ITALIAN'S HISTORY OF CHINA

Italian author Adriano Màdaro might be likened to a latter-day literary Marco Polo, a comparison less than idle in that a quarter-century's research to write a history of China has so far seen him pay almost 100 visits to the country, including to many of its most remote regions. Along the way he has collected about 5,000 pictures of Peking (the old name for Beijing) to add to the 15,000 or so many taken by himself-of the changing face of the capital over the last 20 years. But unlike his great Venetian fellow countryman, who in 1295 wrote his best-selling The Travels of Marco Polo, equally-obsessed Sinophile Màdaro is now writing his monumental seven-volume China Between the 18th and 20th Centuries, to be jointly published by the China National Publications Import & Export Corporation and Italy's Europrint Publishing House. It is the first Chinese history written by a foreigner to be distributed by the Chinese publisher. "With all the volumes' information and over two thousand old pictures never published before, the series will certainly attract many readers from China and abroad," said a spokesman. The first volume, The Boxer Rebellion-written in Italian-is already due on bookshelves. It will also be published in Chinese, English, French and German over the next two years. Likewise, five other volumes will gradually be released to the market between now and 2005, the year Màdaro plans to finish writing the last volume. The five are titled: China As Seen by Westerners: 1700-1800; Peking Between 1800-1900; The Heavenly Empire; Walls and Monuments of Old Peking; and Peking Early Twentieth Century. Collectively they trace the construction of old Peking, and the lives of its citizens, through lavish use of photos, illustrations, painting and engravings. Madaro's fascination with China and its history began at 15 when he read Marco Polo's book. "Perhaps because I was born just a few kilometers from the great traveler's home city of Venice," Màdaro told Beijing This Month. "His descriptions of the country captivated me. I thought China must be the most fantastic place, and I told myself that, like Marco Polo, I too should one day go there by horse, bicycle or whatever other means. It was a young man's dream that came true." At 16, Màdaro was reading the translated works of modern Chinese writers. Graduating from university, he both wrote a thesis called Political Doctrines on the Chinese Revolution and decided that his life would in some way be connected with China. Trained as a journalist, he first came to the P.R.China in 1976 as correspondent for a Venice-based newspaper. He recalled: "I was the only foreign passenger on the weekly Paris-Beijing airliner. The first thing I saw outside the airport was a huge portrait of Mao Zedong, and countless people all wearing a Mao badge. I soon realized that most people lived a poor life, but they impressed me with their honesty, hard work and optimism." This was also his first opportunity to photograph Beijing's people, their lifestyle and physical facets of the capital-the first of the 20,000 pictures (some bought overseas) that now make up his priceless collection. Key among them are about 1,000 photos of old Peking which, along with a diary, old Chinese maps, notes and letters, represent an amazing stroke of fortune for Màdaro and his researches. The items were the property of the late marquis Giuseppe Salvago-Raggi, the Italian ambassador to China from 1897 to 1901. Along with luggage, they were handed down to his granddaughter in Italy, Camilla Salvago-Raggi. She was unaware that, to Màdaro, they would be "gold-dust'' to his researches. During one of her regular dreams about her grandfather, he told her to take good care of his "diplomatic bag" because, one day, an intelligent Italian man fond of China would come for it. And so it transpired after Màdaro read, in a book written by Camilla, of the luggage's existence. He made contact and actually used the late ambassador's bed at Camilla's home. "I could not sleep," he said. "Everything was so real that I felt the ambassador was still alive. It was amazing." So too was the historical treasure-trove left by the diplomat-more than enough, in fact, to further reinforce his determination to write a history about China. Because of his many visits to the country and regular contact with an ever-growing number of academic and other contacts, Màdaro has emerged as a highly respected cultural catalyst between China and Italy. Such is his stature that he has for 10 years been, and continues to be, the only non-Chinese member of the permanent executive council of the Chinese Academy of International Culture. While Màdaro is absorbed in all aspects of Chinese history, he is particularly interested in events after the first Opium War and the relationship between China and Britain from 1839 to 1842. Simply, why the western powers "came to carve up such a great country, and why, unlike Marco Polo, they were not friendly towards China". He also poses intriguing questions that stem from ambassador SalvagoRaggi's diary, which contains information never before revealed. For example, how was the British press able to announce the assassination on June 20,1900, of the German minister, Clemens von Ketteler, fully five days before the media overall received the news? Màdaro's research also raises some interesting questions about the Boxer Rebellion. Who exactly were the Boxers, and what were the true roles of the Powers then present in China? And in whose interest was it to cause riots which culminated in von Ketteler's death? While the author lacks enough evidence to give definitive answers to such questions, he hopes that his raising of them will inspire a new understanding of Chinese modern history. He further hopes to one day build a museum to share his findings with people who are interested in the country. "China has given me so much pleasure," he said. "I will dedicate the rest of my life to her."

( TRAVEL SILK ROAD December 31, 2001)