- Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245–1510 by Kim M. Phillips
In this book, Kim M. Phillips creates a cultural history that seeks to redefine current understandings of transnational encounter through a close study of travel in the late medieval period. She limits her examination to the areas now known as Mongolia, China, and Southeast Asia. Phillips’ argument centres on the ways in which European travel to these regions of the world during the late medieval period differed from travel to ‘‘the Holy Land and surrounding regions’’ (1). As a result, her contribution to the field is to move the scholarship beyond the over-simplification of encounters between a monolithic ‘‘east’’ and ‘‘west’’ that seem in perpetual conflict with one another toward a more vibrant discussion about the nuances of these encounters. She argues that, rather than imperial endeavours, ‘‘desire for information and for pleasure were two chief impulses guiding late medieval readers’ interest in travel writing on Asia’’ (2). Through her close examination of travel writings in this period, Phillips offers a comprehensive study that illuminates various examples in support of her discussion.
Phillips begins her study with a refreshing reflection on Edward Said’s Orientalism (New York, 1978). While Phillips joins in the recent criticisms of Said’s book, she also reminds her readers that ‘‘Said’s concept has had wide utility and application when treated as a tool for interpreting certain western representations of subjected cultures, especially in literature and the visual arts’’ (16). Her discussion of Said’s work — a great strength in her book — notes that while medievalists have interrogated Said’s claims in the context of Latin Christendom’s treatment of Islamic societies, current scholarship fails to consider the relationship of the former to other Asian regions. If we consider this dynamic, Phillips suggests, we may see how Said’s position that the existence of ‘‘a distinction between an authentic geographical location and its ideological construction in western representations’’ (16) emerges within late medieval travel writing. Stories about the ‘‘wonders’’ of the orient or the existence of monsters seeped into travellers’ consciousnesses, becoming ‘‘the object(s) of European horror, pleasure, or admiration’’ for readers of travel writing (20).
Phillips works diligently throughout her text to demonstrate how these responses to existing beliefs about the orient — particularly regions in the Far East — did not result in or create imperial motives. In the same chapter ‘‘On Orientalism,’’ Phillips discusses how, contrary to the British explorers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, ‘‘[m]edieval travelers and pseudo-travelers rarely lumped diverse oriental cultures together or resorted to overarching caricatures’’ (22). She offers examples to this end throughout her book. The chapter ‘‘Food and Foodways’’ discusses how certain staples in a country’s cuisine depended largely on availability, as [End Page 421] in John of Plano Carpini’s assessment of the infertility of Mongolian lands and subsequent absence of fruits (75). Rather than state this fact for a proto-colonialist objective, Phillips explains, Carpini and other writers often shared details with their readers or alerted them to the wonders of the region for the readers’ enjoyment and general education.
But even as Phillips distances herself from the overgeneralizations in current discussions about orientalism and transnational encounter, her work often suffers from the same problem she critiques. To be sure, her research is thorough and the conclusions she draws from this extensive work contribute to an established move in scholarship to recuperate the voices of figures traditionally categorized as eastern. However, in her attempt to do so, she tends to dismiss moments that might refute her overarching claim. One such moment appears in her chapter ‘‘Bodies,’’ where she argues that ‘‘bodily features are important but not necessarily primary in precolonial travel writing on the far Orient’’ (173). She then cites examples of ‘‘negative thirteenth-century imagery of Mongols’’ that guided travel writers’ depictions of this group, including descriptions comparing them to monkeys, calling them ‘‘people of Satan,’’ and depicting the women...