At the dawn of our cultural traditions lie accounts of men alone among strangers who, by luck or guile, triumph even though uprooted from their own societies: men such as Joseph or Odysseus. The fascination of this theme seems as strong as ever, perhaps affecting our curiosity about Robert Maxwell, as well as our taste for the works of Thubron or Theroux. But today, when jumbo jets deposit increasing numbers of ordinary people in the middle of totally unfamiliar cultures which are now only a few flying hours away, it may be time to start reflecting on a very different type of tale. John Hu, the Hu in Jonathan Spence’s latest book, was a man without guile, and without luck. He travelled to France from Canton in 1722 as the employee of Jean-François Foucquet, a Jesuit missionary, but behaved in such a bizarre fashion that in 1723 he was committed to an asylum. In 1726 he was shipped back home alone; meanwhile Foucquet had distanced himself both from his Chinese assistant and from his own missionary colleagues, and had become a bishop in Rome.
This is a sad story, simply told by Jonathan Spence – perhaps too simply for some historians. It depends largely on a single source, a dossier compiled by Foucquet to refute criticism of his actions (nothing but a short and rather confused letter in Chinese survives from Hu); one of the three extant versions of this dossier was published over a century ago, under the rather disparaging title given above. Spence’s considerable skills as a narrative historian are therefore largely preempted, but he has gone to great lengths to reconstruct the visual aspect of Hu’s travels, creating an effect perhaps best described as the ‘historian as cameraman’. He has lifted his basic story off the original manuscripts to create a three-dimensional world: the storms of the sea voyage give way to long shots of the open French countryside; lively Parisian street scenes are interspersed with increasingly fruitless altercations between Hu and Foucquet; finally, there is a minute examination of the nine-by-12-foot space in which Hu was to pass most of his stay in Europe. There is little in the way of commentary: the story is left to speak for itself, through the original words and Spence’s reconstructed images.
Interpretation could easily have been laid on with a trowel. The human interest provides the book’s most immediate appeal to today’s reader, but the episode of this visit to Europe – whatever its lack of practical results – constituted an important advance in European attempts to improve our understanding of China. The basic method has remained fairly constant: get hold of some Chinese books; get hold of one or more Chinese to help read them. But the sophistication with which these goals have been pursued has evolved markedly: the 16th-century Portuguese historian Joao de Barros bought up a Chinese slave with his printed sources; today, such scholars as Joseph Needham and Lu Gwei-djen enjoy a full collaboration – though a large number of Chinese spouses of prominent ‘China experts’ still don’t get the credit they deserve. Foucquet seems to have been better with books than with relationships. As his own catalogue shows, he had built up a large and well-organised research library in China – earlier scholars had acquired materials less selectively – and during much of the early part of Spence’s book he is clearly preoccupied in trying to manoeuvre this collection through the customs and out of reach of the Royal Librarian in Paris. Trouble at the customs over books is a recurrent theme in the development of Chinese studies. It was, for example, prominent in the career of Robert Morrison, the early 19th-century pioneer of British Sinology, and is not unknown today.
Foucquet’s heart is, like St Jerome’s, in his library – but the saint had a more tractable companion. His hiring of John Hu, a catechist and gate-keeper at the Jesuit’s Canton mission, was a last-minute expedient to outwit his superiors, who were against his taking any Chinese to Europe. Initially no more than a cog within the whirling wheels of Foucquet’s academic and theological schemes, Hu’s state of mind became a matter of major concern to Foucquet, as it does to the reader of Spence’s work. We have very little solid information about Hu’s life before he met Foucquet. He was a widower. He describes himself pointedly in his surviving letter to Foucquet as his ‘Kiangsi disciple’ – a reference to his ancestral province in central China, though he had spent all his life among the clannish Cantonese, and this suggests a man already fairly isolated within his own society, ready to throw in his lot with the complete outsiders, the missionaries. As for his journey to the West, for which he volunteered on his own initiative, on hearing of Foucquet’s frustration at the hands of his superiors, we can only guess at his motives, but it is possible that Foucquet would have found them bizarre, even outrageous.
When propagating their faith in China, early Christian missionaries felt obliged to depict their native countries in decidedly flattering terms to counteract Chinese attachment to their own civilisation. The Japanese scholar Suzuki Chusei has pointed out that by the middle of the 18th century this had prompted a revival of ancient beliefs in a utopia at the other end of Eurasia among some adherents of Chinese popular sects (enthusiastic cults whose membership tended to overlap dangerously with the congregations established by the missionaries, and was persecuted by officialdom). The great attraction of exotic societies, especially as projected through the medium of proselytising religions (one only has to think of hippy notions of India), is that they appear to be free of the constraints which so frustrate individuals alienated from the social order prevailing in their own homeland. If France was assumed by Hu to be his Shangrila, whose material riches would free him from poverty, and where he could take whatever he wanted for his own use without payment, much of his ‘bizarre behaviour’ becomes perfectly consistent. His remark to Foucquet on arriving in Paris – which seems oddly upbeat in view of the escalating conflict between them – may have been no more than the literal truth as he saw it: ‘It’s a paradise on earth.’
Some constraints which the Chinese widower found perfectly natural would have appeared to him to have been grievously flouted in French society. In Canton the majority of Europeans he met (perhaps, given his place of employment, all of them) would have been males who maintained a seemly chastity; even European merchants did not bring their wives with them. Relationships between the sexes in Europe would have come as a staggering surprise – they certainly did to 19th-century Chinese visitors – along with such minor irritants as the Western obsession with keeping windows closed, which was evidently so irksome to Hu. And if Hu found his paradise thus flawed, what more natural than to assume that God had brought him there to rectify matters, and to beat a drum beneath a banner bearing the legend Nan-nu fen-pieh (‘segregation between male and female’), while preaching to the uncomprehending Parisian crowds?
Spence does not turn aside to treat John Hu’s place in a history of research assistants or cargo cultists, but concentrates the reader’s attention on Hu as perceived by Foucquet, and here his narrative, though apparently historio-graphically lightweight, packs a very powerful punch. He makes no attempt to preach: though clearly aware of the unpleasant streaks in Foucquet’s character, he goes out of his way to be fair, approaching him through a 1982 biography by John Witek, a biography which explicitly seeks to ease the passions stirred up by his stormy career. He could equally well have followed Paul Rule, the other contemporary expert on Foucquet’s rich (and largely unpublished) manuscript legacy, whose judgment on Foucquet is markedly less sympathetic: as a Jesuit (and Rule was trained as one himself) Foucquet was exceptionally disobedient, with a penchant, verging on the paranoid, for eavesdropping, and for compiling with obsessive thoroughness self-justificatory dossiers on his own actions – the Hu affair was not the only question mark raised against his career. In this instance, the published materials provide ready examples to support Rule’s understanding of Foucquet’s character: the covering letter on this dossier robustly declares that his narrative is to serve, during his life and after his death, to close the mouths of certain authors of certain dark calumnies, and to confound them if they have the shamelessness to speak. The main part of his narrative closes with a minatory ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.’
Foucquet regarded such threats as justified, when so much was at stake. By the time he returned to Europe he had been labouring for a quarter of century with the Jesuits, attempting to solve the problem of the conversion of China through a bold move to capture the revered Chinese past for Christianity. Foucquet and a handful of brilliant and like-minded colleagues thought that they discerned in the earliest texts of Chinese civilisation not merely the traces of an ancient knowledge of true religion, but a series of Christian truths long ago encoded into the language of these texts: all that was needed was to break the code and reveal to China that its cultural loyalties lay with Christianity after all. The Emperor of China showed a flicker of interest when one of Foucquet’s colleagues suggested that these decoded messages might reveal the future as well as the past, but the Church authorities rapidly moved to block that line of research, and maintained an extremely wary watch on the enterprise. Alas, while it demanded the utmost from its adherents in terms of diligent scholarship in an intractably alien tongue, and persistence in the face of indifference or outright opposition, ‘Figurism’, as the movement was called, was doomed to failure. Chinese attitudes towards the past were far more complex than the missionaries allowed, and although the Jesuit presence coincided with a renewed interest in ancient sources, 18th-century Chinese scholars approached their texts with such a high degree of philological rigour that the Jesuits’ interpretations were excluded from the outset. By Chinese standards, Foucquet’s ideal China was as chimerical as Hu’s ideal Europe.
In fact, Rule’s reading of Foucquet’s manuscripts suggests to him that by the time Foucquet left China he had abandoned all efforts to win over the Chinese and that his main preoccupation was to convince fellow Christians of his beliefs. The events following his return to Europe were not of a kind to bring out the best in him: he required (to use an almost exactly contemporary depiction of the desired relationship) an academic Man Friday: he got obstreperous, bewildered John Hu. No wonder he rounds on him in the covering letter to his dossier, referring to him with bitter sarcasm as ‘this hero’. Yet Foucquet’s own heroic odyssey to China and through the Chinese classics also turned out to be utterly pointless: for he was kept in Rome to grow old full of opinions, but without influence. He was repaid for his faults, not with vengeance, but with an unfortunate (and, one hopes, unintended) irony: he was made Bishop of Eleutheropolis, ‘Freedom City’, an appointment so notional that we cannot today tell to what place it referred. Both of the two towns of that name had for many centuries been in partibus infidelium, in Levantine territories abandoned to unbelievers.
John Hu sought in his imagined West freedom from the material constraints on his life in China, and thereby lost his liberty. Foucquet sought to conquer China for Christ: he kept his freedom, but it turned out to be only a freedom to imagine. In this slender but telling narrative of disappointed hopes Jonathan Spence raises not only the question of Hu – ‘Why did they lock me up?’ – but also, by implication, the question of why Western ‘China experts’ keep trying to lock up China within the confines of our preconceptions, ignoring the real hopes and fears of so many.