Once you begin to look for references to China in eighteenth-century art and literature, they appear everywhere. By now, citations of porcelain, tea, japanning, and garden design by key figures ranging from Daniel Defoe to Jane Austen have been well documented by a small yet vibrant subfield of East-West, British literary studies. Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins treads anew much of this ground in A Taste for China in order to make a fresh, forceful case that the history of eighteenth-century fiction hinges on a history of what she provocatively terms “things Chinese.” Her central argument is at once familiar and yet incisive: that the idea of China referred less to an actual Asian entity than to a shifting, aesthetic principle of cosmopolitanism, or “medium of social exchange” (77), one that enabled the formation of British taste and increasingly commercial, nationalist sensibilities.
There is much to admire in the book’s targeted investigation of “English selves and Chinese things,” a descriptive condition that produces [End Page 178] many of the brilliant and wonderfully engaging readings of literary texts. We learn to look for the aspirational cosmopolitanism of the travelling Mary Wortley Montagu not in her often cited voyeurism and exoticizing of Turkish women and customs, but rather in the aristocratic porcelain collecting of Habsburg Vienna, which allows her to envision a new, commercialized and English-ed form of “imaginary personal property” (68). We consider the epistemology of pornography through the evocation of perverse female “things” in William Hatchett’s erotic satire, The Chinese Tale. Most intriguing is the proposition that eighteenth-century women not only consumed china, for which they were heavily criticized, but also exhibited “possibilities for agency” (140) in their creative, even authoritative practices of designing, furnishing, and arranging domestic spaces with foreign goods.
A key detail from John Locke’s Essay upon Human Understanding becomes a refrain used to encapsulate how seventeenth- and eighteenth-century personhood was defined by the possession of Asian commercial goods. Locke writes that the imagination is empty prior to being “furnished” with ideas, and hence signals the individual’s ability to appropriate objects and aspire to property acquisition independent of the reigning structure of aristocratic inheritance (47). According to Zuroski Jenkins, “the Lockean work of furnishing space is not only a mode of self-production but a means of forging social relationships among women of a certain status” (56). However, the exact relationship between Locke’s philosophy and the social identities of actual, agential humans—women in particular—can be elusive in this account. In moments like these, the critical vocabulary of work and production tends to replace the real work and material processes being analyzed. The brief discussion of women’s skills and japanning artwork gives way quickly to the “aesthetic labor” (121) of male authors like Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift, who in their poetry represent women as consumers rather than producers. An occlusion of labour can also be seen in the reading of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, which makes no mention of transatlantic slavery in charting the noble African character’s fall into commercialized personhood.
The absence of mention of colonialism or empire is notable given that Zuroski Jenkins’s theory of nation formation posits two modes of accumulation and disavowal of the foreign, each mapping onto an historical phase of British subject development: cosmopolitan chinoiserie, and nationalist protectionism. The latter turns on the self-other distinction that under-girds Edward Said’s study of nineteenth-century Orientalism. One would thus expect a “pre-history” of Orientalism (8, 9) to provide a more robust account of Britain’s global expansionist efforts. (For example, what of Locke’s own material practices and financial investments in the slave trade?) This absence in part stems from the book’s intentional delimitations, above all its [End Page 179] focus on literature (“distinctly literary critical problems” , “particular kind of literary history” , and “literary history of material things” .) Such a literary and epistemological approach towards “things,” which borrows...