Heinrich Schliemann

Overall Rating: 7
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Author: Heinrich Schliemann
Title: China And Japan In The Present Age [Le Chine et le Japon au temps présent]
Time: 1865
Destination: China, Japan
Length: a little over four months
Type: business trip

the measuring man

[Note: I’ve been reading a German edition of this book, only to find out that the original was published in French.]

The story: We’re in the mid-19th century. HS is a German businessman with a gift for languages and a passion for history who will later go on to discover the ruins of Troy. But first, he decides to go on a journey to China and Japan, both of which are currently struggling with the challenges of modernity and western imperialism. This book is about this journey.

Heinrich Schliemann’s facts & figures

It’s a surprisingly thin and easy read. HS is a laconic writer who likes to stick to minute details. In fact, he seems to carry a yardstick with him wherever he goes, so the things he sees can be measured immediately – and accurately. This is nice for the reader who has always wondered about the exact size of the bricks used in the Great Wall (67cm x 25cm x 17cm), but it’s also quite hilarious. I couldn’t help but imagine HS all over the place, taking measures, jotting down notes, then taking some more measures.

But let me get back to the book.

Chinese expectations

The story is split into two main parts. The first one is about China, which HS seems to find rather disappointing. Through his eyes, we see a society that is in a state of moral as well as physical decay. Temples are rotting, the roads are filled with dirt, there are beggars and cheating merchants everywhere. There is one episode though that I thought was very interesting. We find HS all by himself, on a watchtower overlooking the Great Wall, and he says this place has the most stunning panorama he has ever seen, anywhere. He goes on to muse about the “giants” who must have built this structure. This is only a figure of speech, but I thought it was very revealing anyway.

Yes, China in the mid-19th century was a mess. But I think there is a deeper reason for HS’s disappointment – he must have had particularly high expectations for his visit to China. This is understandable, given the fact that Chinese culture has a few thousand years of written history under its belt. But maybe HS is not doing China complete justice with his disappointment. I thought this was very interesting.

Japanese surprises

The second part is about Japan, which HS absolutely loves. The cleanliness! The sense of law and order! The complete lack of furniture! Japan is just awesome.

There is a bit of a mystery here as well, though. While HS is stunned by the degree of cleanliness he encounters everywhere he goes, he needs to search for more than 30 minutes if he wants to find a baggage porter who doesn’t have scabies. This doesn’t seem to make sense to him (or to us, his readers), and the explanation he offers is that it must be because of the raw seafood the Japanese eat on a regular basis. But if that’s the case, why aren’t the upper classes struck with skin ailments as well?

Again, I thought this was very interesting.

There is a short third part about the passage across the Pacific ocean. It’s only a few pages long though.

Overall, this is a very recommendable read if you are interested in China and/or Japan – or rather in the clash of eastern and western cultures in the 19th century.

I’ll give it a 7/10.

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