Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
Jonathan Spence is author of numerous works about China and the West. His latest is "The Chan's Great Continent" (1998).
From the idea that there was one central key to Chinese language, it was a logical step to try to find a key to the whole society of China, to see if there was some single system that explained the country, just as knowledge of other systems explained the physical universe.
Jonathan Spence, "The Chan's Great Continent"
HB: Would you say that for Westerners China was the unWest?
HB: The New York Review of Books review of "The Chan's Great Continent" pointed out that some of the other alternatives to the West, other possible unWests, were deficient in some way: they were either antagonistic, like Islam, or insufficiently ancient, or so it seemed, like India. China could oppose the West or afflict the West's consciousness in unique ways because it was literate and ancient.
JS: That could be applied to Japanese culture as well. One could argue that in the sixteenth century both Japan and China were deeply admired, perhaps almost equally, probably because the Catholic Church was working equally hard in both places. In fact, in terms of conversion, the success in Japan was considerably higher than in China. Then the Japanese turned against the Christians, killed them, wiped out about 1600 of them. After that there was a backlash against Japan. And India was too daunting, too overwhelming to come to grips with as a unified culture. The sixteenth-century fascination with India faded and only really came to life again in the nineteenth century.
China had a special aura to it that for some reason we've been very tenacious about maintaining.
HB: You talk about Leibniz being fascinated by the hexagrams in "The Book of Changes" because it seemed to him they were examples of binary arithmetic. Wasn't that a peculiar attempt to grasp onto what was really a very alien phenomenon?
JS: The organization of the hexagrams themselves, in either a single line or a broken line, is a binary system. That's what I think he meant, not that the content of the hexagram was related in any way to mathematical science. And that's an example of self-recognition, there would have been a shock of recognition.
Obviously writing being from right to left and ideographic was a difference. One of the comments of those who aren't sure whether Marco Polo went to China is that he never mentions Chinese writing, never picks up on its oddity. Some people were so baffled by the things Polo did not mention that they put them ahead of what he did mention. Chinese writing was one of the things he did not comment on. Others have said maybe he never saw Chinese writing; maybe he just saw Mongol script, which is alphabetic.
HB: In "The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci" you write about a Jesuit who went to China in the sixteenth-century and demonstrated the use of memory palaces, highly visual ways of organizing and extending memory. That, in turn, pointed me to Frances Yates's book on memory palaces, "The Art of Memory".
JS: It's a magical book. Incidentally, I came into Boston today in a cab from Brookline, and almost right away the cabdriver, a black Canadian, started talking about Cicero. I said, "Oh, you're interested in Cicero," and he said, "Oh yes," and talked about Cicero's logic and legal theories and soon we were chatting about Cicero's theories of memory. I'm in a cab going down Commonwealth Avenue talking about mnemonics, thinking, only in Boston. Cicero was one of the great experts on mnemonic theory.
HB: A founding father. There's a resurgence of memory work now; there are schools that teach memory enhancement and claim to be able to slow down the effect of Alzheimer's.
JS: That's intriguing. Ricci tried to convert the Chinese to Western mnemonic theory but they preferred repetition and various kinds of rhyming and other popular forms of mnemonic art. They thought Ricci's structure too complicated.
HB: I see their point. Why should it be easier to remember a complex visual structure than, say, a list?
JS: Any Medieval theorist or Latin theorist would have said it has to do with the violence and sharpness of the images that we choose, whereas lists have long blank spots that provide no memory trigger. Ricci would have conjured startling images. Of course, the mind might get dulled, as we become dulled to filmic violence or televised sex. If you had a stream of sharp, violent images in your head, it may be they'd lose their specificity.
HB: I don't think anybody has tried using images, say, from "The Terminator" as mnemonics but it could work.
JS: There's enough differentiation between them. Maybe this technique peaked in the Renaissance because the architecture was so rich and full of niches and corners.
HB: Did it also matter that literacy was restricted, so a visual way of thinking could still be primary?
JS: There was an overlap with reading for about a century and a half, while the system was still in very high repute. There were a lot of different factors at work: buildings weren't torn down as they are now; buildings stayed there, so you could place your memory palace in a stable landscape. Ricci had an idea of order and stability along with the eccentricity of images, which is a silly-clever combination, I think.
HB: In what sense were the images eccentric?
JS: You chose something that would stand out because of its unlikeliness. It might be a person with a cloth cap and glasses stroking his beard, as you are, but in your other hand you might hold three dead geese by the neck because your name might Charley Gosling.
HB: Surrealistic juxtapositions.
JS: And the shock of moving from one image to another, which would be inconceivably different, like the Asian girl over there holding her orange juice but in her other hand she might have a spear like Athena's. Between the two of you I'd capture this moment of the conversation in mnemonic form. I'd think of you stroking your beard and holding three geese and of her with the juice and Athena's spear. That's all I'd need, those two images somewhere in a Boston room.
HB: It's tempting to say this might have been appropriate for China because writing, too, was a matter of pattern recognition, of graphics.
JS: That could be why the West thought it might be appropriate but it didn't take, though the Chinese remember so many written characters and that probably trains the mind in special ways. You started learning at four or five years of age and were learning a lot of characters every day by the time you were six. It was a remarkable form of memory training which had nothing to do with Western techniques.
HB: Is there any truth to the assumption that because China relied on ideographs rather than an alphabet, the imagination was different?
JS: You could argue there is something very tightly linked between painting and calligraphy or written work. The brush stroke to create an elegant written character is the brush stroke to be a good painter; those qualities were always intertwined. But there's a huge argument about whether the visual elements of a character had any influence on the writing of a poem or an essay. Many people would deny that the shaping of the written character had any effect on the meaning of a poem; you'd use the word that fit best, regardless of how it was written.
HB: What would Marshall McLuhan say? He argued that the alphabet trains us to think a in a linear fashion, and to isolate the visual from everything else.
JS: I think he would argue if you grow up with Chinese characters you were very aware of intersections between forms. There's no doubt you'd have a very strong sense of balance and order and a feeling for the organization of complex shapes.
HB: Does that extend to the way the Chinese think about society?
JS: One of the dominant preoccupations of Chinese society is a quest for order and some kind of social stability. China became a unified empire of great complexity and sophistication very early, in the late third-century BC, and from then on the top preoccupation was with finding order for such a vast polity. There's an intense, almost Manichean awareness of the disruptive forces lurking in society.
HB: Don't the Chinese see history as a patterned thing, as described, say, by "The Book of Changes"?
JS: Again, there's a lot of discussion on this. The easiest way to see Chinese history is in terms of cyclical rotations or sequences, and I think you could argue there was no compelling move toward an ultimate objective. Along with the cyclicality you could argue there was a recurrence of the forms of disruption and unity in creative tension. The Chinese view is also very pessimistic; you know when you're in a cycle of decline. I've always been fascinated by whether that effected your imagination and your very lifestyle. Were you were always reading the march of history to see if you'd passed that pinnacle point?
Other people would argue the quest for perfection in China is a constant, too, though some of the models for perfection were rooted in the past. You can say the West has a similar fascination with primitive myths, Garden of Eden myths, myths about tranquility in the presence of the Lord. The Chinese vision was of peace on earth ruled over by men, benevolent men who understand the essential principles of harmony, good order and decency, and through whose example other men and women could live in peace and decency as well. I think every literate Chinese person would regard such a state as having existed somewhere in the past, so your life and your dynasty would be a nostalgic quest. It's a forceful vision of earthly perfection. You believe you can reach it through historical study, as well. That's why there was such reverence for certain early texts where the clues to this universe where believed to lie. That's what makes the love of the classics poignant in China. Obviously sage rulers are created to fit that urge for early perfection.
HB: Is that a way of understanding Mao? Was he a revolutionary or the founder of a dynasty, or could he be both?
JS: Mao has aspects of a millenarian thinker, in terms of total transformation of existing system. But it's a strange blend he created. He managed to create an imperial lifestyle for himself in the midst of the communist society. The current fascination with Mao as an emperor is not completely wide of the mark. In terms of his isolation and his feeling that he was beyond the reach of criticism and that his personal life was entirely at his own whim he had an affinity to certain emperors of the past. He told this to his own people and to visitors from the West after the 1960s.
HB: I'm sure they loved hearing it. Nixon would much rather be dealing with an emperor than with a peasant revolutionary.
JS: Absolutely. That's why I put Nixon and Kissinger in the book; they represent a continuation of the feelings of awe and respect for the power of China that come in right at the beginning of the story. It's rather intriguing to find such tough cold war warriors caught up in this world, and brought to it partly by Andre Malraux, of all the unlikely guides. Malraux's briefing of Nixon before the '72 visit is a strange amalgam of what I call the French exotic and this vision of the central powerful imperial figure.
HB: One of the things that comes through in the book is that the West's attempts to understand China tell us a lot about the West.
JS: Absolutely, and reflect the preoccupations of the West.
HB: What struck me most about your presentation of Pound, for example, was his falsifying Confucius/Kung in one crucial story in order to make the sage more liberal than he really was. He has Confucius say there are many answers to a question. Confucius becomes a pluralist.
JS: In Pound's version, Confucius agrees with all his disciples. In the original, he says, "I agree with X."
HB: You show that one of the chief elements of the West's critique of China was that China allowed too little individual liberty. For all of Pound's fascist politics, it seemed he, too, needed to make Confucius more democratic than he was.
JS: In the original text, Confucius speaks out against too much practicality. Maybe Pound did not like that either. In the later Cantos Pound just replicates Chinese historical texts, and to me, at least, the Cantos get more boring as he gives himself less and less room for maneuver. And somehow we get his making an accord between Confucius and Mussolini.
HB: The man who sets things aright?
JS: It's efficiency, isn't it, fascination with efficiency. Confucius becomes the one who makes trains run on time.
HB: The poet Bill Knott calls Pound the poet "who made the quatrains run on time."
JS: That's good. So Confucius becomes an efficiency model.
HB: You don't include Pound in the last chapter, where you deal with three great twentieth-century fictions about China: Kafka's "The Great Wall of China," Borges's "The Garden of Forking Paths," and Calvino's "Invisible Cities ."
JS: The genius I'd put there ahead of Pound would be Elias Canetti, who wrote "Tower of Babel," and "Auto-da-f'e", which is a sublimely good novel, and a terrifying novel. It's steeped in Chinese imagery. It's about someone studying China, about the force of Mencius and Confucius, and terror of the emperor who burns the books. With more time, I would have loved to have incorporated Canetti.
HB: Borges's uses China as a way of imagining multiple possibilities for being.
JS: That story for me is completely brilliant and can be read in endless ways. In my book I read it rather literally as a representation of China's endless possibility, and yet for Borges the greatest representation of those possibilities is in the fiction about China by a Chinese. Borges turns his explanation of the Chinese novel into an investigation of the tracks of memory and narrative.
HB: Why do three such powerful fictions, maybe the best writings about China ever, occur in the twentieth-century?
JS: None of those writings would be possible without the antecedents. Each of those stories builds on other representations; they are from within a literary tradition.
HB: They are culminating in some sense?
JS: I saw them that way, but then again I find it very hard to think of anything better than those three. As I tried to say very briefly -- everything is very brief in this book -- Kafka does the sense of power and authority perfectly in his story. The idea of endless variety and indeterminacy is perfect in the Borges story. And then with Calvino we get the circularity of memory and the evasiveness that we all confront in our inner selves.
HB: And Calvino makes explicit the way that the West's rendering of China is reflective of the West itself. Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan that what he says about other cities is his way creating a portrait of Venice.
JS: To me, that was perfect. I was unable to think of a better ending for my book than that, unable to improve on it with some solemn few paragraphs at the end. Essentially I spoke through Calvino in the last paragraph and then felt I'd better just stop.
HB: Why did you dedicate "The Chan's Great Continent" to Harold Bloom?
JS: We've been friends since the '70s, and I think one gets ready to dedicate a book to a friend. This book happened to cover a lot of ground, though none of it, I'm afraid, with the depth and the verve that Harold can give to his literary studies. It is an historian's attempt to move in and out of some of the zones that fascinate him. There were poets, religious thinkers, dramatists, novelists, prose writers of considerable subtlety -- some of the kinds of writers Harold loves studying and declaiming about. This book seemed to fit his fun in reading.
HB: Some years ago I saw an exhibit of Chinese rocks. The Chinese had categories for describing what they liked in a rock, wrinkling being one of the categories. It seemed, for the Chinese, natural things can be art as well.
JS: They can be shaped. That is what fascinated the West about the Chinese garden; that's why Chinese gardening concepts had such importance in eighteenth-century Europe. The Chinese had the idea of allowing a natural landscape to be played with, to be shifted and trained, without losing something wild about itself. In Western gardens, this was transformed onto an unimaginably large scale, as in the great British country houses, and the French chateaux. In China, the artifice was to make a universe out of a small place. Wrinkled rocks could bring mountains into a small courtyard, large by Chinese standards -- say forty feet by eighty feet -- but minuscule compared to the eighteenth-century manorial estate.
In such an enclosed space, especially if a stream could tumble down over the wrinkled rocks, you had a genuine microcosm of the world outside; you were bringing that world to your own walls, not dominating it but making it a partner. You could look at it, listen to it, sit with it. This was a form of the contemplation of nature in a domestic setting. I think the Chinese were geniuses at this.
HB: If you consider geomancy, you get another level of interweaving between human constructs and nature: the architecture has to fit into the larger natural pattern.
JS: And that's why disruptions of the natural pattern on a massive scale were such a nightmare to the Chinese. The things the Chinese most hated about the West in the nineteenth century were telegraph lines and railways.
HB: You've documented some of the Western views of China. It would be interesting to know the Chinese views of the West.
JS: China itself has revulsion/attraction components towards the West. And I've done some work on Chinese who came to the West in the 18th century.
HB: Your book, "The Question of Hu", is about one such traveler.
JS: That's right. Hu one of my favorite travelers.
HB: But Hu remains difficult to know.
JS: In the book, and in real life, I think, difficult to know. Hu had very complex defenses and rejected much of what he saw. As a practicing Catholic, he was shocked by the worldliness of the West. I think he thought the West would be more godly, and he found it a fraught and sinful place.