Five Questions: Chris Murray on China from the Ruins of Athens and Rome

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Chris Murray is a Lecturer in Literary Studies at Monash University. He works on literature of the (very) long nineteenth century, with particular interests in Romanticism, Orientalism, Irish Studies, the receptions of the Classics and notions of interdisciplinarity. His first book, Tragic Coleridge (which we discussed here) was published in 2013; in 2018, he published Crippled Immortals, a work of narrative non-fiction about martial arts. His new monograph, China from the Ruins of Athens and Rome: Classics, Sinology, and Romanticism, 1793-1938, which we discuss below, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

1) How did you come to realise you wanted to write a book on the nexus between Classics, Sinology and Romanticism?

At first I thought I had set aside classical reception, a focus of my earlier research, in favour of Chinese culture, which had long been a personal interest and which led me to Singapore as a postdoc. But the Anglophone texts I read on Chinese subjects kept alluding to Graeco-Roman antiquity in a number of ways. It seemed inadequate to me that existing theories of how the West gazes at the East disregarded the fact that there is intervening matter which informs or distorts views of the other culture. There was a story to tell about how Anglophone writers constructed visions of China from imaginative materials sourced in (say) Aeschylus’ universe alongside those from the Qing Empire. Wanting to tell that story involved a series of triangulations which were enjoyable and rewarding to work on, such as that between Macartney Embassy narratives, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, and Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; and W.B. Yeats’s ‘Lapis Lazuli’, Matthew Arnold’s Empedocles on Etna, and a Chinese stone inscribed with a poem by the Qianlong Emperor.

2) Why did Anglophone writers default to classical precedents when seeking to explain encounters with China, and which Greek and Roman works did they use most commonly in their attempts?

To the likes of Johann Joachim Winckelmann, classics was the master-knowledge. Graeco-Roman antiquity offered paradigms of what art and culture should (supposedly) be, historical precedents for diplomatic encounters, narratives which could be used as frameworks to explore important themes, and a set of familiar touchstones which might introduce unfamiliar ideas by analogy. At times, writers used classics to negotiate Chinese topics that were simultaneously international news and personally significant. For example, both Sara Coleridge and Tennyson invoked Homer and Lucretius in considerations of the opium crisis which were intensified by their families’ experiences of addiction: reimagining those problems in classical universes appears to allow the authors perspective.

At the height of Victorian imperialism, Virgil’s Aeneid was the dominant classical presence in Anglophone writing on China, largely because Britain became obsessed with empire and the perceived Roman inheritance. But earlier literature on Chinese themes drew from a wider range of ancient works. In Lamia – a poem with peculiar Chinese connections – Keats’s interest in Apollonius of Tyana ensued attention to early church history in Gibbon and others. Charles Lamb’s reinvention of Porphyry’s tale as Chinese in ‘Roast Pig’ followed citations of that philosopher in debates on vegetarianism. Such textual range reflects the diversification of classics during the Romantic period, although I suggest too that offbeat or eccentric classical figures corresponded with Keats’s and Lamb’s feelings of marginality in relation to the elitism of classical studies.

3) Did the extent to which Anglophone writers relied on classical lenses to interpret China diminish over the course of the period you examine, or were the interactions you perceive more complex?

Broadly, as Sinology advanced, classics was used in more sophisticated considerations of Chinese culture rather than disappearing from the discussion. Tennyson’s ‘The Ancient Sage’ (1885), one of the later texts studied in the book, is a response to Laozi’s Dao De Jing, which Tennyson read in translation. Framed as a Socratic dialogue, the poem attempts to encapsulate the ideal Daoist life in a set of quasi-Semitic commandments, and wonders whether the sage’s professed knowledge of a universal substance amounts to an Augustinian experience of faith. It’s a long way from the eighteenth-century accounts of Chinese culture which say tersely that ancestral tablets are the same as Roman household-gods.

But classical presences persisted in Anglophone treatments of China for other reasons too. For instance, a narrative arose about the Willow pattern which was reiterated in poems and musicals. These claimed that the Willow narrative was an ancient Chinese tale. The source for this story of transformation is actually Metamorphoses – but Ovid was neglected for much of the nineteenth century, which I suspect is one reason why the origin of the Willow narrative went unnoticed.

4) Was the use of classical works to frame China inevitably occlusive, or did classical mediations sometimes provide a framework for genuine cultural interchange?

It could prove occlusive at times. If you read John Barrow’s account of China you’ll find that he dismisses Daoism by repeating Jean-Baptiste Du Halde’s claim that it’s mere Epicureanism. From such neat associations you can see why Anglophone scholars were dissuaded from taking Chinese spirituality seriously until the Baptist translators who followed some decades later. Yet rich dialogues were possible too. The Chinese diplomat Zeng Jize authored a famous English-language essay about the destruction of the Summer Palace at the hands of Anglo-French soldiers in 1860. As a figure for China’s political weakness he mentions the fallen Saturn, which I suggest is taken from Keats. Although the image was probably supplied by Zeng’s assistant with the essay, Samuel Halliday Macartney – who was related to the early ambassador – it’s evidence that Graeco-Roman antiquity came to be seen as a means to mediate Sino-British relations from the Chinese side too. Accordingly, modern debate about the possible repatriation of treasures taken from the Summer Palace is interrelated with that on the Parthenon Sculptures.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m looking more specifically at Anglophone receptions of Daoism. This develops my contribution to a special issue of The Wordsworth Circle on Romantic Asia, and involves not only translations of Chinese texts, but Western encounters with inner alchemy and the Daoist quest for immortality. With Willa Murphy I’m editing a volume on Religion for the Cambridge University Press series Cambridge Themes in Irish Literature and Culture. I’m involved in CNSCI, a research consortium that unites Monash, Durham, McGill, Aarhus, and other institutions, and am exploring ways to collaborate on my projects internationally and perhaps to establish new research networks.