The Distance to China

Twentieth-Century Italian Travel Narratives of Patriotism, Commitment and Disillusion (1898–1985)

by Linetto Basilone (Author)
©2022 Monographs XVI, 320 Pages
Series: Italian Modernities, Volume 42


«As Italy tends to be studied increasingly in transnational and transcultural perspective, there is an ever-greater need for studies that explore the country's relationship with other geographical areas and cultural configurations. Linetto Basilone's work is an important contribution to research of this kind. The work provides a panoramic view of how journalists and travel writers from the late nineteenth century to the 1980s have sought to represent China, its relationship with Italy, and its growing geopolitical significance. The ideological and cultural context in which Italian observers were writing is always appropriately foregrounded; the analysis of the work of individual writers is nuanced and sophisticated; and the exploration of the inter-relation of different positionalities is intriguing throughout. The text will be of interest to anyone interested in understanding the cultural history of Italy's relationship with China.»
(Charles Burdett, Director, Institute of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of London)
Over the course of the twentieth century, China became a destination of choice for hundreds of the most prominent Italian writers, journalists, and politicians. Informed by the cultural, economic, and political relationship between Italy and China since the late 1890s, the travel narratives of these authors contributed to the creation of multiple and varied representations of the country. This book fills a gap in the study of the development of Italian travel narratives on twentieth-century China. It classifies the major portraits of China under five chronologically and ideologically ordered types of representation and offers readers a structured understanding of the processes of «writing» China in Italy. The study sheds new light on how China was associated with the specific cultural, political, and social traits of Italy and Italian culture; how it reinforced ideological indoctrination among Italian intellectual elites; and how significant such travel narratives were for the ideological orientation of the Italian readership.

The authors discussed in the book include, among others: Luigi Barzini Sr., Mario Appelius, Arnaldo Cipolla, Franco Fortini, Carlo Cassola, Curzio Malaparte, Alberto Moravia, Goffredo Parise, Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, Gianni Rodari, Luigi Malerba, Alberto Arbasino, Edoarda Masi, and Tiziano Terzani.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Endorsement
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1 The Politics of Textuality: A Theoretical Framework
  • Chapter 2 Italian Travel Narratives of War, Modernity, and Patriotism in Late Imperial and Early Republican China (1898–1916)
  • Chapter 3 The Chinese Alterity: Italianità and Ideology in the Italian Travel Literature on China during the Fascist Ventennio (1922–1943)
  • Photographs
  • Chapter 4 Italian Leftist Intellectuals in the People’s Republic of China: A Matter of Spiritual Affinity (1949–1960)
  • Chapter 5 In Search of Chinese Purity: Italian Leftist Intellectuals in Maoist China during and after the Cultural Revolution (1966–1975)
  • Chapter 6 On the Nonexistence of a Chinese Utopia: Italian Narratives of Disbelief, Disenchantment, and Nostalgia (1978–1985)
  • Afterword
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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Figure 1. “La partenza da Pechino” – Luigi Barzini Sr. (Hoepli, 1908, II).

Figure 2. “La Cina e il nostro pubblico” – Luigi Barzini Sr. (Hoepli, 1908, 79).

Figure 3. “Il mandarino governatore cinese della Mongolia e Luigi Barzini durante la visita ufficiale” – Luigi Barzini Sr. (Hoepli, 1908, XXIII).

Figure 4. “L’Itala scortata dai marinai italiani, sotto alle mura di Cha-tau-chung” – Luigi Barzini Sr. (Hoepli, 1908, 64).

Figure 5. “Cionking - portatori che salgono alla città” – Mario Appelius (Mondadori, 1935, 49).

Figure 6. “L’uomo cavallo e il suo veicolo” – Mario Appelius (Mondadori, 1935, 241).

Figure 7. “Contadino mancese col suo aratro primitivo” – Mario Appelius (Mondadori, 1935, 240).

Figure 8. “Uno dei tanti fradici villaggi sul Fiume Azzurro” – Mario Appellius (Mondadori, 1935, 80).

Figure 9. “Soldati di Ciang-Kai-Shek durante la campagna contro i Rossi” – Mario Appelius (Mondadori, 1935, 285).

Figure 10. “Pechino, festa nazionale del 1° ottobre: la sfilata davanti alla Porta della Pace” – La Cina d’Oggi (Il Ponte, 1956, PP).

Figure 11. “Sala di ricreazione in una cooperativa agricola” – La Cina d’Oggi (Il Ponte, 1956, 269).

Figure 12. “Ora di ricreazione fra i lavoratori di una cooperativa agricola” – La Cina d’Oggi (Il Ponte, 1956, 269).

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Figure 13. “Il generale d’Armata Ming Hon-yu, ex contadino, analfabeta, intervistato al Comando d’Armata della Shensi da Carlo Bernari” – La Cina d’Oggi (Il Ponte, 1956, 352).

Figure 14. “Famiglie di capitalisti inneggiano al presidente Mao (21 gennaio 1956)” – La Cina d’Oggi (Il Ponte, 1956, 244).

Figure 15. “Pechino, ottobre 1955: il direttore della nostra rivista in visita al Ponte Marco Polo” – La Cina d’Oggi (Il Ponte, 1956, 18).

Figure 16. “Giovani e ragazze delle ‘milizia popolare’ nella Brigata di Tachè” – Turista in Cina (Il Rinnovamento, 1974, 52).

Figure 17. “Ragazze di una fabbrica di Canton tengono una riunione di studio sul marciapiede” – Turista in Cina (Il Rinnovamento, 1974, 103).

Figure 18. “Operaie di Shanghai all’uscita da una fabbrica” – Turista in Cina (Il Rinnovamento, 1974, 76).

Figure 19. “Mao Tse-tung fra i contadini. Qui è ritratto durante una visita alla comune ‘Ottobre’ alla periferia di Pechino” – Turista in Cina (Il Rinnovamento, 1974, 121).

Figure 20. “Nella comune Nuova Cina vicino a Canton, Maria Antonietta Macciocchi e Alberto Iacoviello insieme a una famiglia di contadini” – Dalla Cina. Dopo la Rivoluzione Culturale (Feltrinelli, 1971, Cover).

Figure 21. “Un angolo della ‘casa del Mandarino’ a Shanghai” – Aldo De Jaco (Levante, 1983, 64–65).

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Figure 22.Io, mammeta e tu sul laghetto, nei giardini di Canton” – Aldo De Jaco (Levante, 1983, 64–65).

Figure 23. “Pagoda a Suzhou. “Non sembra la Torre di Pisa?” domanda il nostro interprete” – Aldo De Jaco (Levante, 1983, 64–65).

Figure 24. “De Jaco e Arbasino sulla Grande Muraglia” – Aldo De Jaco (Levante, 1983, 64–65).

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This study is a revised and expanded version of my doctoral dissertation submitted in 2019 to the School of Cultures Languages and Literatures, University of Auckland. I am indebted to my mentors Bernadette Luciano and Hilary Chung for their unwavering and passionate guidance and support, as well as to Giovanni La Guardia whose erudite advice and friendship goes back a long way. Many people offered suggestions and encouragement at various stages and I am grateful to all them for being supportive of my work: Giorgia Alù, Mark Amsler, Elisa Attanasio, Salvatore Bancheri, Stefano Benedetti, Roberto Bertoni, Claudia Bernardi, Meenakshi Bharat, Stefano Bona, Louisa Buckingham, Miriam Castorina, Daniela Cavallaro, Mark Chu, Paul Clark, Paolo De Falco, Laura De Giorgi, John Foot, Gianna Fusco, Nicola Gardini, Jamie Gillen, Chiara Giuliani, Madhu Grover, Francesco Guardiani, Donatella Guida, Geoff Hall, Margaret Higonnet, Perry Johansson, Giacomo Lichtner, Daniela Kato, Joanne Lee, Wessie Ling, Maurizio Marinelli, Edgardo Medeiros Da Silva, Toshio Miyake, Andrea Polegato, Susanna Scarparo, Mark Seymour, Paola Voci, Lin Yang, Tim Youngs, and Gaoheng Zhang. I benefited to a great degree from the work of Charles Burdett in Italian Travel Writing between the World Wars and Laura De Giorgi on Italian production of knowledge on China during the Fascist Ventennio and in the 1950s. This project owes a lot also to the contributions of Erik Hayot, Collin Mackerras, and Daniel Vukovich on the mechanics underlying heterogeneous ideas of China in twentieth-century Western thought. Special thanks go to Daniel Vukovich and Julia Kuehn, for discussing aspects of research and being so kind and helpful during my stay at the Hong Kong University in the latter months of 2017, which was funded by Universitas21. I am grateful to the institutions and people of the venues where this research was presented, including the Australasian Centre for Italian Studies (ACIS), Association for the Study of Modern Italy (ASMI), Centre for Travel Writing Studies, International Federation ←xiii | xiv→of Modern Languages and Literatures (FILLM), and Society for Italian Studies (SIS); as well as the University of Toronto (2016), Victoria University of Wellington (2016), Flinders University (2016), University of Delhi (2017), Monash Centre in Prato (2017), Aberystwyth University (2017), University of Sussex (2018), Mahidol University (2018), Stony Brook University (2018), and Nova University of Lisbon (2019). The suggestions of the anonymous reviewer of the manuscript submitted to Peter Lang and the external examiners of my doctoral thesis, as well as the comments on conference papers and articles that I have presented and published have also been much appreciated. I wish to express my appreciation for the exceptional support provided by Laurel Plapp and Peter Lang. Many thanks also to Ellen McRae for proofreading and editing the manuscript.

Earlier versions of sections from Chapters 4 and 5 have appeared as articles and book chapters. Portions of Chapters 3 and 4 have appeared in Italy and China: Centuries of Dialogue edited by Francesco Guardiani, Gaoheng Zhang, and Salvatore Bancheri (Franco Cesati, Firenze 2017). Sections from Chapter 3 has been published in the special issue Italianerie” edited by Wessie Ling and Maurizio Marinelli in Modern Italy (24:4 2019, 457–468). A synthesis of my work in its earlier stages has appeared in Representing the Exotic and the Familiar edited by Meenakshi Bharat and Madhu Grover (John Benjamins, Amsterdam/Philadelphia 2019). I am grateful to their editors and publishers. Thanks also to Il Ponte Rivista, Paola Rodari, and Silvia Ascoli, as well as the Archivio Italianliners.com and Maurizio Eliseo, for their assistance with the illustrations reproduced in this book.

This is also the place to thank Mary Anne and Adam for brightening up my days; and Giuseppa and Pietro, Antonio and Rebecca, Raffaele, brothers and sisters, nipotine and mga pamankin, friends and colleagues for being caring and supportive.

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The Distance to China is the first comprehensive comparative study of Italian travel writing on China encompassing the period from 1898 to 1985 and written in English. Its principal scope is to produce a detailed analysis of how China, its people and culture were narrated to the Italian readership in twentieth-century Italy, and the political discourses contained in such narrations. The primary literature consists of key portrayals of China published by Italian journalists, writers, and politicians who traveled in China from the late 1890s to the mid-1980s. I have divided the book into chapters dedicated to five chronological paradigms that align with specific sociopolitical relations between Italy and China and their positioning in major geopolitical events. The first paradigm, from 1898 to 1916, is centered around Italy’s participation in the British and European endeavors to colonize China, and, in particular, Italy’s consequential involvement in the Boxer War (1900–1901). The second, from 1925 to 1945, is shaped by the rise to power of fascism in Italy and discusses fascist Italy’s interest in republican China. The third, from 1949 to 1960, is structured by the fundamental changes in the sociopolitical relationship between China and Italy, which emerged as a result of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China (October 1, 1949), Italy’s post-World War II social renovation as well as Cold War dynamics. The fourth, from 1966 to 1975, focuses on the reception of the Cultural Revolution in Italy and its resonance in the 1960s and early 1970s in Italian society, also in relation to the rise of mass protest movements and political terrorism. The fifth, from 1978 to 1985, revolves around the major sociocultural and political changes and economic reforms in Chinese society following the death of Mao Zedong (September 9, 1976).

I argue that the textual representations of China by the selected authors in those time periods stabilized and reinforced specific images of ←1 | 2→Italy. The writings contributed organically to Italy’s national and cultural identity formation because the authors’ portrayals of China resonated with the political factors prevailing in Italian society and had a referential validity connected to the authors’ political ideologies and affiliations. The first two paradigms are shaped by Italian nationalism and the construction of the myth of the great nation (1898–1916, 1925–1945), as well as fascist ideology (1925–1945). Partisan ideology and anti-fascism, as well as communism and socialism are central in the third and fourth paradigms (1949–1960, 1966–1975). The texts from the fifth paradigm (1978–1985) are permeated by both political disengagement, communist nostalgia, and anti-communism.

In the category of travel narratives discussed in this book, I include journalism, diaries, and poetry, in accordance with both the heterogeneity and the transnationality of travel writing as a form, and the multidisciplinary and international nature of the scholarly interest in travel writing.1 I regard travel literature as “any narrative characterized by a non-fiction dominant that relates (almost always) in the first person a journey or journeys that the reader supposes to have taken place in reality while assuming or presupposing that author, narrator and principal character are but one or identical” (Born 2004, 17).

By building upon existing scholarship on the processes of identity construction in modern Italy, this book provides a comprehensive perspective on how Italian society portrayed itself when embarking on a structured understanding of the Other, in relation to a country – China – which was regarded as the most Other and peripheral in Italian society for most of the twentieth century.2 This book also offers a vantage point from which to ←2 | 3→investigate Italy’s ambitions in the global scene following its emergence from subalternity in the mid-1800s, in relation to China, whose subaltern role started in the same years as a consequence of the imperial agenda initially promoted by Great Britain and then pursued by the most powerful nations in the world until the 1950s – an agenda that did not exactly fit Italy, as discussed in the second chapter of this book. The Distance to China departs from the more traditional and consolidated academic scholarship studying the relation between travel literature and processes of transculturation, which has focused on areas that have been central to Italy’s imperial ambitions, primarily the eastern Mediterranean region as well as North and East Africa, as well as to its migratory fluxes, primarily Europe, North Africa, North America, South America, and Australia. In addition, a detailed analysis of how China was written about in Italian travel literature is required for a more nuanced comprehension of the contextual, historical, political, and ideological dynamics subsumed within the sociocultural and diplomatic relationships between Italy and China, especially now that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has a predominant role in global politics. Such analysis is also fundamental to a more critical understanding of past and present processes of stereotyping and practices of Othering and marginalization of China and the Chinese in Italian society.


XVI, 320
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2022 (December)
Travel Writing and Political Commitment China-Italy Relations National identity Linetto Basilone The Distance to China
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2022. XVI, 320 pp., 24 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Linetto Basilone (Author)

Linetto Basilone holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Auckland and an MA in Comparative Literature from the University of Naples «L’Orientale». He teaches Global Studies at the University of Auckland and is affiliated with the Centro Studi Fortini-Masi. He specializes in the study of cross-cultural encounters, identity construction, and political discourse in literature.


Title: The Distance to China