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  • Narratives of Free Trade: The Commercial Cultures of Early U.S.–China Relations ed. by Kendall Johnson
  • Daniel Meissner (bio)
Kendall Johnson, editor. Narratives of Free Trade: The Commercial Cultures of Early U.S.–China Relations. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012. viii, 234 pp. Hardcover $50.00, isbn 978-988-8083-53-4. Paperback $25.00, isbn 978-988-8083-54-1.

This collection of essays on early U.S.-China trade and relations originated in a 2009 conference at the American Studies Programme at the University of Hong Kong. Although some conference collections are uneven in terms of scope, content, and quality, this is not the case with Narratives of Free Trade. The first seven essays are strong academic studies that furnish new insight into Opium War–era relations between the United States and China. Ranging from the competitive disadvantage of bookkeeping to portrait exchange in diplomacy, these essays provide a cohesive look at early exchanges between representatives of these two countries. While equally compelling, the final two essays veer slightly off the timeline and topic, reinterpreting the Open Door Notes and examining religion and trade of the Chinese diaspora.

Paul Van Dyke begins the book with an interesting examination of the bookkeeping system of the British East India Company (EIC). In order for company directors to manage trade and disperse shareholder profits, the EIC kept detailed (often duplicate or triplicate) records of every facet of a ship’s voyage, from predeparture instructions, cargo lading charts, and ship logs to in-transit repairs and costs, warehouse rent, transaction charges, market trends, and so forth. Van Dyke compares the number of such reports with those of private traders, particularly owner-captained American ships, which concentrated more on net profit than itemized expenses. He argues that extensive bookkeeping increased overhead for the East India Company, placing it at a competitive disadvantage with private traders. This disadvantage was further exacerbated, he claims, by larger crews (requiring even more paperwork) to man heavily armed EIC ships that were charged with protecting sea lanes from pirates and privateers. He concludes that the safety provided by company ships translated into reduced losses and higher profits for private traders, while incurring expenses that further reduced the competitiveness of the East India Company.

Kendall Johnson explores the development of an early American identity through the exploits of Major Samuel Shaw, supercargo on the 1784 Empress of China’s voyage and American consul at Canton. Johnson traces the first encounters of Shaw with the Chinese and relates the efforts taken by Captain John Green and Shaw to make evident the separation of British and American nationalities. Pride in their independence, however, is tempered by the reality of trade within a system dominated by wealthy and established European nations. For Johnson, Shaw represents a key to understanding both the pride and insecurity of the early republic. For example, Shaw was confident that Americans could export enough [End Page 615] domestic ginseng to offset the increasing cost of imported tea. However, he promoted the export of gingseng because he lacked confidence in the stability—if not solvency—of continental currency. Johnson presents a subtle argument in this essay that tempers the accepted perception of post–Revolutionary War Americans as immediate titans of trade. Rather, Johnson hints, they boldly sailed into a sea filled with anxieties and insecurities.

John Haddad turns the spotlight once again on early Americans as they began to imagine the China behind imported tea and ceramics. Because the Canton system restricted not only foreign access to China but also foreign knowledge of the country and its people, Americans were forced to construct their own image of Cathay from the visual cues found on porcelain plates and tea sets, lacquer screens, paintings, lithographs, and so forth. This imagined construction was generally positive and reinforced by educational displays of Chinese culture in early nineteenth-century New England museums. For example, Nathan Dunn, a longtime American merchant at Canton, collected Ten Thousand Chinese Things with the assistance of friendly Hong merchants, whose agents scoured the mainland for artifacts representing Chinese daily life. In the early 1830s, Dunn opened a museum in Philadelphia featuring realistic dioramas and...


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