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Biography 26.3 (2003) 501-504

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Nicholas Clifford. "A Truthful Impression of the Country": British and American Travel Writing in China, 1880-1949. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001. 239 pp. ISBN 0-472-11197-3, $39.50.

China has long held a privileged place in travelers' imaginations. Its aura of mystery and untold riches endured through the eighteenth century, but as industrialization and empire building took hold in the West, travelers found China compelling for its combination of ancient civilization and contemporary backwardness. That combination forms the basis for the view of China in Nicholas Clifford's "A Truthful Impression of the Country," which studies the changing response to China in travel accounts from the last quarter of the [End Page 501] nineteenth century to the Communist revolution of 1949. Clifford is specific about what his book is not. It is not a study of images of China, or of the travelers themselves, or the influences that shaped their point of view. Clifford maintains that "political and ideological presuppositions" control the discourse about China. Excluding feminism from such discourse, he claims that the changing view of China arises from "generations," not gender. The intent of "A Truthful Impression of the Country" is an objective reporting of travelers' observation of China. The value of this objectivity is based on the assumption that travelers sought out experiences aimed at understanding the true nature of Chinese culture and people, thus giving the travelers' observations an authenticity that journalists and professional sinologists failed to achieve. Tracing these observations over seven decades, Clifford finds a correlation between travelers' views and the progress of Western politics and ideology.

To develop his argument, Clifford takes an expansive approach. He includes the writings of twenty-four British and fourteen United States travelers who visited China, starting with Constance Gordon Cumming's tour of the treaty ports in 1878-79, and ending with reports from Yan'an up to 1949. The writers represent a wide variety—from conventional travelers to merchant-residents and expatriates, including Eliza Scidmore, Archibald Little, and Agnes Smedley, and both little known writers and established literary figures, including Alicia Little and W. H. Auden. Breadth of scope also appears in the geographical view of China—from north to south, from Tianjin to Guangzhou; from east to west, Shanghai to Chengdu; and from urban to rural China. Finally, the investigation considers the travel writings in the context of the political movements from the 1880s to the conflict between the nationalists and the communists.

The organizational method used in "A Truthful Impression of the Country" integrates a chronological and topical approach to demonstrate a changing pattern in views of China over time. In "China Left Behind," Clifford shows that at the end of the nineteenth century the "authentic" view of China is on the whole rather negative: a China "left behind" philosophically and culturally. Travelers saw the signs of ancient civilization marked by dirt and decay, and their experiences at a dirty inn or witnessing medieval cruelties is deemed verification of the "real" China. Because travelers tended to focus on the China that could be understood through sensory experience, they failed to notice signs of change: the social and political transformations occurring in the treaty ports, and the restructuring of various institutions. They all but ignored the abolition of the Chinese civil service examination system in 1905, a system that earlier had provided an inspiration and model for the British civil service examination. [End Page 502]

In successive chapters, Clifford traces changes in the commentary on several themes introduced in the first chapters, including conditions of travel, life in the treaty ports, responses to China's antiquities, the Chinese character, and cultural phenomena. Travelers' complaints about China address a similar range of topics during the whole of the period studied. At the end of the nineteenth century, Clifford notes, travelers' focus on China's shortcomings is a thinly disguised rationalization of the imperialist agenda, but their willingness to accept China on its own terms, denoted by using Chinese place...


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