The simultaneous appearance then of translated French and Western European works on China, along with the original Russian discussions of first-hand contacts with the Chinese, as well as writings translated by Russians directly from Chinese and Manchu is not remarkable. When Leibniz wrote to Peter the Great in 1716 about Russia's unique opportunity, because of her geographical position, to absorb wisdom from both Western Europe and China, he was referring to the acquisition of many types of knowledge, not, of course, merely to insights about Russia's eastern neighbor herself; and he was suggesting that Russia should facilitate an East-West exchange of ideas. But his starting point that Russia's location permitted her to observe widely differing cultural patterns and institutions, and 'to draw from Europe on the one side and from China on the other' was well taken.
The merging of these varied sources of information on China brought a number of conflicting elements into contact with each other, creating in Russia's picture of the Middle Kingdom an ambiguity that became one of its most intriguing characteristics. This feature, strangely enough, was seldom commented upon in eighteenth-century Russian publications. Russian travellers to China occasionally compared their own observations with the literary impressions of Western Europeans, but apart from this there were few contemporary articles, editorials, or reviews which pointed out national differences in the attitudes of various writers toward the Middle Kingdom.
- Barbara Widenor Maggs, Russia and 'le rêve chinois': China in eighteenth-century Russian literature (1984)I've decided more or less firmly at this point what my dissertation topic will be: something like "Eighteenth-Century Russian Sinology in an International Context" (which sounds, of course, pretty generic). This has a number of problems, not least among them the fact that I have to learn two difficult languages (Manchu and Chinese) and drastically improve a third (Latin). Even worse, I have no idea what I can say about the topic that had not already been said in two obscure books--this one and Eric Widmer's brilliant and unexpectedly hilarious monograph The Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Peking in the Eighteenth Century. But that's not surprising, since I've barely even glanced at the available sources. In short, we'll have to see.
There is one thing, however, that seems to be in immediate need of reformation. There was a point maybe two decades ago when nearly every book on European-non-European intellectual relationships ended up being actually about the "image" of one country in the eyes of another. (Somewhere in France there's a research institute specifically dedicated to this kind of stuff.) Even when this was not just a thinly-veiled excuse for pseudo-Saidian "post-colonial" hectoring, it was never a particularly productive exercise. Why not? Because there's no such thing as an "image." Yes, I have certain images about, say, Iraq that come into my head--but these images are not coherent or traceable to a definite source. Chance references in a minor source may be just as important in shaping them as books dedicated specifically to the issue. And the fact that I may have read more than one book on the issue, and that those books contradicted themselves, certainly does not make my "image" of Iraq "contradictory" (which, in the historiography, always ends up being the conclusion).
This is the problem with Maggs's book: it assumes that an "image" is something out there in the world that can be reconstructed by concatenating all of the possible literary inputs that could have produced it. Of course, as with colors of paint, the venture ends up being absurd, because the result is predetermined to resolve into the muddy-brown tones of "ambiguity" (and such a claim has zero informational content anyway, despite its frequent appearance in historical books). It becomes even more absurd when we consider that the "image" is supposed to live in the head of the "Russian reader," who is supposed to be somehow representative of the general mass of eighteenth-century Russians. In fact, the most reliable quantitative estimate I've seen is that there were no more than 13,000 active readers in all of Russia by the end of the eighteenth century. By contrast, around the same time there were more than 100,000 skoptsy--members of a radical schismatic sect of self-castrators. Claims about "Russia" based on the Russian reader in the period are, in short, inherently dubious.
So why this obsession with "image," given the relative uselessness of the concept for any kind of serious historical reconstruction? My best guess is that the notion survives primarily because of its convenience for scholars who would otherwise have no way of making claims based on their sources at all. References to China in some isolated eighteenth-century Russian text are just that. They don't offer hints about the psychology of governing elites (not having been written by them) or lower-class masses (never having been read by them). In fact, since most of them are contained in translated foreign literature, it's generally impossible to assess their significance at all. Yet as scholars we are now always supposed to try to make a case for the significance of our sources. Anything else is now broadly and dismissively condemned as antiquarianism (even as more and more scholars are using Google Books to rediscover the suddenly valuable works of nineteenth-century antiquarians).
This is, in many ways, unfortunate. I would have liked to see some lone genius assemble a detailed catalogue of China-related eighteenth-century Russian literature unencumbered by the demands of narrative or argument. How much effort is wasted on providing an academic framework for material that is of no broad interest with or without it! These are my thoughts in more cynical moments. At other times I remember that, as a historian, my primary obligation ought to be to the imaginary group around the tribal campfire that has assembled to hear my stories; and then, too, that form gives creative thrust and impetus to historical work, that it keeps the historian from being the irrelevant and invisible compiler of equally irrelevant material and forces him to be something of a creative writer in his own right. Surely there must be some way to have one's cake and eat it too.