China on the periphery : transitions of Chinese "Orientalism" from Oliver Goldsmith to Thomas De Quincey

Doctoral thesis English OPEN
Huang, Bo-Yuan
  • Subject: PN

This project contains six chapters, and looks carefully at the original generic forms and cultural environment of publication. This first part will include the general introduction to the shaping and the mapping of knowledge of China in the pre-Romantic period. Daniel Defoe’s The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719), as a widely-read, popular romance, would serve as an important text that provides a peep into contemporary British and China from an economic and materialistic perspective. French texts of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws (1748) and Voltaire’s An Essay on Universal History, the Manners, and Spirit of Nations (1756) would also be included and carefully examined. Although these two works were not written in English, still both held strong presences in the circle of British intellectuals at that time. And although both works were based on the Jesuits’ accounts, they ended up yielding rather different results, providing almost opposite contemporary opinions about China. In Montesquieu’s idea, China, as an absolute despotic country that produces nothing but economic and social stagnation whereas in Voltaire’s depiction, China is guided and governed by high moral and philosophical standards. Both writers’ works showcase an unsettling debate on how China is and should be portrayed in the mid-eighteenth century. This would provide a special foreground that nurtures the later discussions on China, such as the idea of political economy in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776) and the general public’s ambivalent sentiments towards China, which would lay a strong foundation for the development of this research project.\ud \ud The second chapter takes on Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1762) and his other essays and periodical articles to explore how Goldsmith, while echoing back to the aforementioned two writers, takes good advantage of the satirical form of a Chinese philosopher-travellers’ account, not to work as a mechanism of producing sheer alienation and foreignness, but to provide his social observation, in order to assess both domestic and exotic cultures from a parodist’s point of view. Although Goldsmith has constantly been accused of plagiarising European works, and although he did not offer an effective solution to the conflicting nature of Chinese vogue in his contemporary Europe, he was one of the most influential figures in his time who actually dove into the popular cultural phenomenon, suggesting the possible marriage and amiable relationship between the domestic and the foreign cultures with a slight amount of disbelief, concern, and sarcasm.\ud \ud Chapter three deals with Lord Macartney’s Embassy to China between 1792 and 1794, and looks closely at the travel narratives both by embassy members and by Lord Macartney himself. Several visual representations of China would be examined in this chapter, including some of the most well-known works by caricaturists such as James Gillray and George Cruikshank before and after the embassy. William Alexander, the embassy’s draughtsman, also brought home numerous first-hand portrayals of China, allowing the British public to see the non-distorted images of China. Despite the unsuccessful diplomatic journey, the Embassy returned to Britain with some immediate and direct accounts of Chinese society that were not from a Jesuit source, which defined how common English public comprehended and perceived China from then on. Whether Lord Macartney performed the ritual of “kowtow” ignited a heated series of deliberations about China: if it is a country of absolute despotism or of enlightened despotism? And if China has been stagnant in terms of technology, economy, and culture? Would China be able to open up for foreign trades and diplomacy? These debates strongly shaped the subsequent discussions of China in England in the nineteenth century.\ud \ud Chapter four scrutinises several Charles Lamb’s Elia essays (1823, 1833) and his correspondences with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and with Thomas Manning who was a leading Sinologist and later a member of Amherst Embassy. Coleridge’s fragmental masterpiece “Kubla Khan” is also included to illuminate the phenomenon of popular oriental fantasy, while the correspondences from Manning and Coleridge are incorporated to examine Lamb’s major source of creative ideas. Particularly, Lamb’s most celebrated essay “Old China” would serve as a perfect example to further dive into not only the writer’s personal obsessive attachment to chinaware but also the remarkable reflection on how the vogue of chinoiserie and the oriental luxuries helped form the concept of “taste” and gave rise to the new consumer ethics of the middle class in Britain. This would also position the consumption of chinoiserie in the luxury debate in the eighteenth century, and how this phenomenon gradually died away in the nineteenth century.\ud \ud Chapter five approaches Thomas De Quincey’s most famous yet notorious work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822, 1856) and political essays in relation to Anglo-Chinese diplomacy. Influenced by the emergence of racial theories and the trend of switched focus from China to India and the South Sea, De Quincey’s ideas of China reflected the new-found colonist supremacy of Britain, and how the military intervention should be carried out in order to, eventually, disenchant the old charm of China that was thoroughly built up by and within the European imagination. The stagnation in politics, economy and society of China was gradually and then generally accepted in the first half of the nineteenth century, and De Quincey’s proposal that Britain should wage wars against China can also be seen as a violent means for Britain to actively take on the role of global power and colonial country that seeks overseas expansion, as well as a means for China to transform.\ud \ud The last chapter will conclude that “Chinese Orientalism” is not a by-product of “Romantic Orientalism”; rather, “Chinese Orientalism” should be viewed and understood as a series of images of China that have been romanticised by European imagination—whether they are positive or negative—and they peaked during the mid-eighteenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. “Chinese Orientalism” is, again, not a simplistic idea, but a complex, triangular relationship with politics, commerce, and culture between England and China. This shift in the balance of opinions was accompanied by a change in emphasis and approach in European construct of China, from an Enlightened preoccupation with and admiration of the political, cultural and philosophical supremacy of China, to a Romantic engagement bifurcated between intimate consumers’ attachment to the chinoiserie and oriental luxuries, and then to a racialised “Other” and a stagnant and tiresome country of despotic polity that was in a desperate need for British rationalism and military intervention as a means to revive. With the aim of opening testing and giving great contextual specificity to China within larger discourses and representations of the East, this thesis tracks this process of transformation and the balance of opinions. And it is my hope that this study will in some measure contribute to the heightening of this interest, especially at the time when Europe and China are bound not only culturally but also politically and financially.
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