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  • A Peculiar but Uninteresting Nation: China and the Discourse of Commerce in Eighteenth-Century England
  • David Porter (bio)

Representations of the foreign inevitably reveal as much about the historical circumstances of those doing the observing as about those being observed. The debates over trade issues and human rights that have largely shaped Western perceptions of China over the past decade, for example, have foregrounded a series of distinctive tropes with a consistency suggestive of a well-worn cultural habit. China’s economic miracle, we are given to understand, is predicated upon an increasingly free circulation of goods and capital entailed by the reversal of long-standing policies of state interference in the marketplace. The unremitting suppression of political dissent in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, meanwhile, offends democratic sensibilities as a systematic obstruction of the free flow of ideas posited by the liberal ideal. 1 I will argue in this paper that the centrally constitutive role of these familiar tropes of circulation and constraint in modern Western conceptions of China have identifiable roots in the eighteenth-century history of this encounter and reflect, in particular, the distinctively commercialist orientation of British visitors to China during that period. These visitors approached the Far East with an unshakable and universalizing conviction that trade was the lifeblood of a prosperous society, and that, in turn, the free circulation of goods and capital was the lifeblood of trade. The Chinese refusal to accept this doctrine, their contemptuous hostility toward Western traders, and the barriers they erected to the free flow of international commerce contributed to a widespread perception among British observers that an unnatural tendency toward blockage and obstructionism was an integral, defining feature of Chinese society as a whole. If the geography of England is increasingly defined in this period by writers [End Page 181] like Defoe in terms of the vital flow of commerce among vibrant and prosperous centers of trade, the Chinese cultural landscape, in contrast, emerges in these accounts as an unrelenting panorama of stagnation, boredom, and death.

Visiting British traders and diplomats, of course, were not the first Westerners to turn their eyes eastward during the early modern period, nor was their commercialist perspective a ubiquitous or even predominant one: Europe had witnessed a dazzling array of often contradictory responses to various aspects of Chinese culture since the founding of the first Jesuit mission in the early seventeenth century. The Jesuits themselves published a number of influential and generally laudatory accounts of the achievements of Chinese civilization as a means of encouraging support for their mission. 2 These accounts led in turn to a period of sustained speculation and debate on the nature of China’s written language and religious systems which engaged such luminaries as Bacon, Leibniz, Swift, and Voltaire. In the first half of the eighteenth century, an increasing tide of Chinese imports contributed to a popular vogue that filled drawing rooms with the fanciful porcelain productions of chinoiserie and gardens from Potsdam to Kew with temples and pagodas “after the Chinese taste,” while generating heated controversy over the merits of the new style and of the culture with which it was associated. 3 Most of these responses to China and its cultural artifacts were based, obviously, on a rather limited familiarity with the country and its people, and hence reflected various European predilections far more reliably than any actual Chinese “reality.” Few of China’s promoters or detractors in eighteenth-century Europe, for example, would have been aware of the renaissance of political, social, and economic power that recent historians have attributed to the Qing Dynasty during the first part of the century. 4 My interest in reconstructing one particular subset of these responses here, in other words, stems from a desire neither to pass judgement on their historical accuracy nor to hold them up as broadly representative of Western attitudes toward China in the eighteenth century. My aim, rather, is to isolate the commercialist component of those philosophical and ideological currents that contributed to the construction of “China” in the eighteenth-century British imagination in order to understand both the tumultuous subsequent stages of this encounter and Britain’s own emerging identity as...

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pp. 181-199
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