April 04, 2017

China has reemerged in American news headlines recently on issues including trade and Taiwan. The current U.S. president has referred to the nation as “our enemy,” but as Rachana Sachdev found through her study of 17th-century travelogues, Europeans once idealized China as a utopia.

Encountering China is a collection of scholarly essays that examine 16th- and 17th-century encounters with China by European travelers via the travelogues—diaries—they left behind.

In her essay, “European Responses to Child Abandonment, Sale of Children and Social Welfare Policies in Ming China,” Sachdev, associate professor of English, explored the travelogues of European travelers, merchants and missionaries and their apparent oversight of egregious human rights violations in favor of a superficially orderly society.

“They were awed by the wealth and sophistication of the society they encountered,” Sachdev said. “They weren’t particularly bothered by the fact that the society was largely built on the subjugation and killing of women and children.”

Travelers were struck by the fact that there were no poor people begging in the streets of China’s cities due the government’s sweeping social welfare policies. They also noted the lack of visible women, who either stayed indoors or traveled via litters (enclosed chairs carried on men’s shoulders), and their submissive nature relative to European women.

“Of course, at this time foot-binding was law,” Sachdev pointed out. “It contributed to the seclusion of women” due to their reduced mobility.

Interestingly, travelers were largely unfazed by the conditions of children, and the fact that poor families routinely and openly sold, abandoned or murdered their children-most often girls.

“The lack of moral aversion against female infanticide is due to the attractiveness of the superficial harmony travelers witnessed in China,” Sachdev said.

The lesson, Sachdev said, is to look beyond the surface to better understand what is before you.

“It’s been said that the true measure of a society is how it treats its poor,” Sachdev said. “Social justice issues are important to all of us, and historical research gives us perspective on our own society.”