The Romantic Reinvention of Imperial China, 1759–1857
Hargrave, Jennifer Lauren
Doctor of Philosophy
"The Romantic Reinvention of Imperial China" argues that Romantic literature shaped nineteenth-century interimperial exchanges between Britain and China. This project bridges two bodies of literary scholarship immersed in Anglo-Sino discourse: eighteenth-century scholarship, which reveals British perceptions of China as the embodiment of political stability and economic prowess; and nineteenth-century scholarship, which situates China in a British imperial context following the first Opium War (1839–42). The minimal scholarship on Anglo-Sino relations between the Enlightenment and Victorian periods suggests a lull in these exchanges during the Romantic era. On the contrary, British interest in China increased exponentially following the first Anglo-Sino diplomatic exchange in 1793. Yet the popular demand for information about China exceeded British knowledge of the Qing Empire. China’s historical isolation had resulted in two substantial gaps in Western knowledge of the Middle Kingdom: the first between Marco Polo’s thirteenth-century travelogue and seventeenth-century Jesuit scholarship; and the second between the Kangxi Emperor’s 1721 ban on Christian missions and the end of the second Opium War in 1860. From the mid-eighteenth century up to the first Opium War—a period in which British imperialism escalated—Britons tackled these gaps in cultural knowledge with myriad visual and textual publications regarding China. These publications—broadly categorized as Sinology—included dramas, satires, travelogues, vernacular textbooks, poems, Chinese-English translations, cultural studies, and political essays. Through analyses of these archival and canonical materials, "Romantic Reinvention" establishes Sinology’s role in formulating nineteenth-century British imperial ideology. Romantic Sinological texts—often dismissed by scholars as ancillary to Britain’s contentious economic relationship with China—actually challenge narratives that depict nineteenth-century representations of foreign spaces as unequivocally imperialist. Romantic Sinologists often represented China as a self-sufficient, culturally sophisticated empire while simultaneously expressing an imperial desire for its subjugation. Their inconsistent depictions of China subverted popular imperialist attitudes, thereby problematizing modern linear accounts of British imperial history. Ironically, Romanticists’ tempered admiration for Chinese culture compelled their Victorian successors to develop new modes of representation that asserted China’s inferiority. "The Romantic Reinvention of Imperial China" demonstrates how Romanticism’s multifaceted literary representations of China unwittingly inaugurated the discourses that condoned British imperial expansion.
Eighteenth-Century British Literature; British Romantic Literature; Anglo-Sino Exchanges; Sinology; British Imperial History