz Kafka, John Steinbeck, Jane Austen, Oliver Goldsmith, Lord Macartney, Karl Marx, Richard Nixon, Mark Twain, Bertolt Brecht, Catholic and Protestant missionaries, French poets (whom I can't remember), and many others have their own views to share.

As an amateur scholar of China myself, I felt as if Spence had taken me across a journey not of the last eight centuries, but of the last five years, when I first began my study of the vast country. The perceptions of China begin with fable, journey to exoticism, to realism, back to exoticism, to pity, to awe, to a longing for China's lost past, to literary appropriation, and ending with Calvino's realization (in a story based upon Marco Polo's position in the court of Kublai Khan) that we see in China what we want to see.

A hearty recommendation to anyone who wants a tour through China via Western intellectual history.
Profile Image for Wens Tan.
61 reviews5 followers
June 20, 2009
Interesting to read about how Western perception of China changed, from the times of Marco Polo / Kublai Khan (late 1200s) to Nixon / Mao. There was admiration for its stable societies and generous people, disdain at its stagnant development and ingenious imitation, wonder at the exotic and sensual, disapproval of its servility to the emperor, fear when immigrants poured in from the 1800s, nostalgia for the innocence after the materialist republic was established, but time and again, intrigue.

Spence is a Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, and author of award-winning books on Chinese history. This book takes us 700 years through biographies and literature. It's fascinating, but there were bits when it feels a little forced (e.g. Kafka's short story on China, which surely is hardly representative). There were also events and personages in history that were surprisingly left out, e.g. Opium War, emperors Kangxi & Qianlong; surely they would have made an impression on literature?

The evidence was mostly literary. Interesting in itself, but feels a little too one-sided sometimes in using that to account for the western view of china.
Profile Image for Jennifer Li.
44 reviews4 followers
January 3, 2008
I'm only on the 1st chapter but so far it's boooooooriiiing. Early descriptions of the Chinese by Europeans in the 13th c. are hilarious though: "The [Chinese] are a small race, who when speaking breathe heavily through the nose; and it is a general rule that all orientals have a small opening for the eyes." Meanwhile the Chinese were probably making fun of the Europeans' tall oafish stature, stinky b.o., big noses, and calling them uncouth barbarians unversed in the subtle ways of Chinese calligraphy and ink and brush painting(I'm guessing).
Profile Image for Andrés.
116 reviews
January 16, 2010
An excellent book with a rich bibliography for continued reading. It is initially (but not after further reflection) surprising how long China has figured in Western imaginations. Professor Spence describes well the different approaches made to China without imposing contemporary standards on their conclusion: an admirable objectivity.
Profile Image for Karl.
69 reviews1 follower
March 27, 2009
Another Jonathan Spence book. This one attempts to show the way that China has been percieved by "the west" from earliest historical references to present. If I remember correctly it begins with Marco Polo. It does a fairly good job, it's not particularly exciting but it was worth digesting.
170 reviews
November 14, 2011
Good, not great. Material that is probably interesting for people familiar with China, but simplified to be interesting for everyone. Never feels like the thesis is being developed beyond "we see what we want to see in China".
Author 15 books4 followers
May 14, 2008
Very good and well-written story of westerners going to China and interpreting it in their own ways. Learned a lot of new things.
1,697 reviews1 follower
September 2, 2011
The Chan's Great Continent was fairly written. Some parts were similiar to Julia Lovell's book about the 'Great Wall', but this was told from the Western perspective.
Profile Image for Jacob van Berkel.
152 reviews15 followers
July 19, 2018
DNF'd @ p.100

May be a fine book for what it is, but what it is is just not what I was looking for. I was hoping for the 'wider' image of China and its impact on European society, how much of a role the view of China played in the Enlightenment for instance, not just 'what Voltaire wrote about China'.

So while not incorrect, the subtitle could have been more precise:
China in very specific, individual western minds, without too much context
Displaying 1 - 22 of 22 reviews

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