Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

April 26, 2007

Review: The Chan’s Great Continent, by Jonathan Spence

Filed under: China, Images, My research, Publications, Reading, Writing — amyjaneb @ 4:02 pm

Not so much a review as a brief summary perhaps?  I started reading this book about six weeks ago, but had a three-week break from it, so I can’t write a particularly coherent review at present, especially as I have’t yet written up my notes.  But here are a few thoughts that immediately occur to me.

I really enjoy Spence’s style of writing.  Intelligent, but not overly academic, this is the sort of book which would make good bedtime reading.  It is the result of a series of lectures that Spence gave at Yale University in 1996, which perhaps accounts for the almost conversational style.  Beginning with Marco Polo and ending with Nixon’s visit to China, Spence surveys the history of western literary reflections on China, drawing links between accounts through time and showing the continuation and development of some central ideas about China and Chineseness, which have characterised Western imaginings of China from the earliest contact.   

Of course, he writes about lots of characters and texts which I have already come across, but highlights a few others I wasn’t so aware of.  The book is particularly strong, I feel, on twentieth century writings about China and I can imagine I will refer to it frequently as I begin to write my background chapter on the first part of the twentieth century (up to the declaration of the PRC in 1949).  Planning a structure for that section is next on my ‘to do’ list.

I may have some more comments to make after I have typed up my notes, but in the meantime, I’ll conclude this rather brief and insubstantial review here, by stating that The Chan’s Great Continent is an excellent introduction to literary imaginings about China in the West, and well worth a read.

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