By Carles Prado-Fonts
Reviewed by Miaowei Weng
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright May, 2023)
Secondhand China offers an in-depth examination of the complex relationships between East and West, Spain and Europe, and Catalonia and other parts of Spain between the late nineteenth century and the 1930s. Carles Prado-Fonts analyzes Spanish and Catalan cultural texts about China produced during this period, providing a unique perspective on the cultural and political dynamics at play in these relationships as well as on the politics of translation.
Secondhand China should be read in the context of the distinction between the study of China (Sinology, or, more politically correct, China Studies) and the study of written China(s) (Sinography). While China studies scholars focus on China as a geopolitical location, exploring its culture, society, history, politics, and various other aspects, Sinographers like Eric Hayot, Haun Saussy, and Steven G. Yao take a different approach. In Sinographies: Writing China (2008), they propose in a provocative way that “China” is not simply something to be studied, but rather, something to be thought through, or a lens through which to examine or even redefine the crucial problems of contemporary thought. “China” is viewed as central to many of these problems, such as the problems of translation, subalternity, the value of texts, and so on. Obviously, Secondhand China participates in this ongoing project of Sinography that “thinks through ‘China.’”
In thinking through “China,” Carles Prado-Fonts breaks the illusion of the West as a homogenous entity and uncovers the hegemonic power held by pivotal centers in Europe—namely, France and Britain—at the turn of the nineteenth century and how their influence shaped the way other Western countries, such as Spain, viewed and represented China. Through his comprehensive review of Spanish writings about China from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, the author highlights the dependence of Spanish Sinography on British and French sources as well as Spain’s subaltern position within the Western world when it comes to China. Prado-Fonts argues that China, Spain, and the hegemonic centers in the West formed a triangular relationship. While China, or writings about “China,” is viewed as the object of Western gazes or the center of Western competition, the focus of the book often shifts from this triangulation to a bilateral exploration of Spain’s relation with its northern European neighbors.
Likewise, when examining Catalan texts about China, the focus of the analysis centers more on the mindset of Catalan intellectuals who sought to convey their superiority to the rest of Spain through their direct connections to British and French cultural resources. In other words, Secondhand China is “thinking through ‘China’” instead of thinking about China.” Or as the author rightly points out, “‘China’ could be used by anyone and could mean pretty much anything” (23), regardless of whether the represented “China” has to do with China as a geopolitical location or not.
Secondhand China is also a book about translation. The author explores the role of translation in shaping cultural representations and power dynamics. Through an examination of the indirectness of Chinese writings in Spain as mediated by Francophone or Anglophone sources, he breaks down the traditional binary relationship between subject and object in translation, a tactic that expands the scope of translation to include the representation of other cultures through cultural intermediaries. The author’s extensive discussions of power dynamics within the West demonstrate that translation is not a neutral connection between cultures, but rather leads to complex political negotiations and cultural power dynamics.
Secondhand China makes a crucial contribution to Sino-Hispanic cultural studies. Previously, two approaches guided most of the scholarship in this subfield of comparative studies: one explored the translation or circulation of texts or objects between the two cultures, whereas the other examined similarities shared by the two seemingly remote countries. In the past decade, while the Manila galleon has continued to attract scholarly interest, there has been an increasing focus on studies related to immigrants of Chinese descent. This focus has been particularly pronounced in recent years, as the Chinese migrant community in Spain has grown significantly. In terms of the history of texts and translations, scholars have faced challenges in finding materials on direct translation or contact between Chinese and Spanish cultures during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, Prado-Fonts makes a significant contribution to this area by giving serious consideration not only to this significant historical period but also to indirect translations and mediations from a plethora of genres and linguistic sources.
Arranged chronologically, Secondhand China is divided into four chapters and offers a comprehensive review of direct and mostly indirect representations of China as portrayed in various genres of texts, including novels, letters, travelogues, essays, memoirs, journal and newspaper articles, book reviews, and accounts from missionaries and diplomats. The first three chapters examine China in Spanish writings from the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. They follow a clear trend toward increasingly diverse and even conflicting representations of China and reflect the growing complexity of China as an imaginary construct in the power dynamic between Spain and its northern European neighbors. The final chapter introduces Catalan texts about China and satirizes Catalan elitism within Spain. While this chapter provides insightful analysis, it does not fit as tightly into the overall structure of the book as the other chapters do and, despite its interesting analysis, weakens the coherence of the project. However, the book provides a unique perspective on the changing ways in which China has been imagined and portrayed in Spain over a century ago. The publication of this book, which was released just before the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Spain, is a timely project and provides a valuable source for the many reflections and discussions that will take place during this anniversary year of 2023 and beyond.
Southern Connecticut State University
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 Hayot et. al., xi.
 See Davis 75–90; Casas-Tost and Rovira-Esteva 581–603; Krahe, Chinese Porcelain; Tor-Carroggio and Rovira-Esteva, “Chinese Literary Translation in Spain”; Marín Lacarta 306–21; Luca 579–609.
 See Weng 111–22; Pérez-García, Global History with Chinese Characteristics.
 See Lifshey, The Megallan Fallacy; Tremml-Werner, Spain, China, and Japan in Manila; Dennis O, et al. European Entry.
 See Kim 351–69, Robles-Llana 124–40.