- Representations of China in British Children’s Fiction, 1851–1911 by Shih-Wen Chen
Misunderstanding and an imbalance of power characterized Victorian Britain’s relationship with Imperial China. When the king sent the first British Embassy to China (1792–94), its leader, Lord Macartney, expected the Chinese emperor to defer to him [End Page 299] as the representative of a superior state. Instead, the emperor, divine head of a kingdom which had been the major power in its region for two thousand years, expected tribute from an inferior state. The two countries’ relationship went downhill from there. During the nineteenth century, Great Britain, with its superior military might, extracted humiliating trade concessions from China, including the right to sell opium. China was forced to cede Hong Kong to Britain as a Crown Colony, and to open treaty ports where foreign traders were exempt from Chinese laws. Famine in southern China created conditions ripe for rebellion, pitting ethnic Chinese, or Han, against both European powers and their own Manchu rulers. During the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), over twenty million lives were lost, while the Boxer Uprising (1899–1901) rattled the very foundations of imperial power.
I believe that it is impossible to understand modern China without some knowledge of its nineteenth-century history. While Great Britain fought to dominate China, how did British children’s fiction represent that far-off country? This is the question Chen seeks to answer. Her study begins in 1851, the year of London’s Great Exhibition, which ushered in an era of expanding information about China, and ends in 1911, the year revolutionaries finally toppled the last imperial dynasty. She examines eighteen novels in exhaustive detail, as well as numerous short pieces of fiction, aiming to create a dialogue with postcolonial critics through a very close reading of each book: “While acknowledging the imperialist rhetoric and stereotypes evident in many texts, I present … some children’s texts that challenge the conclusions made by critics that read Victorian and Edwardian children’s literature through their interpretation of Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism” (10). Chen’s study charts nuances and variations, mapping new territory with a subtle analysis of fictional Chinese characters and the history they portray.
The first authors considered in this roughly chronological history, Anne Bowman and William Dalton, sought to present British children with an encyclopedic knowledge of China by writing fictional travelogues in the tradition of Jacob Abbott and Samuel Griswold Goodrich. Both authors relied on previous books for their information, as neither had traveled to China. Bowman, who wrote boys’ adventure stories, sets two novels there: The Travels of Rolando (1853), written as a sequel to a French book of the same title, and The Boy Voyagers (1859). Chen notes that Bowman described and deplored foot binding, believing that Chinese women’s lack of education was the mark of an inferior society, which Britain was morally obligated to improve.
William Dalton, as Chen carefully shows, relied on a French history of China whose author drew his information from the memoirs and correspondence of French Jesuit missionaries. Dalton’s mystery-adventure novels, The Wolf Boy of China and The Wasps of the Ocean, are notable because they feature a mixed-race hero, the son of a British captain and a mother from the Miao people, a [End Page 300] southern Chinese ethnic minority. After explaining how this unusual hero subverted Victorian ideas about racial purity, Chen concludes: “Rather than merely writing a colonialist text set on securing the child reader into the imperial ethos, Dalton produced a cultural space from which a plurality of meanings could proliferate in unexpected ways” (48).
Unlike Bowman and Dalton, E. Harcourt Burrage sought not to edify but to entertain. Stories about his trickster detective, Ching-Ching, were published in cheap periodicals known as “penny dreadfuls.” Chen devotes a long chapter to Ching-Ching, placing him in the context of Victorian attitudes toward the Chinese. This wildly popular character inspired commercial products, small-scale community theater productions, puppet plays, and even a silent film. Chen...