The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus once observed that “seekers for gold dig much earth, but find little gold.”
When the British ambassador, Lord Macartney, presented himself before the Chinese emperor Qianlong in 1793, he exhibited, along with his Chinese hosts, the classic “disconnect” between the two cultures which Michael Keevak discusses in his excellent study of embassies to China. “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance,” Qianlong told Macartney, “therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own products.”
“Once you have decided to have your photograph taken,” Matsuzaki Shinji wrote in 1886, “you should clean your entire person, comb your hair, shave your face (while those with long beards should wash them thoroughly), and take care that no dirt is attached to the face or the rest of your body.” He followed this up with twenty-five more “dos and don’ts” for the customer.
Arabia Felix: Happy Arabia. Who wouldn’t want to go there and find out why it was such a happy place? In fact, in 1761 not that many Europeans were going there, which left an opening for the culturally and scientifically minded king of Denmark, Frederik V, to make a name for himself and his country by supporting a Danish expedition to that fortunate land. New scientific discoveries could be there for the making and new accurate maps drawn, as well as a chance to prove some of the stories told about Moses and the Israelites; could they have left inscriptions as they fled from Egyptian persecution, writings which might be transcribed by a competent philologist?
It might be thought that all that can be said about earlier European contacts with India has been said, and that no further interesting approach to the study of those contacts could be developed. Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s Europe’s India: Words, People, Empires 1500-1800 proves how wrong such a supposition might be.
One might be forgiven for thinking “Oh no, not another book on modern China… What could anyone possibly have left to say about it?” But Alexandre Trudeau does not simply write about what he observes, but, like all good travel-writers, shows us what effect the journey had on him. And he does so without thrusting himself into the foreground; there is no large talking head loudly proclaiming “look at me” in the foreground and with tiny buildings in the background incidentally pointing to a foreign location.
If you turn to page 105 in this book you will see two extraordinary figures standing and facing each other in a colored albumen print from 1872. They both have bare feet; one wears a light-blue three-quarter length robe, rather like an elegant silk dressing-gown, and the other a similar one of a darker color, with what looks a little like a skirt underneath. They have rather serious expressions on their faces, and medium-length thick, dark, dry-looking hair. They both have upturned mustaches, rather in the style affected by Kaiser Wilhelm II, although not quite as extreme, and they look as if they’ve been painted on.