- Chen Jitong, Les Parisiens peints par un Chinois, and the Literary Self-Fashioning of a Chinese Boulevardier in Fin-de-siècle Paris
IN 1905, THE BRITISH WRITER Robert Harborough Sherard (1861–1943), a friend of Oscar Wilde and erstwhile Paris correspondent for The New York World, penned a vivid memoir of his two decades pursuing literary adventures in the French capital. After recounting in detail his meetings and conversations with such towering figures as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas fils, Sherard recalled, in a somewhat nostalgic tone, another literary friendship:
I must not conclude my list of princes and potentates without mentioning the name of Marquis and General Tcheng-Ki-Tong, for some time chargé d’affaires at the Imperial Chinese Embassy in Paris. Tcheng-Ki-Tong was a Parisianized Oriental of a very peculiar type. He was a man of literary tastes, and contributed largely on Chinese subjects to the leading French papers. He was the author of a number of books on Chinese questions. At the same time he was ardently attached to the pleasure of the capital. It was said of him […] that tucking up his pig-tail under his hat, and in European costume, he used to attend the public halls and dance as wildly the cancan as any Valentin-le-Désossé of them all.1
Who was this General Tcheng-Ki-Tong? What were these “books on Chinese questions”? What kind of images of China—and of the individual cultural mediator—emerged from these writings? Most interestingly, how did a diplomatic representative of the Qing Empire become such a notable public figure in 1880s–90s Paris? Finally, how might the story of this individual transformation shed light on the nature of cross-cultural interactions in the late nineteenth century and help us rethink existing conceptions of French exchanges with Asia in a period generally associated with expanding European imperialistic encroachment abroad and in the colonies and emerging Chinese anxieties about national survival? In other words, how was a Chinese diplomat-writer able to construct the identity of a bicultural and bilingual cultural mediator and thus demonstrate the possibilities for cosmopolitan self-fashioning and personal agency in the “age of empires”? This article traces the way in which Chen Jitong carved out a niche as a bicultural writer as he repeatedly inserted himself into print in late nineteenth-century France. Focusing on the rhetorical strategies Chen employed in Les Chinois peints par eux-mêmes and especially Les Parisiens peints par un Chinois, I show that Chen was able to combine [End Page 90] the literary personas of autoethnographer, flâneur, and boulevardier, in addition to the Chinese lettré, as he cultivated a creative and cosmopolitan identity of a writer at home in both the mass press of fin-de-siècle Paris and in the literati values and sensibilities of late imperial China.
Tcheng-Ki-Tong, or Chen Jitong (1852–1907), has been rediscovered in recent years as a key figure in the history of Sino-French relations.2 Born in a scholar-literati family in Fuzhou, a provincial capital on China’s southeastern coast that was also historically a strong center of intellectual and literary activity in the Qing Empire, Chen grew up in a culturally vibrant milieu characterized by neo-Confucian academies, classical poetry clubs, and local festivals. However, rather than pursue an official post by studying for the civil service examinations, waning family fortunes dictated that Chen take an alternative career path by enrolling at the Fuzhou Navy Yard (or L’Arsenal de Fou-Tcheou, as it was known in France), a flagship institution of the late Qing Self-Strengthening Movement in the 1860s that was jointly administered by Chinese officials and hired French personnel. The Navy Yard, which trained its students in naval engineering and navigation and provided language instruction in French and English, was the backbone of the first Qing government-sponsored education mission to Europe in 1877, when twenty-six Chinese students were sent to France and England to study engineering and mining with the aim of bringing those skills and technology back to China. Singled out for his language skills and social acumen, Chen...