Visions of Paradise

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Chinese Roundabout

China is one of my major interests, for reasons too complex to go into here, and my two main “teachers” in this field of study are Jonathan Spence and Howard Goldblatt. Spence is a professor at Yale University who has spent his entire career studying and writing about China. He first became interested in China during his undergraduate days, and that love has been his life's work in the decades since. I have several books by Spence in my collection, including his masterwork The Search for Modern China and his study of the 19th century Taiping Rebellion entitled God's Chinese Son.

For somebody with a moderate interest in Chinese history and culture, one of the best places to begin is Spence’s fascinating collection of essays Chinese Roundabout. It is a far-ranging collection divided into such sections as Crossing the Cultures, The Confucian Impulse, Sinews of Society, and After the Empire. The essays themselves are basically introductions to some fascinating people, both Chinese and Western, who were important either to China itself or to the West's relationship with China.

Crossing the Cultures features articles on Chinese people who have studied in the West as well as westerners who have visited China. My favorite essays in this section concern Matteo Ricci and Sidney Gamble.

Ricci was a sixteen century Jesuit whose goal was converting Asia to Catholicism. Like most Europeans of that era, the Jesuits' opinions of Asians was so narrow-minded as to be bigoted. First they tried to convert India before despairing of those people and turning their attention to Japan which they eventually despaired of as well. Finally Ricci entered China where he remained for nearly thirty years until his death in 1610. Spence's article is a fascinating look at missionary work in the face of European condescension towards a totally alien culture.

Sidney Gamble was an early Twentieth Century photographer / sociologist who made four extensive trips through China ranging from the dying years of the Qing Dynasty through the Japanese occupation. His views were much more open-minded than those of the Jesuits, resulting in several important books on the study of Chinese society.

The first essay under The Confucian Impulse is entitled "The Seven Ages of K'ang-hsi" and is a brief, but fascinating look at a man who became emperor of China in 1661 at the age of 7 and ruled until 1722 when he was 68 years of age. According to Spence, K'ang-hsi (whose name is Kangxi in the modern pinyin method of translating Chinese characters into English letters) was considered a great emperor both by the Chinese record, by the Jesuit records sent back from China at the time, and by the standards of Spence himself. This essay is a splendid introduction to the career of Kangxi. Spence ends the essay by stating that the reign of Kangxi "is the very latest point at which a study of modern China should begin."

Another fascinating figure was Chang Po-hsing, subject of "Collapse of a Purist". Chang was an early eighteenth century scholar and philanthropist who at the age of 48 attracted the interest of the emperor. Chang was forced to accept influential government positions such as governor of Kiangsu Province, for which he was both unqualified and disinterested. How Chang coped with the stress of such jobs, ultimately becoming an acute paranoid, is the subject of one of the most fascinating articles about the peter principle that I have ever read.

Chinese Roundabout is absolutely loaded with fascinating historical characters in a living, breathing culture so different from western culture. And Spence is a fabulous tour guide, ably blending historical scholarship with deft storytelling. This book is highly recommended.


  • Your comments regarding the Chinese Roundabout are quite instructive and I will pursue the authors you mentioned.
    I have lived in Asia for several years and my wife is currently publishing a Portuguese version of the Strange Tales from Make-Do Studio by Pu SongLing, a scholar born in 1640 in HANDONG PROVINCE.
    Any information about the cultural environment you may have concerning that period and locale would be appreciated.
    My e mail is

    By Blogger Pierre T, At 8:02 AM  

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