In the western imagination China has long been something ‘exotic’, a tendency that preceded the earliest contact and was reinforced by the (usually tall) tales of early travellers. This exoticism takes many forms and has given rise to many stereotypes, sometimes ‘positive’ (for instance in the recurring European taste for Chinoiserie) but mostly ‘negative’, such as the racist ‘Yellow Peril’ discourse (see my review of Fu Manchu and Sinophobia). Sometimes the ‘exotic’ construction encompasses admiration for ‘China’s difference’ (notably China’s, mainly imagined, ‘mysticism’), but more often than not it has signified contempt, with difference equating to ‘inferiority’.
With Jonathan Spence, Colin Mackerras is a leading western authority on China’s place in the western imagination. His Western Images of China (Oxford University Press, 1989) is a classic in the field and among other contributions, convincingly demonstrate how ‘our’ image of China says as much about ‘us’ as it does about ‘them’.
Mackerras’ latest book is concerned with western (predominantly American) ‘perceptions’ of China since 1949. How does the west (again mainly the US) ‘perceive China’ on a variety of issues (politics, foreign relations, economics, human rights, democratization, Tibet etc.) over time? Or more accurately given the book’s approach, how do some ‘representative’ western media (like Time magazine) and various western political and intellectual ‘elites’ frame China? This is a big question, requiring the systematic study of a wide corpus of empirical material, which is available in increasingly massive abundance. It is also an important question. On one level, the priming of mass attitudes toward China can have a significant effect on the experience of individual Chinese (often for the worse). At the other end of the spectrum, popular attitudes toward China can also influence foreign policy. For instance, all else being equal, a public that has been primed by years of negative and hostile coverage of China would be more likely to vote for a candidate who takes a hard-line on the country. Chinese leaders clearly care about how China is perceived around the world—otherwise they wouldn’t have launched their concerted effort (‘soft power push’, ‘charm offensive’) to try to balance critical western media narratives about China’s rise. Full review in China Quarterly here.