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Book Review


Li, Gui. A Journey to the East: A New Account of a Trip Around the Globe / Translated with an introduction by Charles Desnoyers (University of Michigan Press, 2004). 320 pp, $70.00.

     This book is the first full English translation of a journal by a minor official of the late Qing Dynasty. Li Gui was the first officially sanctioned Chinese official to go around the world. He was sent primarily to "keep a record of the (United States) Centennial in the service of the empire's recent efforts toward and industrialization and increased participation in international affairs." (vi) According to the translator this work is intended not only for China specialists but also for those with an interest in American history, along with Asian and Asian-American studies. In addition, he suggests the work is especially for "those in the rapidly expanding field of world history." (vii) The reading is not difficult, and there is little analysis; as such, the work could easily be read and understood by younger history students, like those in an Advanced Placement World History class. 1
     The early part of the book - the first eighty-one pages - is an introduction by the translator. The introduction is split into four somewhat interspersed main areas: a biography of Li, a general history of China during Li's lifetime, a history of the exposition, and an outline of Li's trip. It is the most interesting and rewarding part of the book. The rest of the work, Li's journal, is not written in chronological order but in the order Li deemed most important. 2
     In the field of world history, the strength of the book lies in Li's comments on Japan and on American women. Li briefly visited Japan on his way to the United States where he also viewed the Japanese pavilion at the Centennial Exposition. His writings show excellent analysis, almost clairvoyantly so, of Japan's future world position. Li himself was a "self-strengther" thus, it is no surprise that he was impressed with Japan's modernization, including the usage of western ways. Among areas that Li appreciated were how Japan studied and used Western technology and manufacturing. In addition Li appreciated how Japan "had in most respects successfully preserved the cultural foundations of their civilization." (18). At the same time, Li felt that Japan had, in many ways, gone too far in aspects of its modernization. He included such examples as the wearing of Western uniforms and clothes by Japanese officials. Li felt that but for the hair and face of the Westernized Japanese, you could barely tell the difference between East and West. He also noted that he felt the shogun had too much power in Japan and that "certain cultural guardians" in China were keeping China from emulating Japan's modernization and thus success. 3
     It is interesting and at times amusing to read Li's view of American women in comparison to the roles most women had in China. He held American women in high regard and thought of them with great respect and affection. He appreciated their relative freedoms, noting that a woman had designed one of the Centennial halls. What most impressed him however was the "forthright manner of the women," and their poise and dignity as compared to the demeanor of the secluded girls in the Chinese home. He also (accurately?) compared the wearing of the newest styles in corsets to be worse than the practice of Chinese foot binding! 4
     Certainly, there is some valuable primary source material to be found in this work. Sadly, I find that overall there is not much information that can be considered important to the student or teacher of world history. Much of the journal is tedious; there is too much detail, which, though it can be interesting at times, is of little concern. Almost one-third of the journal is about the Centennial, which is described in boring detail. Yes, there are nuggets of gold, as when Li briefly compares French colonialism in Saigon to British colonialism in Singapore and his description of the new penitentiary in Pennsylvania. He notes many positive aspects of that penitentiary, but one that stands out is its solitary confinement, which Dickens had described as "immeasurably worse than a torture of the body." In contrast, Li found the solitary confinement wonderful, writing that it was similar to a Buddhist monastery. (35) However, these few pieces of cross-cultural nuggets do not make a 320-page book, although examples given in this work could be used by a teacher of world history in a lecture. I cannot suggest the whole book for class reading. However, at $70.00 one could hope that the school library will add it to its collection. 5
Michael J Harvey
Shanghai American School

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