ABSTRACT

It has become a cliché to repeat: knowledge is strength and power. But since “a little learning is a dangerous thing,” in many circumstances, biased and distorted knowledge is no better than ignorance. In some circumstances, manipulated knowledge is worse still, for it arouses mistrust, fear, and even hatred, which may bring about strife, conflict, and war. This has been true in cross-cultural exchanges, especially in the intercourses between China and the West over history. Since the first direct contact between Europe and China in the thirteenth century, there has existed a long-lasting ambition to formulate comprehensive views, theories, and paradigms that attempt to account for the vast knowledge about Chinese history, language, literature, art, religion, thought, and people, vis-à-vis the West. But for various reasons the West’s perceptions, conceptions, generalizations, and evaluations tend to be detached from the real conditions of Chinese culture and society. As though reflected in a distorting mirror, China in Western views has almost always been presented as being either larger or smaller than itself, never showing its right size and proper image. The almost inevitable distortion takes polarized forms: the benign one of admiration, appreciation, and idealization, and the malignant one of exoticization, denigration, and demonization. As a consequence, over the centuries, the West’s view of China always tends to oscillate from one extreme to another, seldom producing an accurate picture. In Western representations, China has been viewed as an ideal kingdom on earth where its rulers were wise sage-kings and its inhabitants lived in peace, harmony, and affluence, while in the characterization by other Westerners, China was a living hell where rulers were Oriental despots and its people were nothing but pitiable slaves. Great thinkers who reflected on China’s history and society gave confident prophecies about China’s development, which invariably turned out to be unfulfilled. Even the so-called China experts often produce conflicting representations of China and send out contradictory messages about China’s future that have bewildered the world at large. This disconcerting situation is adequately reflected in the recent and ongoing debates about the present day China’s economy and future. At one pole we find a most gloomy picture of China and its future in some China experts’ descriptions. Gordon Chang, a US China expert of Chinese ethnic origin published in

2001 a book on the bestseller list, The Coming Collapse of China. In it, he paints an utterly dismal view of China’s political and economic future and confidently predicts the imminent implosion of the Chinese economy and government.1 At the other pole we see eminent economists and China experts resolutely refuting Chang’s analysis and frankly dismissing his prediction as sheer fantasy. Contrary to Chang’s pessimistic view, they predict that China’s economy will continue to grow at a fast pace and China will catch up with the industrialized West in 25 years and surpass the US by 2050. Ted C. Fishman’s book, China, Inc. represents this opposing view. The subtitle “How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World” captures a forcefully made assertion repeated by many China watchers that the twenty-first century will be the “Chinese Century.”2 Most disconcerting of all, the same China experts may express entirely opposite views on the same issue concerning China in a short period of time. In 1995 Lester R. Brown, director of the Worldwatch Institute in the US, published a book, Who Will Feed China?3 Employing carefully designed economic models, he studied the data on China’s food production and consumption in relation to the conditions of the international food market and drew a sensational conclusion: China will not be able to feed its increasingly large population, thereby posing a non-military threat to world peace and stability. But recently, Brown changed his view and admitted that China has been and will continue to be able to feed its people.4 The ongoing economic downturn that sweeps across the world gives new impetus to the “China Will Collapse” prediction. At the beginning of 2010 Gordon Chang published an article with the title, “China: the world’s next great economic crash,” and made this alarming prediction: “Like Dubai at the beginning of last year, China is now reaching the peak of a bubble.”5 His prediction was echoed by James S. Chanos, who accurately forewarned the collapse of Enron and other high-flying US companies. Chanos is more pessimistic about the Chinese economy: he predicted that China’s hyper-stimulated economy is headed for a crash which will be worse than that of Dubai.6 The contradictory images of China, and conflicting views of Chinese civilization, are so diverse and so numerous that there have appeared a fairly large number of studies devoted to this topic, which include, among others, Raymond S. Dawson’s The Chinese Chameleon: An Analysis of European Conceptions of Chinese Civilization (1963),7 Steven W. Mosher’s China Misperceived: American Illusions and Chinese Reality (1990),8 Xin Jianfei’s The World’s Perceptions of China: A History of the Knowledge about China over the Past Two Thousand Years (1991),9 Julie Ching and Willard Oxtoby’s Discovering China: European Interpretations in the Enlightenment (1992),10 Adrian Hsia’s Chinesia: The European Construction of China in the Literature of the 17th and 18th Centuries (1998),11 Jonathan Spence’s Chan’s Great China: China in Western Minds (1998),12 Colin Mackerras’s Western Images of China (2000),13 Rupert Hodder’s In China’s Image: Chinese Self-Perception in Western Thought (2000),14 David Martin Jones’s The Image of China in Western Social and Political Thought (2001),15 Zhou Ning’s The Early Encounters and Conflicts between China and

the West (2000); China’s Images in Western Theory, Scholarship and Legends (2004); Imagining China (2004); China in the Eyes of the World: A Study of China’s Images Abroad (2009),16 and most recently, Wang Hui’s The Politics of Imaginging Asia (2011).17 This study has no intention to add another account of China’s images in the world through history to the already numerous existing “China image” studies. It intends to look behind the dazzling images for the motivating logic. I argue that the contradictory images of China, and conflicting views of Chinese culture, reveal deep-seated problems in the Western and the world’s knowledge production concerning China. In their approach to Chinese civilization most Western thinkers and scholars tend to start their inquiry armed with preconceived notions about China in terms of Western knowledge and perspective, and studies of Chinese materials tend to be used as data to confirm or disconfirm the correctness of the preconceptions. Except for a few far-sighted personages, a majority of scholars, and the public, seem to be unaware of the necessity to modify their preformulated notions, or unwilling to extricate themselves from their imagined and fictionalized accounts of China. In some cases, if the Chinese conditions do not support their notions, they will remold the Chinese materials so as to fit them into the Procrustean bed of Western conceptions and imaginations. One frequently encounters Westerners who can express opinions on China, make generalizations about Chinese society, and pass judgments on Chinese things on very meager direct observations of Chinese materials, and still insist on the correctness of their views. This is found not only among the general public but also among thinkers, scholars, and even China specialists: from Montesquieu, Rousseau, Hegel, Marx, Weber, Herder, and Russell, to Sinologists, China observers, news reporters, businessmen, visitors to China, and ordinary people. As John Fairbank, one of the great Sinologists in modern history, rightly observed long ago:

Western man since Marco Polo has not stopped trying to comprehend Chinese ways. Yet the writers of each generation, whether philosophers of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment or exemplars of the treaty-port mind, have viewed Chinese civilization with a large degree of subjectivity.18