Five Questions: Peter Kitson on Forging Romantic China

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Peter Kitson - Forging Romantic China

Peter J. Kitson is currently Professor of English at the University of East Anglia; previous to this, he taught at the University of Dundee and the University of Wales, Bangor.  His early research was on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but in recent years he has focused particularly on Romantic-period encounters between Britain and the wider world, publishing monographs on Literature, Science and Exploration in the Romantic Period (with Tim Fulford and Debbie Lee; Cambridge University Press, 2004) and Romantic Literature, Race and Colonial Encounter, 1760-1840 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).  He is an honorary member of BARS, having served for many years on the Executive, most recently as President between 2007 and 2011.  His latest monograph, which we discuss below, is Forging Romantic China: Sino-British Cultural Encounters, 1760-1840, published last year by Cambridge University Press.  He will be giving a plenary address on his work in this area at the Romantic Connections conference in Toyko this June.

1) How did you first become interested in the relationship between China and the West?

I have always been fascinated by the historical and global contexts of the writing of the Romantic period and earlier and later periods, and my specific interest in China grew out of that more general concern.  I suppose the key moment occurred when I collaborated with Tim Fulford in producing an eight volume edition of travel writings from the period, which was published by Pickering & Chatto in 2000-2001.  As part of the division of labour for that series, I edited the materials on China and Japan, along with Oceania, and the Arctic and Antarctic.  In particular, the accounts of the first embassy to China, that of Viscount Macartney in 1792-94, engrossed me, and I wanted to find out more about what Britons actually understood about China in the period.  I was quite struck by the fact that while there existed a substantial amount of writing about China and the west in earlier and later periods, there was comparatively little cultural criticism in the period c. 1780-1840 and it seemed, I thought, rather hubristically, that this would make a manageable project.  I was also intrigued by the comparative absence of China-centred discussions in contemporary orientalist discourse which has generally focused on India and the ‘Near East’ for obvious reasons.  So I wondered what difference would it make when we restore China to the Romantic period, or, to put in in other words, when we sinicize Romantic period writing.  When I researched my earlier book Romantic Literature, Race, and Colonial Encounter, I felt that I should problematize current accounts of race thinking by including chapters on understandings of China and ‘Tartary’ and their peoples in terms of racial discourse.  Once that project was completed, I was free to work on China.

2) What new fields of knowledge did you need to familiarise yourself with in order to write this book?

As so often with these projects, we begin with the confidence of ignorance, which is a wonderfully enabling commodity, the capital of which, sadly, becomes quickly depleted.  Fortunately, I was awarded a major Leverhulme fellowship for two years, without which I would never have completed the book as it stands.  I needed to familiarise myself with Chinese history, as well as the historiographical debates about it, especially the move from the 1980s to produce a China centred focus.  The book has chapters on visual art and Romantic period drama, so I needed to work on those areas as well.  I had not worked extensively on drama, so I had to research the primary materials, involving a month in the Huntington Library reading scripts in the Larpent collection.  I had to have a good sense of the leading aspects of chinoiserie in the period: architecture, design, porcelain etc, so needed to work on this as well as the various trades in these commodities.  I had to find out a lot about tea and the tea trade.  The book also contains discussions of the translations of Chinese texts, so I had to get up to speed on contemporary and period theories of translation, as well as achieve a good sense of the development of Chinese literature.  A major subject in the book is the British debates about Confucianism.  As well as reading the primary texts of the Confucian canon, I also had to get a grasp of the complex ways in which that canon was constructed and formed, and the debates between the different schools.  It was all fascinating reading.  Not quite as fascinating, but equally important, was gaining an understanding of the contributions and contexts of the British Protestant missionaries in China from 1806 onward – Robert Morrison, William Milne, W.H. Medhurst and so on – and their amazing life stories.  So I had lots of archival work to do on their accounts and correspondence.  Obviously, I had help from very generous Chinese scholars on matters relating to the language itself, but negotiating and referencing the various transliteration systems (Wade-Giles, Pinyin) and their implications was also a real challenge.  I hope I got it right!

3) Forging Romantic China makes clear that viewing Britain as ‘a modern, technological, and industrial power’ encountering in the Qing empire ‘an older and now stagnating polity’ is inaccurate, stressing instead ‘the complexities and multipolarity of exchange between Britain and China in an already globalized world’. What implications does your recovery of the extent of Chinese economic and cultural influence in the period have for our conventional narratives regarding imperial expansion and the development of British Romanticisms?

There has been a great deal of work on the concept of world systems in historical terms.  Most famously, Andre Gunder Frank posited the notion of a developed global economy led by China and India until c. 1800 and interrupted by northern European, then North American, industrial and technological hegemony in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Many other studies of Chinese history, science, and culture have made similar points.  For Britons in particular, the crucial importance of the tea trade with China, managed by the English East India Company, made China a subject of major importance to many people.  William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s brother John was engaged in the tea trade and visited China twice.  Coleridge, apparently, considered Canton as a place where he might recuperate his health in 1804, before settling upon Malta.  How would the course of British Romanticism have changed had he gone there?  Jane Austen’s ‘sailor brother’ Frank also spent time in Canton.  Lamb, and Peacock served in the offices of the East India Company in London.  These are just a few examples of the many personal and family connections that the tea trade established.  As such, it seems to me, China was a crucial topos in the minds of Britons.  More and more, as I researched, I met China everywhere, but often in fugitive and unexpected references and places, for instance in the middle of Book 8 of the Prelude.  So I think we do need to look at Romantic period writing afresh and account for the ways in which China features as a significant, if not always obvious, presence.  We have tended to rely, too often, on De Quincey’s vehemently racist writings about China and the ‘Far East’ as if they were numinously metonymic for Romantic attitudes to China, but casting the net more widely to include, drama, translations, diplomatic accounts etc, we find a much more nuanced, conflicted, and complicated view of China emerging.  My researches thus led me to argue that China featured as an important ‘other’ for Britons in the period in more profound ways than we have previously thought, acting almost as a kind of reflection of the emerging British imperial polity.  In the earlier part of the period, the British were very much in awe of China and were negotiating from what they perceived as a position of cultural weakness, arguing for reciprocity.  In fact, my research led me to believe that it was difficult to apply conventional notions of post-colonial othering to China given the power and prestige of the empire up until the 1830s.  It is very clear that there were many important collaborations and negotiations with China in the period that belie any sense of a simple relation of colonial centre and periphery.  Much of the key knowledge about China emerges not from London, but from Bengal, Serampore, and Canton.  I also think we need to engage more fully with notions of civility, hospitality, and exchange in our understandings of encounters with other peoples.

4) Which works from among the corpus of Romantic Sinology you discuss and the productions informed by this corpus do you believe deserve a wider contemporary readership? Are there particular works that you think could be usefully taught on undergraduate or postgraduate programmes?

First, I think we do have to be prepared to look at the works we already teach afresh, especially texts such as Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and Austen’s Mansfield Park, to look for how representations of China are mediated.  We have to be prepared to supplement our canonical readings of De Quincey with other texts from the period that present a different view of China; the many translations, for instance, of Chinese drama, fiction, and poetry.  Certainly, I think dramas such as Arthur Murphy’s The Orphan of China (1759) and Andrew Cherry’s The Travellers; or, Music’s Fascination (1806) are important texts that deserve study.  Murphy’s drama is a version of a frequently adapted thirteenth-century Chinese drama, Zhao shi guer, which Voltaire also had a go at.  It’s a strong, well-written drama, performed throughout the period and well worth analysis.  The hook of the drama is that the leading figure, the mandarin Zamti, must either sacrifice the life of the heir to the dynasty he is loyal to, or that of his own son.  Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1760) is rightfully receiving more and more of the attention it deserves as an important text about China and Britain.  I am also a strong advocate for Charles Lamb’s essays ‘Old China’ and ‘Dissertation on Roast Pig’ (as for Lamb more widely) which are important in their views of China; when I taught them to undergraduates, they went down very well, like the newly-discovered roast pork.  Leigh Hunt’s ‘The Subject of Breakfast—Tea Drinking’ is also pedagogically very palatable.  Generally, when we look at Romantic period attitudes to nature we really should be referencing the crucial debate about the Anglo-Chinese garden, recently re-invigorated by William Chambers and Horace Walpole, as an informing context for the picturesque and the sublime.  The accounts of the Macartney and Amherst embassies and some of the travel accounts of the missionaries also work well in period courses about travel writing.

5) What are you planning to do next?

I am working on a sequel to Forging Romantic China at the moment.  That book finishes in the late 1830s with the first Opium War looming and I would like to write something about the Opium trade and the war itself.  There has been a lot of scholarship on the accounts of the Second Opium war of the 1859-60 and the sacking of the Summer Palace, but those of the first have largely escaped discussion except as source material for the standard histories.  I was wondering about the ways in which this might be connected with contemporary discourses of opium: medical, aesthetic, and commercial.  I also have a project titled Romanticism’s Other Asia in mind that would encompass period reflections on Japan, Mongolia, and Tibet.  I am busy with Will Christie at Sydney and others in setting up a research network about China and nineteenth-century writing more widely, involving Chinese scholars.  I am currently guest-editing a special number of the European Romantic Review on this subject with contributions from distinguished scholars, about which I am very excited.