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  • The Far East and the English Imagination, 1600-1730
  • Sidney L. Sondergard
Robert Markley . The Far East and the English Imagination, 1600-1730. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. viii + 316 pp. index. illus. bibl. $85. ISBN: 0-521-81944-X.

Robert Markley's provocative introduction characterizes and then deconstructs the Eurocentric lens through which international trade has been viewed in early modern history and cultural studies, exposing the degree to which postcolonial theory has not sufficiently interrogated assumptions about European economic power relative to that of the East, and argues that a canny management of resources, rather than technological superiority, fostered the genesis of the industrial revolution in England rather than in China, the most populous, wealthiest nation in the early modern world. Proposing an "eco-cultural materialism" as his interpretive focus, Markley's insightful study proceeds to employ a wide range of primary texts as diverse as Peter Heylyn's Microcosmos: Or, A Little Description of the Great World (1621) and John Webbs's An Historical Essay Endeavoring a Probability That the Language of the Empire of China is the Primitive Language (1669) toward rediscovering in English literary culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a complex relationship with the economies, languages, philosophies, and belief systems of China, Japan, Southeast Asia, and the South Seas.

Examining Elizabeth I's cultivation of an alliance with the Sultan of Aceh in order to establish England's presence in modern Indonesia, the opening chapter traces English competition with Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch traders as it escalated into direct conflicts as varied as piracy and trade wars. Complicated by the absence of consumer demand at home for exotic spices, an initial deficiency of [End Page 1307] English imagination — subsequently addressed by a rhetorical shift evoking images of the virtually infinite wealth awaiting those English sufficiently funded to bring it home — contributed to the uphill battle that the East India Company waged over the next century against the monopolizing (and antagonizing) forces of the United Provinces' own trade corporation, the Dutch East India company. This cultural friction is elaborated in chapter 2 by examining the resistance of English Christians like John Milton — see Markley's astute reading of Paradise Lost 2.636-43 (83) — to the accounts of Jesuit missionaries like Matteo Ricci and Martino Martini who accommodated their spiritual beliefs to Confucian ethics, following the model of the Jews of Kaifeng and reflecting their conviction in the sensibility of Chinese lifestyles and attitudes. Such resistance contributed to the English construction of China as a vast storehouse of products rather than as a highly civilized and culturally unified nation.

Defying the reality that China had little need of European merchandise at the Qing court, Dutch and Portuguese trade negotiators engaged in mutual defamation while misconstruing the civility of their active self-ingratiation in order to pursue trade connections — behavior read by the Chinese as acts of obeisance from inferior nations acknowledging the Middle Kingdom's cultural superiority. Chapter 3 develops this assessment with excerpts from contemporaries like Jan Nieuhoff, who found little racial difference between the Chinese and Europeans, additional evidence of an extensive European semiotics of accommodation. John Dryden's aggrandizing dramatic portrait of English national identity, Amboyna (1672), produced on the eve of the Third Dutch War, "insistently turns complex economic and political rivalries into straightforward problems of morality" (164), demonizing Dutch rivals and their trade dominance, the dynamics of which Markley cannily analyzes in chapter 4. He dissects Daniel Defoe's attempts to bolster national and theological identity through rhetorical attacks on China in the second and third installments of his Crusoe trilogy (chapter 5) that thinly disguise outrage at the virtuous Chinese and their prosperous trade practices, then addresses Defoe's later advocacy of the South Sea Company (chapter 6) through A New Voyage Around the World (1724), a trade narrative rationalizing credit, illegal trading, privateering, and the bartering of cheap goods in pursuit of resources inexhaustible and, hence, "free of the grim calculus of scarcity" (212).

The concluding chapter proposes the Japanese adventures of Lemuel Gulliver as a strategy for attacking traditional trade rivals in the United Provinces by alluding to the hypocrisy and apostasy practiced as...


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