- China and the Writing of English Literary Modernity, 1690–1770 by Eun Kyung Min
Erudite and excellently written, Min's book casts a valuable and at times even uniquely revealing light on the once pervasive but today too often overlooked presence of China in the evolution of modern English taste, gender politics, literary identity, and commercial and consumer culture. Her remarkable success, however, also exposes a regrettable limitation. The problem is her conceptual framework, shared with quite a few other recent scholars, which confines her study to English representations or misrepresentations of China rather than opening it to the more interesting and more important aspect of the early-modern cross-cultural encounter that involved the transmission and reception of actual Chinese ideas.
As Min points out in her introduction, the very concept of modernity implies an awareness of something not modern or premodern, or a self-conscious contrast of past and present, us and them, and more. Beginning with the English battle of the books in the 1690s, she persuasively shows the historical English literary self-consciousness as growing in a global context, particularly in relation to China. Sir William Temple's well-known admiration of China, for instance, complicated his defense of the ancients against the moderns and made him a surprising initiator of various changes later associated with English literary modernity. Moving the restless adventures of Crusoe from the Caribbean Islands to the Far East, Defoe effectively wrote China into the new prose narrative of formal realism that he helped to invent while highlighting the same point as had been made by William Wotton in his earlier dispute with Temple that China as an ancient rival to modern England and Europe had to be confronted. Taking cues from Temple's discussion of the irregular Chinese garden layout, Addison developed in The Spectator his enormously influential aesthetics of the new, the uncommon, and the strange. Though already contested in the mid eighteenth century, China's immense prestige still enticed Goldsmith to impersonate a resident Chinese scholar in London and to satirize the social, [End Page 227] political, and consumer culture of England from the serial vantage point of a wellregarded foreign correspondent or "Citizen of the World" (1760–1761). Riding the same widespread interest in China, Thomas Percy used a Chinese love story, The Pleasing History (1761), to serve his ulterior agenda of locating English literary antiquity in the Gothic or Germanic oral tradition and martial history.
In her account of these authors, Min considerably enriches our understanding through a conceptual framework that focuses close attention on English representations or misrepresentations of China. What makes possible her accomplishment, however, also severely limits her success. Her book, as she writes in her introduction, is "geared toward China's influence on English literary history and form," but precisely this objective in a strict sense is not achieved, because she rarely checks English ideas of China against any reality in that country. The Chinese irregular gardening style, for instance, is inextricably linked with the longstanding Chinese sense of a deep affinity between humanity and heaven (tianren heyi), which inspired not only the use of art to imitate or follow nature in landscaping but also similar efforts in cosmological thinking, ethical deliberation, medicine, and political theory. Min rightly recognizes the English discussion of Chinese landscaping as important. However, without any reference to Chinese reality, she is simply unable to make clear how Temple's understanding was insightful and may have influenced decisively his thoughts about government, ethics, health, and poetic creativity. Similarly, she fails to point out how Addison's echo of Temple played an important propagandic role in English garden design reform but his pet project of the new, the uncommon, and the strange had little to do with China. Much of the information about Chinese landscaping in the first half of the eighteenth century was about Chinese imperial garden complexes such as Yuanming Yuan (Garden of Brilliant Brightness) in Beijing and Bishu Shanzhuang (Mountain Resort for Escaping the Summer Heat) in Chengde, built...