For starters, in 1644 a Jesuit missionary named Adman Schall was made director of the Chinese Bureau of Astronomy (appointed by the Emperor's grand secretary) and this was no ordinary appointment. Before this moment China had never dreamed that anything of value might be found in the West. What new techniques could be needed in a country that drew its wisdom from the Sages, controlled 150,000,000 subjects with a small and sophisticated bureaucracy, had touched perfection in art and poetry, and plumbed the mysteries of sea, earth and sky?
As it turned out, they lacked the appropriate formula for predicting and measuring a solar eclipse. The Chinese welcomed Schall the astronomer but proved far less interested in his attempts to introduce Christianity. The Jesuits had the sense to be polite, accommodating and curious, which meant learning all they could about Chinese culture and language while continuing with astronomy, which made for a promising start, but the honeymoon didn't last long.
The rest, as Spence tells it, is an engaging introduction to Western advisers in China from 1620 through the 1950s by way of 16 profiles. At the beginning of the period, the advisers brought knowledge of the stars and planetary motion; at the end they introduced the Chinese to aerial warfare and the mysteries of the atom . . . among the 16 were astronomers, soldiers, doctors, administrators, translators, engineers, and one professional revolutionary organizer . . .
It's an informative and entertaining read, and a good place to commence the long backstory on U.S./China relations.