Idea of China in British literature, 1757 to 1785
Nash, Paul Stephen
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This thesis examines the idea of China in British literature during a clearly defined period. Between 1757 and 1785, when Britain still had little direct contact and cultural exchange with the Chinese, China evoked various attitudes, images and beliefs in the British imagination. At times uncertain and evasive, popular understandings of China were sufficiently malleable for writers of the period to knead into domestic political satire and social discourse, giving fresh expression to popular criticisms, philosophical aspirations, and religious tensions. The period presents several prominent English, Irish, and Scottish writers who use the idea of China precisely in this manner in writings as generically diverse as drama, translation, travel writing, pseudo-Oriental letters, novels, and fairy tales. Some invoke China’s supposed defects to accentuate Britain’s material, scientific, and moral progress, or to feed contemporary debate about decadence in British society and government. Others exploit the notion of a more civilized and virtuous China to satirize what they regard as a supercilious cultural milieu attendant on their own emerging polite and commercial society, or to interrogate their nation’s moral criteria of the highest good, public-spiritedness, or evolving global enterprise. All give the idea of China new currency in the dialectical interplay between literary appeals to antiquity and the pursuit of modernity, enlisting it in philosophical and theological debates of Enlightenment. This thesis will argue that its subject writers, including Arthur Murphy, Thomas Percy, Oliver Goldsmith, John Bell, and Horace Walpole, use the idea of China to help define a British identity as culturally and politically distinct from Europe, especially France, and to contemplate Britain’s place within global history and a broadening world view at mid-century.