- China and the Writing of English Literary Modernity, 1690–1770 by Eun Kyung Min
Scholarship of the past two decades has firmly established the global quality of eighteenth-century British culture, political ambition, and self-definition. Eun Kyung Min's China and the Writing of English Literary Modernity, 1690–1770 reminds us that, in an age when British national identity was being reimagined in a global context, it was impossible to think geographically without simultaneously thinking temporally, and vice versa. Cultural difference marked the relationship not only between England and other nations, but also between England and its own past. While studies of orientalism have demonstrated how the West distinguishes itself by representing Eastern cultures as somehow of a "different time," Min's original study shows how English writers relied on the figure of China to conceive of their own time, and their relationship to it, as well as to place English literature as a tradition in historical perspective.
The unconventional historical scope of Min's book aims to illuminate how modernity was conceived, prior to nineteenth-century British imperialism, as a quality of English writing. The "modern" is juxtaposed, in this context, against not the "primitive" but the "ancient." In contrast to the later imperial weaponization of the modern against the peoples Britain sought to colonize, the modernity championed [End Page 529] by its early eighteenth-century enthusiasts found itself pitted against the longstanding cultural standards of classical antiquity. Min wants us to understand that for most of the eighteenth century, while there was a broad and sustained concern with modernity in English letters, there was little consensus on how best to characterize the relationship of "modern" to "ancient," or of "modern" to "English." Nor was there any fixed notion of how being in time was supposed to feel from a modern perspective. Instead, we see various literary experiments engaged in quarrels over cultural value and how best to define it, and over historical time and how best to represent it. What the books shows is that, across different projects, genres, and positions within the debate, it was impossible to have these conversations without invoking a broader global context, and the figure of China in particular.
China is written into the project of defining modern English literature through the foundational quarrel between William Temple and William Wotten in the 1690s over the relative merits of ancient versus modern accomplishments. On the side of the ancients, Temple proposed a broad perspective on world history as a "corrective to . . . modern hubris" (21), evoking the extreme antiquity of China to support this call for intellectual humility in the present. Wotton's response in favor of the moderns relied heavily on a condescending mockery of Temple's laudatory claims about China. In the eighteenth century, this quarrel persists but is reframed as one specifically between contemporary English writing and classical human-ism—China and other ancient civilizations beyond Greece and Rome are written out of the question of literary tradition from a British perspective. Yet, Min shows, that broader global historical context, signified so powerfully in the eighteenth-century European imagination by China, remains latent in the emergent category of "English literary modernity," an understanding of literature "imbued with a strong sense of its distance from the classical models, and burdened by a strong need to theorize its own historicity" (38). Ironically, it is Temple—the defender of the ancients—who, in Min's assessment, lays the groundwork for the eighteenth-century cultivation of a distinctly modern English literary tradition through "his interest in non-classical cultures, his theorization of alternative antiquities, [and] his ideas about English national character and the singularity of genius" (46). China, initiated into the "ancients versus moderns" quarrel as a representative of ancient greatness, comes to signify quite differently, helping to frame the capacity of modern English letters to reckon with plurality and cultural difference within its own history as well as in the wider world.
The field of eighteenth-century letters this study presents is generically...