British Diplomacy in China, 1880 to 1885

By E. V. G. Kiernan | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE The Diplomats and their Problem

THE inquisitive Western tourist has poked his walkingstick into every nook of China; he has loitered through the grounds of the Temple of Heaven and scribbled his myriad names on its wooden pillars. What he has discovered in his travels, might admit of Sir Thomas Browne's "wide solution". The mind of China was for too many ages sunk into a kind of solipsism, scarcely aware of anything but its own existence, to be so easily penetrated. It was a self-contemplative land, beset by buzzing importunities. The peculiar fascination, indeed, of the China revealed, or half-revealed, by our translations of her unique literature, is in the completeness with which this province of space and time makes its "reality" out of its own surroundings, so that one can hardly imagine the entry of anything foreign. The charm of the Flowery Kingdom lies in its dreaming, through thirty centuries, in one mood, or one landscape of moods melting into one another with an incomparable harmony, as perfect as that of a Chinese painting on silk, or of the image called up in half a dozen phrases of a Chinese poem--clouds floating over the Gorges, the wild geese flying towards the South. Wherever the thick volumes of China's poetry are opened it is the same world, haunted always by the same voices, the same sentiments and familiarities, too poignant, too perfect, ever to be relinquished; a broad moon is climbing the autumn sky, peach-blossoms hang over antique gateways, cups of wine are warmed and books stand on the table to shorten solitary days; there are blue mountains and silken women, slow rivers with stone-arched bridges, the tears and dreams of separated friends, and in the distance the vaguer recesses of feeling that language cannot be forced to express. Chinese painting has the self-same quality of being

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