Cogs and Wheels: The material culture of revolutionary China

May 4, 2007

Review: Asia in Western Fiction

Filed under: China, Images, My research, Publications, Reading — amyjaneb @ 12:15 pm

Asia in Western Fiction
Robin W. Winks and James R. Rush (eds.)
Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 1990

So, I’ve just finished reading and making notes on the above, which is a useful survey of western literature which deals with Asia.  The particular sections I was interested in were Jonathan Spence’s ‘Chinese Fictions’ and C. Mary Turnbull’s ‘Hong Kong:  Fragrant harbour, city of sin and death’.  Both chapters deal predominantly with fiction from the early twentieth century.

The basis of Spence’s paper are six genres of western fiction dealing with China, which he identifies as:

  • The Chinese in China, i.e. works like Buck’s The Good Earth
  • Westerners in China
  • Overseas Chinese, which included characters like Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan
  • China as a focus for a political statement, i.e. literature that uses China as a mirror upon which to reflect the ills of western society – a continuation of a theme which has existed since the Enlightenment in western Europe.
  • Scholars of China
  • Internal Chinas

In this article Spence contributes little more than that already covered in The Chan’s Great Continent (in fact this paper predates the later and, perhaps, represents the initial phase of research that culminated in his book).  But he offers a useful way of thinking about western image-making of China in the first half of the twentieth century;  each genre appears to correlate with discrete sets of images of China.

Turnbull’s chapter focuses on Hong Kong, and particularly literature that takes as its theme ‘Westerners in China’, to coin one of Spence’s genre descriptors.  Inevitably, images of China act as a foil for Britain and the foreign inhabitants of the colony.  She argues that during the twentieth century, Hong Kong (which is, to be fair, out of the scope of my thesis for a range of reasons) was largely utilised as a trope for debauchery, crime and espionage.   Nationalist and later Communist China exists as a spectre of ‘otherness’ on the horizon.  Incidentally, Turnbull discusses W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, an adaptation of which is currently screening in cinemas (and on my ‘to watch’ list).



  1. Hi Amy,
    You’ve obviously been getting on well with your reading – I’m impressed. I was just wondering if you’d seen this radio 4 series about the Chinese in Britain:

    Comment by marystevens — May 4, 2007 @ 3:28 pm

  2. Um – well, hardly! But I’m glad I’m giving that impression. 😉

    Nope, I haven’t seen that radio series. Will check it out. Thanks!

    Comment by amyjaneb — May 4, 2007 @ 4:44 pm

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