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  • The Hypothetical Mandarin: Sympathy, Modernity, and Chinese Pain
  • Yomi Braester (bio)
The Hypothetical Mandarin: Sympathy, Modernity, and Chinese Pain. By Eric Hayot. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 291 pp. Paper $29.95.

The Hypothetical Mandarin sets out from a seemingly limited question, which might obscure the ambition of the project and its far-reaching implications for literary and cultural studies: how seriously should we take the use of China by writers since the late eighteenth century as a mirror image of the enlightened West? Hayot's answer is that the metaphor deserves to be examined on its own merit. His erudite and well-written book makes the [End Page 390] case for rereading metaphorical structures as deriving their meaning from the similes at their core. In particular, references to China betray the deployment of sympathy as a way to differentiate the West from other civilizations. From nineteenth-century missionary doctors to visitors at the recent Body Worlds exhibition, many have asserted their humanity and questioned that of the Chinese. Modern colonialism benefited from the juxtaposition. China, a civilized country by Europe's own standards, presented a challenge to the logic of the civilizatory drive. To counter China's extravagant material culture and abundant belles-lettres—as well as its surplus of trade commodities, which threatened the colonial economy—the West declared itself in possession of a bounty of compassion unmatched, so to speak, by all the tea in China. The figure of the Chinese—the hypothetical mandarin—lies at the heart of the West's self-image to this day, not the least because of the particular relations between the West and China.

The Hypothetical Mandarin adds an important dimension to the discourse on orientalism by showing its literariness, avoiding the watered-down definition of orientalism as prejudiced representation and instead locating bias within the texture of the text. Turning often to Elaine Scarry's The Body in Pain, which regards pain as a fundamentally linguistic phenomenon, Hayot pins down the structure of perception to metaphor. As the book shows, rather than haranguing against the epithetic "the Chinese" and finger pointing at authors' biases, we are better served by recognizing the metaphor for both its latitude and specificity and asking what statements it enables and forecloses.

The book's introduction lays out the major premises. Hayot presents the writings of Adam Smith and Honoré de Balzac as paradigmatic texts of the modern "sympathetic transformation," a shift to acknowledging a universal humanity. Both writers raise the same question, phrased by Smith in the following terms: "Would a man of humanity be willing to sacrifice the lives of a hundred millions of his brethren, provided he had never seen them?" Hayot insists on the significance of the sufferer's identity, in both Smith's and de Balzac's texts, as Chinese. Since the late eighteenth century, China has been figured in very specific terms—as an immense population, ready to be converted into Christianity or conversely to take over the civilized world, as an enormous market, poised to be exploited or conversely to drain the wealth of the colonial powers. No writer was as indifferent to China as the noncommittal hypothesis might be led us to believe.

The introduction makes broad, bold claims; the chapters that follow offer nuanced, delightfully close readings of texts and images. Chapter 1 invokes new historicist methodology to address the role of the metaphor in linguistic and historical analysis. Chapter 2 reads The Punishments of China, [End Page 391] and especially the illustrations accompanying this 1801 volume, as accusing the Chinese social order of a lack of compassion at the same time that European laws were staking a claim to humanity by moving punishment out of the reach of the public gaze. Chapter 3 turns to Lam Qua's drawings of tumors removed by Peter Parker and his colleagues in a Canton clinic in the early nineteenth century. Hayot argues that the tension between the horrid graphic depiction and the anticipation of anesthetized cure allows for a cultural encoding of the difference between the representable and the nonrepresentable, between material exteriority and modern subjectivity. Chapter 4 takes up Chinese labor in the United State and...


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pp. 390-393
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