These days Orientalism has a bad name. Edward Said depicted it as a deadly mixture of fantasy and hostility brewed in the West about societies and cultures of the East. He based his portrait on Anglo-French writing about the Near East, where Islam and Christendom battled with each other for centuries before the region fell to Western imperialism in modern times. But the Far East was always another matter. Too far away to be a military or religious threat to Europe, it generated tales not of fear or loathing, but wonder. Marco Polo’s reports of China, now judged mostly hearsay, fixed fabulous images that lasted down to Columbus setting sail for the marvels of Cathay. But when real information about the country arrived in the 17th and 18th centuries, European attitudes towards China tended to remain an awed admiration, rather than fear or condescension. From Bayle and Leibniz to Voltaire and Quesnay, philosophers hailed it as an empire more civilised than Europe itself: not only richer and more populous, but more tolerant and peaceful, a land where there were no priests to practise persecution and offices of the state were filled according to merit, not birth. Even those sceptical of the more extravagant claims for the Middle Kingdom – Montesquieu or Adam Smith – remained puzzled and impressed by its wealth and order.
A drastic change of opinion came in the 19th century, when Western predators became increasingly aware of the relative military weakness and economic backwardness of the Qing empire. China was certainly teeming, but it was also primitive, cruel and superstitious. Respect gave way to contempt, mingled with racist alarm – Sinomania capsizing into Sinophobia. By the early 20th century, after eight foreign forces had stormed their way to Pekin to crush the Boxer Uprising, the ‘yellow peril’ was being widely bandied about among press and politicians, as writers like Jack London or J.H. Hobson conjured up a future Chinese takeover of the world. Within another few decades, the pendulum swung back, as Pearl Buck and Madame Chiang won popular sympathy for China’s gallant struggle against Japan. After 1948, in a further rapid reversal, Red China became the focus of still greater fear and anxiety, a totalitarian nightmare more sinister even than Russia. Today, the high-speed growth of the People’s Republic is transforming Western attitudes once again, attracting excitement and enthusiasm in business and media alike, with a wave of fashion and fascination recalling the chinoiserie of rococo Europe. Sinophobia has by no means disappeared. But another round of Sinomania is in the making.