“The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures,” by Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac. (Palgrave Macmillan)

Washington’s Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery have long made our city a magnet for students and admirers of Chinese art. These two institutions have taught us to appreciate calligraphic brush work, the clean lines of Ming furniture and the celadon glazes of ancient porcelain. But how did masterpieces from China end up on the Mall? How, in fact, did the United States become, as a recent Wall Street Journal article proclaimed, “the capital of Asian art”?

Part of the answer can be found in this excellent book, which tracks the adventures of the learned, cutthroat and eccentric scholars and collectors who brought the treasures of the Middle Kingdom to America, even to Middle America (two of the world’s major repositories of Asiana are the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.). Sharply written throughout and packed with anecdotes, “The China Collectors,” by eminent journalist Karl E. Meyer and former CBS News documentary producer Shareen Blair Brysac, is one of those works of cultural history actually intended for readers of novels and newspapers, not just academic specialists. It belongs on the same shelf as Richard Holmes’s stirring account of science in the Romantic era, “The Age of Wonder” (2009), Jenny Uglow’s prize-winning “The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World” (2002) and Norman Cantor’s sprightly and iconoclastic “Inventing the Middle Ages” (1992), a portrait gallery of the great medievalists of the 20th century.

Meyer and Brysac begin their story with an act of desecration and vandalism: the destruction of Yuanmingyuan, the Chinese emperor’s summer palace, by English and French troops in 1860. “As many as two hundred buildings were torched or leveled, and everything of value that could be taken, was taken.” The recent devastation of Nimrud by Islamic State fanatics is both heartbreaking and disgusting, yet it wasn’t so long ago that the civilized West behaved with comparable barbarity. “When we first entered the gardens, they reminded one of those magic grounds described in fairy tales,” recalled Col. Garnet Wolseley. Yet on Oct. 19 we “marched from them, leaving a dreary waste of ruined nothings.”

America’s involvement with China goes back to the late 18th century, when Yankee ships began to trade fur pelts and wheat (and later opium) for tea, silks and dishware. As early as 1845-1847, Boston presented the “Great Chinese Museum,” an exhibition visited by the 15-year-old Emily Dickinson. One critic has speculated that the guidebook’s description of the renunciation, withdrawal and nothingness at the heart of Asian religious thought might have influenced our premier mystical poet.

Harvard University trained and underwrote many early explorers of China’s cultural and archaeological heritage. The 19th-century scholar Ernest Fenollosa traveled to the East, converted to Buddhism, oversaw the Oriental section at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and wrote an essay on the Chinese written character which inspired Ezra Pound’s translations from that language. At the university’s Fogg Museum, Edward Waldo Forbes and Paul J. Sachs mentored generations of art historians and curators, some of whom became China hands. These included the swashbuckling archaeologist Langdon Warner — said to be a partial model for Indiana Jones — who, we are charmingly told, “maintained a lifelong interest in archery and falconry and spent his spare time whittling wooden eagles.”

In a particularly disturbing chapter, Meyer and Brysac focus on the plundering of statuary and frescoes from the Buddhist sanctuary at Longmen, many of its artifacts ending up in the hands of C.T. Loo, a dealer in Paris with a pagoda-style gallery. American scholars were regularly tormented by ethical doubts and misgivings when acquiring pieces or fragments that derived from Longmen (and elsewhere): By purchasing such items, were they performing an essential act of preservation — or were they encouraging the further looting of tombs and sacred sites? Did taking art out of China bring it to safety and informed guardianship — or was it white-faced thievery, the pillaging of another nation’s cultural heritage? These are vexed questions we still debate. With nice irony, Chinese billionaires are now raiding Western auction houses for Chinese art, valuing especially those works that have been authenticated by American scholars.

While many pages of “The China Collectors” deal with titans of industry — William and Henry Walters, John D. Rockefeller Jr. — other sections chronicle lives of romance and derring-do. George Kates, for instance, worked in Hollywood verifying that silent-film actors employed correct European manners and gestures. In China, he rediscovered the elegant simplicity of Ming-era furniture and design. Perhaps the most extraordinary figure of all, though, was William Rockhill. “Born in Philadelphia to a lawyer and a Baltimore belle,” he was “schooled in France at the preeminent military academy at Saint-Cyr,” then became “an officer in the French Foreign Legion in Algeria, a rancher in New Mexico, and a translator of Tibetan sutras.”

After three years in Switzerland studying Tibetan, Sanskrit and Chinese, the intrepid Rockhill made several unsuccessful attempts to reach mysterious Lhasa. At one point, he even shaved his head and disguised himself as a Mongol. When he finally left his diplomatic posting to China, “he had collected hundreds of mostly Tibetan objects, as well as rare books in Mongolian, Manchu, Tibetan and Chinese . . . that are now impossible to obtain. Eleven hundred volumes now reside in the Freer Gallery of Art; six thousand items are now in the Library of Congress, making it a leading center for Tibetan studies.”

For all its seriousness, “The China Collectors” doesn’t neglect the People magazine aspect of cultural history. For example, one lively chapter looks at the glamorous socialites of 1930s Peking, including the Yu sisters, Der Ling and Rong Ling, who were educated in Europe and studied dancing with Isadora Duncan and acting with Sarah Bernhardt.

In stark contrast, Charles Lang Freer made his money in Detroit from the manufacture of railroad cars, and was “reclusive, fastidious, idiosyncratic, lean in frame, with an immaculately groomed Vandyke beard.” He comes across as a rather attractive loner. Not so, Arthur M. Sackler. A psychiatrist with a lucrative pharmaceutical business, he turns out to have been as much a conniver as a connoisseur. He cut deals with the Metropolitan Museum of Art that allowed him vast tax write-offs as well as free storage of his collection. In the end, the ingrate left the Met nothing.

Perhaps the most admirable figure among many roguish ones is the Cleveland Museum’s Sherman Lee, who didn’t know Chinese or Japanese, graduated from American University rather than Harvard, and rejected the notion that Asian art was so esoteric that only the cultivated or specially trained could appreciate it. Lee could be refreshingly no-nonsense: “When a curator comes back and says he discovered an important art work, he really means a dealer discovered it.”

Like so much of the best nonfiction, “The China Collectors” is as entertaining as it is eye-opening. After reading it, you’ll never visit an Asian art exhibit again without shuddering at how much Sturm und Drang went into the creation of such peacefulness and serenity.

Michael Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post every Thursday.

THE CHINA COLLECTORS

America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Art Treasures

By Karl E. Meyer and Shareen Blair Brysac

Palgrave Macmillan. 420 pp. $30