Books / Reviews

First glimpses of a new world

by David Burleigh

THE LURE OF CHINA: Writers From Marco Polo to J.G. Ballard, by Frances Wood. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2009, 283 pp., £19.99 (hardcover)

Not many readers follow the adventures of Robinson Crusoe as far as China, or even realize he went there. But the first volume of the famous story was such a success that author Daniel Defoe quickly wrote a second volume the same year, 1719, which took the protagonist to China. It was natural in some ways that China should provide the exotic and interesting locale for the second tale, since it was by that time a rich part of the Western imagination, known from the writings of Marco Polo and other travelers.

Frances Wood, who is curator of the Chinese collections at the British Library in London, begins her book, “The Lure of China,” with the earliest accounts of China, explaining how descriptions of “its splendour created legendary Cathay” (the ancient sobriquet for China that is nowadays only retained in the name of the Hong Kong-based airline and a few hotels).

The first missionaries and travelers wrote about it with enthusiasm and bewilderment at the variety of fruits, the curious objects used in daily life, the beauty of the arts, the luxury of imperial life, and the strangeness of the language.

No longer a legendary country by the time of Crusoe’s sojourn, but known by its present name as the source of “China ware,” it was still in some degree fantastic. By the late 18th century, when European governments had begun to send emissaries to China, any firsthand account, “whether written by a foot soldier, valet or an official, was, in a Europe already fascinated by the East, guaranteed to sell.”

Some things, like porcelain and tea, became essential parts of European life, while others, like wheelbarrows with sails, provided imagery for poets, like the 17th century’s John Milton.

In her lively exploration of a broad range of visitors to China, Wood is both witty and perceptive. She finds evidence that the novelist Somerset Maugham was “sensitive to beauty, and keen to understand the Chinese aesthetic,” though he is more often noted for his colonial associations. She also introduces us to once-popular female fiction writers, characterful women like Stella Benson who “managed to get a British colonel to turn his yacht round in Hong Kong harbor so that she could rescue a beetle stranded on a floating hamper.”

Not everyone was so sympathetic: The French poet Paul Claudel, although a diplomat, thought the Chinese were “rats” with “protruding teeth and pitiless eyes.”

It was another modern French writer, Andrz Malraux, who put Shanghai on the literary map with his novel “Man’s Fate,” even though he went there only briefly. He did, however, spend some time in prison in Cambodia “for stealing Buddhist sculptures from Angkor Wat,” before he went on to become the French minister of culture.

The British writers W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood are praised for their varied and valuable encounters, especially in Shanghai, during a visit to China in the 1930s to report on the war.

While providing fair assessments, Wood shows an eye for the incongruous and amusing detail. The Hungarian-born explorer Aurel Stein “prepared meticulously against all eventualities, even ordering a special Kashmiri coat for his dog, who slept at night in Stein’s bed, drank tea in the desert and by day sometimes rode on a camel.” The American writer Ernest Hemingway’s donkey was so small that “it looked as if it had six legs” when he sat upon it, and when it eventually collapsed “he picked it up and carried it.”

What the travelers brought back was just as important as anything they saw, and there are some delightful tales here of writer-collectors. We learn that “the earliest known surviving example of Chinese porcelain” brought to Western Europe is today in Ireland, while “some 80 percent of England’s garden flowers originated in China.”

Many writers were enthralled by the “pigeon flutes” fastened to hapless birds that lent music to the sky above old Peking, a sound no longer heard, though the flutes are shown in pictures.

This informative and entertaining book makes one eager to rediscover favorite authors, or investigate some new ones, and the annotations give ample bibliographic pointers. Jonathan D. Spence covered much of the same ground in his intellectual history, “The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds” (1998), while Frances Wood offers more popular writers, and a vivid sense of the personalities involved.