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Comparative Literature Studies 40.1 (2003) 89-91

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The Vision of China in the English Literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Edited by Adrian Hsia. Hong Kong: The Chinese University Press, 1998. xi + 404 pp. $32.00.

This volume collects thirteen essays written by four Chinese authors on the image of China in English literature of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. All essays were originally written in English. Three of the writers were born around the turn of the last century and wrote the bulk of their works in the 1930s and 40s. The volume is a treasure hoard of curious information about British knowledge/stereotypes of China of the two hundred years under investigation: what Defoe knew about China, for example, where he may have read or heard it, and how his times and his politics may have eschewed his information.

The Vision of China investigates some of the similar fields—specifically linguistic, theological, and aesthetic—as a number of recent publications on the history of European imaginative constructions of China, such as Lionel M. Jensen's Manufacturing Confucianism: Chinese Traditions and Universal Civilization (Durham: Duke UP, 1997) and David Porter's Ideographia: the Chinese Cipher in Early Modern Europe (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2001). However, the present volume is quite unique in two respects. Aside from Adrian Hsia, the editor of the volume, the other three writers belong to the pre-war humanistic tradition, are well trained in comparative philology, and are primarily interested in tracing influence and sources. They are very capable in this endeavor, as is evident in their impressive sources, from archival Chinese material of the Ming and Qing dynasties to noted English men of letters such as Francis Bacon, Jonathan Swift, and Dr. Johnson, to lesser-known sinologists such as Edmund Scott and George Puttenham. The languages of the their sources include classical Chinese, Latin, English, German, and French, often quoted in the original. The volume is thus invaluable for information on how leading Chinese scholars of an older generation, a generation brought up in traditional Chinese culture and then steeped in the Western Enlightenment tradition, conducted their own investigation of cross-cultural interpretation between the Chinese and British. [End Page 89]

Another unique feature of this volume is that the image of China is here discussed exclusively by Chinese writers. Thus, in a language that the writers themselves would not have recognized, they are all engaged in a kind of double-gaze: looking at the other looking at the self. Although the essays predate the critique of Orientalism initiated by Edward Said in the late 1970s by several decades and do not contain systematic critique of the historical and political conditions that produced English literature of the two centuries, between the lines of their objective-sounding narrative of influence tracing, there are occasional interesting skirmishes against obvious Eurocentric gestures of British writers. The inevitable unease as well as insight generated by this double-gaze lends the essays an extra vantage point that the more solipsistic critique of the Western tradition of the past thirty years typically does not possess. It would have been very useful, in this respect, to have more information on the audience that each essay was originally addressing. We are given brief citations for the essays but not the nature of the original journal or the precise historical and personal context in which the essays were written.

The volume contains two hefty essays by Qian Zhongshu, each devoted to one century and totaling about one hundred and forty pages, comprising approximately one third of the entire volume. Born into a family of generations of renowned scholars and trained in Oxford in the 1930s, Qian was arguably the most prominent Chinese comparatist of the twentieth century. The two essays are part of his thesis, which was written at Oxford and published in the Quarterly Bulletin of Chinese Bibliography in 1940. With lengthy bibliographies and copious quotations, they offer an excellent showcase of Qian's erudition and wide-ranging interests. Topics in the seventeenth century range...


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