Image of Photo of Dr Frances Wood and image of frontispiece of The General History of China by P. Du Halde

The lure of China: writers from Marco Polo to J.G. Ballard

The China Centre lecture on Wednesday 3 November 2021 was delivered by Dr Frances Wood, former Curator of Chinese collections, the British Library, and member of the steering committee of the International Dunhuang Project.

Dr Frances Wood’s lecture examined a range of western literature that has taken China as its subject matter. China has fascinated western writers since the publication of Marco Polo’s famous Travels. Dr Wood presented an array of evidence which suggests that Marco Polo did not in fact travel to China, including the absence of references to tea, chopsticks or the Great Wall, as well as the lack of reference to Marco Polo in Chinese sources. She proceeded to analyse the work of Jesuits writing on China, of which the most famous is Fr. du Halde’s voluminous account of the country. The Jesuits had a deep influence on European perceptions of China during the Enlightenment.

There followed detailed consideration by Dr Wood of the writings associated with the McCartney Mission to China in 1792-4. Dr Wood analysed perceptions of late eighteenth China contained in McCartney’s diaries as well as those of McCartney’s valet, Aeneas Anderson. The later set of diaries recorded detailed accounts of daily life in China.

Dr Wood turned next to consider the writings of 19th English diplomats, who ‘treated China as an extension of England’, ‘shot every animal in sight’ and ‘ravaged the Chinese countryside like a group of drunken louts’. She summarised the extensive western travel and scientific exploration literature on China written in the 1920s and 1930s, including Sven Hedin, Aurel Stein, Mildred Cable and Francesca French. She provided a detailed analysis of western novels and short stories set in inter-war China, including Somerset Maugham and Andre Malraux. Dr Wood next discussed the extensive genre of twentieth century novels set in China, by female authors including Ann Bridge, Stella Benson and Nora Waln. She concluded her survey with an examination of J.G.Ballard’s novel, ‘Empire of the Sun’, which was set in Shanghai under Japanese occupation.

The Q&A included the following issues: Bertrand Russell’s writings on China; the socio-economic background of western writers in China; the capabilities of different writers to convey an authentic feel for Chinese reality; the contrast between western fiction and non-fiction writing on China; and the reasons for the dearth of western novels on China written during the era of ‘reform and opening-up’.

Dr Frances Wood studied Chinese at Cambridge, graduating in 1971, spent a year as a worker-peasant-soldier student in Peking (1975-6) and wrote a PhD on traditional domestic architecture of Peking (University of London). She was curator of the Chinese collections in the British Library and amongst her books are Chinese Illustration (1986), Did Marco Polo go to China?(1996),The Blue Guide to China (2002), The Silk Road (2003), No Dogs and Not Many Chinese: Treaty Port life in China 1843-1943(1998), Hand Grenade Practice in Peking (2000) and Betrayed Ally: China in the Great War (2016).