Forging Romantic China: Sino-British Cultural Exchange, 1760-1840, by Peter J. Kitson

Eva Shan Chou on a study of British knowledge - as opposed to fanciful assumptions - of China in the Romantic period

March 20, 2014

In this detailed study, Peter Kitson considers the (long) Romantic period, an age in which general knowledge of China in Britain was chiefly expressed in the chinoiserie of furnishings, porcelain, architecture and such, and authorities on all things Chinese were drawn from the overlapping spheres of the China trade, missionaries, the navy and the Foreign Office. The embassy of Lord Macartney to the Qing Dynasty court, 1792-93, was its grandest public manifestation. Kitson chooses 1840 as his end date; two years later, China’s defeat in the First Opium War would end parity between the two nations. The rich subjects he considers here have long fascinated the public and have inspired numerous books and exhibitions.

Forging Romantic China sets itself a harder topic: it seeks to trace British knowledge of China in this period that was directly derived or that aimed for accuracy – hence Kitson’s quest to link that knowledge with the era’s major figures. The earliest translations of the Chinese classics into English (in contrast to the Jesuits’ Latin) took place during this time and are treated here in detail. Scientific work, especially the collecting of botanical specimens, such as by the Macartney embassy, was another tangible outcome. These last endeavours are also part of a larger story of the worldwide collection of plants implemented by the Royal Society and Sir Joseph Banks that formed the core of the collections at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

But Romanticism is most closely associated with literature and, here, familial connections with Empire and the books that writers were likely to have read make for intriguing speculation. One of Jane Austen’s naval brothers spent a year in Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) and left records of his actions and thoughts; a letter of hers sent to Canton has also survived. William Wordsworth’s brother John was with the East India Company, which led the family to invest heavily in the private trading that officers were permitted on the side. (His three voyages all met with misfortune, with the last ending in shipwreck and his death.)

Although the presence of China in these authors’ writings is slight, it is intriguing. In Austen’s Mansfield Park, Fanny is reading an account of Lord Macartney’s embassy when she learns from Edmund that he is to take part in the theatricals proposed by Mary Crawford. Since Austen’s every incidental detail is significant, what Fanny is reading at this moment certainly invites interpretation, and several scholarly ones are provided. In Wordsworth’s Prelude, his force-fed Infant Prodigy is likened to one of China’s “vegetable dwarfs” (bonsai) and, later, Grasmere is contrasted with the artificial Wanshuyuan Garden at which Macartney was received. Such an allusion, Kitson suggests, is also an implicit comment on the Prince Regent’s chinoiserie-inspired building projects.

In general, however, it is not easy to find even passing references in literary works of the era. Most knowledge of China at this time was fanciful; there is no shame in that. But it means that, just as the arts of chinoiserie flourished in transplant, so the works of many writers employed their own ideas of China. On Kitson’s own showing, this was the case for Charles Lamb, Robert Southey, Thomas Manning, Byron (whose Manfred features an Asiatic despot rather than a Chinese one), Leigh Hunt and Shelley, all of whom invoked a China of their minds (although Kitson, in a suggestive paragraph, argues that Coleridge’s Kubla Khan might be an exception). Such a list shows the daunting job the author faced. The large amount of information he has collected, although it sometimes overwhelms his writing style, has allowed him to reconstruct the forging of particular ideas of China in the Romantic era in Britain.

Forging Romantic China: Sino-British Cultural Exchange, 1760-1840

By Peter J. Kitson
Cambridge University Press, 326pp, £60.00
ISBN 9781107045613 and 7497504 (e-book)
Published 21 November 2013

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