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The Faces of the Unknown: A Frenchman’s Adventures in Late Imperial China (Review)

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Alfred Raquez. 2017.
In the Land of Pagodas: A Classic Account of Travel in Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, Hubei, Hunan and Guizhou
Edited and translated by William L. Gibson and Paul Bruthiaux
Copenhagen: NIAS Press
ISBN 9788776942014

Multifaceted – this is perhaps the first word that may come to mind upon reading through Alfred Raquez’s (or, using his real name, Joseph Gervais) account on his travels around China during the last years of the 19th century. The book, translated and edited exquisitely by William Gibson and Paul Bruthiaux, provides a curious mixture of genres, impressions, and experiences that may be of interest to a broad audience. The term ‘complexity’, however, does not only characterize the text, but can be used to describe the author as well who, according to the translators’ introduction, possessed an equally complicated background.

The material can be situated in the abundant range of personal accounts created by previous foreign travelers, such as those produced by Marco Polo in the medieval period or Ennin who had penned a multi-year diary in as early as the 9th century. These works all provide interesting insights into the current state of China, but unlike most cases, where the authors’ personal circumstances are fairly clear (Ennin, for example, was initially part of a diplomatic envoy and intended to gain more in-depth knowledge on Buddhism), Raquez seems more of a mystery, due to the lack of information regarding his status and the purpose of his travel to Asia.

Despite the fog around the author’s persona, the tone of his book consistently represents a French perspective, which itself is relatively rare in relevant source materials. This approach, accompanied by his numerous references to certain foreigners who served in China in various capacities and his often vivid criticism of other nations, fits organically into the existing scholarship in multiple ways. More specifically, it can enrich the field of microhistorical research produced by, for example, Jonathan Spence, whose work, To Change China: Western Advisers in China (London: Penguin Books, 1980), covers the operations of influential figures (such as Inspector General Sir Robert Hart) who are also mentioned by Raquez, demonstrating his privileged status as an individual with special connections. His distinctly French voice, on the other hand, can be juxtaposed with the available studies on the operations of ‘Westerners’ in late-imperial China, represented by scholars, such as James Hevia, whose major contribution, English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in 19th Century China (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), explores Western colonial endeavors in Asia through specifically British lens, thus shedding light on the distinction between the intentions and practices of different countries. Raquez’s account reinforces the idea of heterogeneity, while also showing examples of unexpected collaborations between certain Chinese (or ‘Celestial’, as he calls them) and foreign groups, whose mutual interests pushed them on the same ‘side’. In this sense, Raquez’s In the Land of Pagodas unequivocally adds to our understanding of the complexities and the chaotic nature of China’s late 19th century history that cannot be characterized simply through the ‘China vs the West’ binary.

This peculiar point of view is accompanied by an interesting intertwinement of various styles which may perhaps bring us closer to the author’s persona. As I mentioned earlier, the book does not include precise information on Raquez’s identity, but the rapid shifts between genres, occasionally even within a single paragraph, demonstrates the different ‘masks’ that he takes on throughout the story. Within the framework of a diary-type structure, Raquez appears in at least three distinct roles which, I believe, are directly related to the stylistic variety of his work: as a tourist, he lists a variety of practical information for future travelers while attracting the reader’s attention to the wonders he experiences by providing vivid and almost literary-style descriptions about his urban impressions, the sequence of banquets he attends, and the changing scenery around him. In the course of his kaleidoscopic adventures, the only constant element is the sight of pagodas that he never neglects to mention. In Raquez’s mind, these buildings seem to be the symbols of China’s old, traditional, or even authentic side amidst all the novelties and drastic changes that their encounters with foreigners entailed – this recurring motif may be the underlying reason behind the author’s choice regarding the book’s title.

Furthermore, it is also of importance to point out that Raquez makes great efforts to delineate the nature of French presence in China through the examples of mining, education, politics, etc., which clearly exceed the boundaries of a simple travel guide and make him also a sort of reporter or even ‘intelligence agent’ who informs his compatriots about future possibilities for France to strengthen its position in the region.

Finally, his references to other primary materials and his critical attitude towards their merit (or the lack of it), the abundance of excerpts from journals and legal documents, numerous photographs, and his precise observations on local customs seem to testify his desire to consider his experience through scholarly lens as well, thus adding another layer to his account.

In scholarly works, there is a tendency to have a relatively ambiguous attitude towards diary-type materials due to their highly subjective nature that may cast doubt on their reliability as primary sources. In the present case, however, the large number of supplementary details, quotes, and translations provided by Raquez, as well as the foreword, written by a Chinese individual, appear to serve as means to enhance the credibility of the material. With all this in mind, we might consider this book a hybrid, ‘in-between’ work that tells us ‘Raquez’s truth’ through the intertwinement of original texts and the author’s personal experience.

In terms of significance, the text can be interesting not only to China scholars but also to those focusing on European (especially French) history and international relations, since the book provides insights into both the French perception of China and the Chinese view of Westerners, thus serving as a mirror for all parties to face their own realities.

Ultimately, as I mentioned earlier, the quality of the translation is excellent and includes an abundance of well-researched footnotes as well, which certainly facilitate the understanding of Raquez’s French references, making it easier for the reader to follow the rich, but at times confusing, narration without major difficulties. The text mentions that the original edition contained an addenda section, but the current version uses footnotes instead both in the case of Raquez’s remarks and the additions provided by the translators. Although Raquez’s name is included in the relevant notes in square brackets, perhaps a clearer distinction between the original and the later contributions or a note in the introduction about the reasons behind the editors’ typographical choices would be helpful. Otherwise, the book can serve not only as a novel and useful material for a broad audience, but also as a highly entertaining read for anyone interested in foreign encounters in the late 19th century.

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