Karavansara

East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

How much we changed

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I have just finished reading the memoir of an Italian missionary priest that went from Hong Kong to Moscow in 1928, crossing China by train, river boat and various land transports (caravans, camels, etc) as he traced backward the itinerary originally travelled by Marco Polo.

Interesting read, all things considered, especially because father Capra, that’s the name of the priest, basically covers the same ground of the classic Fleming-Maillart Chinese Turkestan adventure, only with a completely different perspective. Where Fleming and Maillart are witty and crisp, turning a bemused eye on the ups and downs of their adventure, father Capra acts as an envoy not only of the Church but of the Italian Royal Geographical Society, and the Fascist Regime. His observation as not only cultural, but political and economic.

He enthuses about all the great things the Italians are doing in China – the Regime being in bed with Chiang Kai-Shek, and thus providing Italian contractors and know-how to develop engineering projects. He is positively shocked at the state in which the post-Boxer Rebellion “police operations” by the Great Powers have left Peking, but what really irks him is that now ancient Chinese religious artifacts can be found in private collections, owned by European tycoons in Shanghai and Tientsin, side by side with Christian statues from the Italian Renaissance.

And there is, underlying the whole travelogue, a sense of very unpleasant racial superiority that is particularly distasteful coming from the field notes of a man of God. The Chinese are often referred to as “yellow ants”, and other unsavory slurs. It is a strong testimony of how much our culture changed over one century, and for the better.

But hey, it’s a resource, and it will go into my historical book about Piedmontese travellers and adventurers between 19th and 20th century. These are the final touches. All I need now is to clean up the final version, put some order in the bibliography, and then deliver the lot to the publisher. Father Capra almost got away, but got caught at the very last moment.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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