- Qing Travelers to the Far West: Diplomacy and the Information Order in Late Imperial China by Jenny Huangfu Day
Writing in the 1960s, Benjamin Schwartz described how the People's Republic of China dulled the utopian heights of its revolutionary foreign policy. In "an ongoing multistate world," he wrote, "it has gradually come to adjust itself on a day-to-day basis to this world, whatever may be its optimum transnational hopes."1 Qing Travelers to the Far West, a compelling and provocative new book from Jenny Huangfu Day, teaches readers that daily adjustments also typified the elite response to the multistate world during the late nineteenth [End Page 25] century. Day interrogates "China's response to the West," an outmoded trope, through six case studies in diplomatic pragmatism.2 With engaging details, wide connections, and keen insight, Day uses these cases to forge a critical account of Qing diplomacy, pushing against the "Enlightenment narrative" that casts the tributary system as an order felled by Westphalian conventions. Rather than a tale of failure, readers find concepts drawn from the work of Mary Louise Pratt ("an information order") and Christopher Bayly ("affective knowledge"), concepts that Day weaves into a retelling of Qing diplomacy that convincingly dismantles "the West" as a monolithic entity, leaving "reconstructed, internalized, imagined," and multitudinous Wests in its place.
Empirically, Day charts the "shift from the persona of the traveler to that of the professional diplomat" (p. 27). Day builds the book's analysis across six chapters, emphasizing that moments of radical rupture often conceal the more gradual, and more potentiality-laden, encounters that precede them.
The first chapter, "The Traveler," centers on Binchun, a Han bannerman. Noting his preference for "pure talk" qingtan 清談 and poetry as strategic rituals, Day explains how Binchun placed himself at the fulcrum of pivotal diplomatic exchanges (p. 44). In the process, he also "suppressed cultural differences" while putting European powers in "a place of respectful subordination to a China-centered world" (p. 45). Throughout his accounts, Binchun describes new experiences in familiar terms; he appeals to King Mu and the Daoist Liezi to regale his audience with tales of train travel (p. 46). However, he also truncates the written record of his own experiences, omitting the twinned blights of child labor and urban poverty, problems that animated nineteenth century activists such as Mayhew and Engels, in his writings on industrial England.
In the following chapter, "The Envoy," Day balances historical analysis with historiographic corrections in the story of Zhigang. As members of the Burlingame Mission in the 1860s, Zhigang and his traveling companion, Sun Jiagu, participated in an early mobile diplomatic effort, one that brought them to the United States and Europe (pp. 65–66). The pair saw themselves as "personal agents of the emperor responsible for the well-being of the Chinese abroad" (p. 71). Through Zhigang, who displayed a flair for argument and a dedication to the Neo-Confucian worldview of Wang Yangming, Day traces the shift away from curating Manchu identity, an earlier concern documented by the work of Mark Elliott,3 towards defending Qing imperial power (p. 90). Day identifies the intellectual position known as Xixue Zhongyuan 西學中原, a theory expounded by Zhigang and others that held all "Western" learning had origins in China, as a "conceptual equivalence," positing "foreign practices as an outgrowth of universal principles" rather than a psychological salve to ease a painful transition to modernity (pp. 76–77). In a similar manner, Day challenges interpretations of Zhigang's later career. Although viewed as a [End Page 26] punishment by many historians, his transfer to borderlands posts along with Sun Jiagu in the 1870s was actually a skillful move, whereby the Zongli Yamen took advantage of the pair's recent diplomatic experience to negotiate borderlands issues with rival states (p. 86).
If Zhigang's conceptual equivalence slotted Western learning into a wider cosmology, then Zhang Deyi, the subject of...