Medieval travellers like Marco Polo created a romantic picture of a distant and exotic land while subsequent Jesuit and diplomatic missions sought to correct the more lurid depictions with first-hand accounts. In the mid-nineteenth century China was opened to travellers, collectors and writers of all sorts. Explorers were drawn to the Silk Road and its buried treasures. Writers like Andre Malraux and Vicki Baum found fame with books set in Peking and Shanghai, and Somerset Maugham with his enchanting vignettes. More recently Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn reported from China, as did W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and the American journalist Edgar Snow. Frances Wood tracks the visits of Harold Acton, Osbert Sitwell, Noel Coward, George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell, and the Chinese childhoods of Pearl Buck and J. G. Ballard. 'It was as if China made writers of them all', Wood observes, as she trawls a vast library of fiction, memoir and travelogue in this captivating and beautifully illustrated journey.
Frances Wood is Curator of Chinese Collections at the British Library. Among her recent publications are The Silk Road (2004) and The First Emperor (2007).