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Thomas Percy, China, and the Gothic

From: The Eighteenth Century
Volume 48, Number 2, Summer 2007
pp. 95-109 | 10.1353/ecy.2007.0013

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While assembling the materials that were to make up his influential collection Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), Thomas Percy issued the first translation of a Chinese novel in a European language, Hau Kiou Choaan, or, The Pleasing History (1761), and he produced a collection of (mainly translated) essays and extracts under the title of Miscellaneous Pieces Relating to the Chinese (1762). The first half of this article will examine these works as provocative interventions in long-standing debates about the prestige of Chinese civilization, and it will discuss the way that Percy positioned himself in relation to other available means of presenting "Chinese" material, as well as to the substantial body of Jesuit missionary sources that were at his disposal. In the remainder of this piece, I will be concerned to trace the continuity of Percy's preoccupations and editorial practices across his diverse publications of the 1760s, in order to suggest that The Pleasing History and Miscellaneous Pieces were also constitutive parts of his larger and much better-known project to recover and celebrate the integrity of a native and sometimes specifically Gothic genius. Briefly considering the wider field of late-eighteenth-century literary orientalisms, towards the close, I will go on to claim that Percy's writings of the 1760s set out a particular position in what was to become a contentious argument over the nature and origins of the stimuli that might rejuvenate British literary culture.

It is not clear precisely how and when Percy's interest in China began, but we know that in February 1758 he borrowed a manuscript translation of the seventeenth-century Chinese novel Hau Kiou Choaan from a Captain Wilkinson, whose uncle, James Wilkinson, had first translated the work in 1719, probably as a form of language exercise while he was resident as a merchant in Canton. Percy later claimed to have pruned and refined Wilkinson's manuscript, and he also added a preface and an extensive apparatus of footnotes to his 1761 edition of the novel, as well as a series of addenda, including "The Argument or Story of a Chinese Play," "A Collection of Chinese Proverbs," and "Fragments of Chinese Poetry." The fame at this time of Percy's publisher, Robert Dodsley, testified to the potentially broad appeal of works that claimed—either real or imaginary—Chinese origins. Dodsley was widely known not only as one of London's preeminent booksellers (he later published other works by Percy, including the Reliques), but also as the author of The Oeconomy of Human Life, a collection of general ethics that first appeared in 1750, and went through almost two hundred editions before the end of the century. Dodsley's work claimed to have been transmitted from China by an unnamed "English gentleman," who had caught on to the "great noise" made by a rare Indian manuscript that had been picked up by the Chinese imperial envoy on a mission to Tibet; offering a calculatedly broad and nondenominational appeal, The Oeconomy of Human Life assumed the appearance of an "ancient piece of eastern instruction," as a means of addressing abstract moral questions concerning the "Duties that relate to Man, considered as an individual."

Although there is little available evidence on the basis of which to reconstruct Percy's negotiations with his publisher, it seems fair to suggest that Dodsley would have initially seen The Pleasing History as a means of further capitalizing on the great commercial success of The Oeconomy of Human Life, as well as of catering to the popular taste for things Chinese (the frontispiece to the novel's first volume, depicting a wedding procession, is in fact strongly reminiscent of a "chinoiserie" scene). One of the many striking things about Percy's edition of this Chinese novel, however, is that it eschews the generalized "eastern instruction" framework that had been employed by Dodsley's Oeconomy. Whatever their actual provenance, early and mid-eighteenth-century oriental fictions published in Britain tended to offer themselves to their readers as works that provided a combination of instruction and delight. Percy referred to the "moral tendency" of The Pleasing History in his dedication to the Countess of Sussex, and the novel itself tells...