- Representations of China in British Children’s Fiction, 1851–1911 by Shih-Wen Chen
During a recent conversation with my Anglo-Australian father, he recalled a story encountered in the 1950s and 1960s classrooms of his youth. A staple resource in those classrooms was the Victorian Readers, and if my father is anything to go by, it seems that the comic stories included in these state-authorized anthologies were enjoyed and remembered by students far more than any other genre.1 In the course of recounting Henry Lawson’s short story “The Loaded Dog” (1901), my father had suddenly remembered another story, the title of which he could not recall, but which he knew he and his friends had found hilarious. After some searching, I found the story my father remembered: Edward Dyson’s “A Golden Shanty” (1898), the racism of which is so overt as to beggar belief. Dyson’s story and its inclusion in state-mandated education of mid-twentieth century Australia may seem at some remove from the materials discussed in Shih-Wen Chen’s Representations of China in British Children’s Fiction, 1851–1911, but this conversation with my father reminded me how close, in both space and time, my own Anglophone, British Commonwealth culture remains to those fictions of the nineteenth century that shaped and continue to shape cultural and cross-cultural meaning and understanding. It reminded me how pervasive and potent are the images and ideas consumed in childhood.
Chen takes as her subject the ways in which China and Chinese characters were depicted in children’s books addressed to an implied British child readership a century ago. In addition to shedding light on a historical phase of transition in literary culture, Chen’s work has the capacity to speak to contemporary modes of cultural representation and analysis. The volume is organized by chapters discussing [End Page 64] travelogues by Anne Bowman and William Dalton, the emergence and development of the popular character Ching-Ching, representations of the Taiping Rebellion, and literary depictions of the Boxer Uprising. Chen addresses a range of genres for young readers and engages with children’s literature across her focus period. In so doing, she offers an important contribution both to children’s literature studies and to Anglophone China studies.
To the degree that a national culture is defined as much by what it is not as what it may be—that is, to the degree that Said’s influential account of Orientalism (1978) retains utility as an account of defining the self through defining the other—attending to the representations of China and Chineseness in nineteenth-century British children’s literature offers insights into the popular practices of “the East made known, and therefore less fearsome, to the Western reading public” at a time when a newly literate population simultaneously proved the cultural ascendancy of the British Empire and posed a threat to its internal cohesion.2 It is in the management of a literate population that imperial politics retain and extend an imaginative potency.
In Britain, the long nineteenth century witnessed two major cultural shifts that inform Representations of China. The first is the emergence of widespread literacy; the other is the development of children’s literature as a social and economic force for educating the newly literate population. These two narratives of mass literacy and children’s literature are well known to scholars of British cultural history, not least because literature for young people is widely recognized as a tool of social education as much as an object of pleasure. In the tensions between education and entertainment that characterize much popular culture, and children’s texts in particular, the fault lines of a nation’s culture—real and desired—can be traced. Chen identifies a range of contexts as relevant to her study, including political, economic, and martial histories and conflicts in Sino-British relations; an explosion of information and literacy in Britain...