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  • The New Middle Kingdom: China and the Early American Romance of Free Trade by Kendall A. Johnson
  • Caroline Frank (bio)
The New Middle Kingdom: China and the Early American Romance of Free Trade. By Kendall A. Johnson. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. Pp. 371. Cloth, $64.95.)

At any point in time, the U.S. relationship to China has been characterized by mystique, incomprehensibility, dissimilarity, and great hope for similarity, which ultimately turns to vilification when the Chinese state and people resist. The conundrum of an unconsummated relationship with China is ongoing and, according to Hong Kong-based author Kendall Johnson, it has been formative in the development of the United States’ identity as a virtuous commercial empire. Why, then, has this “romance of free trade” tied to East Asia been so overlooked by those who founded American Studies, Johnson asks? In the book’s final sentence, he makes the point that has become cliché yet refuses to gain saliency: The U.S. expansion into the Pacific did not begin with the Philippines in 1898 but more than a century earlier. “[B]eginning with Major Shaw’s fantastical commodity of ginseng, Far Eastern commerce had inspired conquest of the Far West in early national romances of free trade with China” (270).

The “New Middle Kingdom” is of course the United States, which spans “from sea to shining sea” between Europe and Asia. By bringing together the slave trade and the China trade, by critically focusing on the fundamental, romanticized role of free-trade ideology embedded in early U.S. foreign relations and expansion, and by connecting East Asia and the Far West within Manifest Destiny, it is my hope that this book will open a new roadway for future scholarship. The Pacific has been too long ghettoized in Asian American studies. This is not necessarily for lack of solid scholarship on the Pacific by Americanists of all stripes, but their work has yet, as Lon Kurashige, Madeline Hsu, and Yugin Yaguchi noted, “to cohere as part of a single scholarly field.”1 That this work [End Page 372] remains scattered and marginal within established circles of mainstream American cultural history is due to absence of an established scholarly architecture for contextualizing the founding generations of U.S. history beyond the Atlantic. Johnson’s book will certainly become part of that required scaffolding, allowing us to appreciate the integral transpacific aspects of U.S. history. His Pacific framework neither displaces nor complements transatlantic studies, but appropriately flows with it in mutually constitutive ways.

The book’s seven chapters run chronologically through the nineteenth century, each taking on a discrete historical topic and examining its layered narrative treatments over the century. Johnson argues for an expanded corpus of “literature” that includes “memoirs, biographies, epistolary journals, monthly magazines, book reviews, narrative fiction, travel narratives, and treaties” (9) as well as monuments and images, arguing that only by moving beyond the canon can we see the profound significance of China to antebellum culture. His strongest chapters—1, 2, 6, and 7—explicitly take on this generational translation of historical events to show not simply that ambitious Far Eastern enterprises took place at the very founding of the nation, but that they were narrated as foundational by subsequent generations, only to be sidelined in the twentieth-century literary canon.

Chapter 1 examines the voyage journals of Major Samuel Shaw (1784–94), the first U.S. China trader, published by Josiah Quincy in 1847. In Shaw’s narrative and Quincy’s editing, crises of national confidence dissolve in predictions of fabulous profits to come. The journals are a “commercial quest narrative,” in which a slave-trading, opium-trading nation is redeemed. Chapter 2 extends Johnson’s antiheroic analysis, focusing on Captain Amaso Delano’s 1817 voyage narrative and Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno (1855), a satire of transpacific free-trade rhetoric in the context of slave trading. Johnson calls attention to how Delano’s benevolent toleration of slavery “tracks into networks of transpacific trade centering on Canton” (84), offering examples of blind hagiography of “merchant princes” who moved seamlessly from slave trading to the opium trade.

Johnson’s third chapter on the journal...


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pp. 372-375
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