China in Eighteenth-Century English and Irish Literature: Representations and Tensions


A meeting of Japan China and the West, by Shiba Kokan (late 18th century). Via Wikimedia Commons.

A meeting of Japan China and the West, by Shiba Kokan (late 18th century). Via Wikimedia Commons

Eighteenth-century Europe was fascinated by China. Growing amounts of trade and diplomacy, and the import of Chinese objects, led to an increasing awareness of the East. However, as Mengmeng Yan contends in an article for the new issue of Postgraduate English, many literary texts of this period continued to see China through an alien and mystified lens. 

This study discusses the competing views of China held by English and Irish authors of the eighteenth century. The entrenched tensions between different viewpoints of China in this period not only demonstrate that the picture of eighteenth-century and Romantic Sinology was not just black and white, but also observe an important stage of Britain’s establishment of its own identity in a globalising eighteenth-century world order. This essay will first discuss the idea of the ‘mystified’ East by focusing on oriental tales and fables of the eighteenth century, and then look at the various attempts to present a ‘real’ China by English and Irish authors from the same period, such as Horace Walpole, Thomas Percy and Oliver Goldsmith. The division between the Orient and the Occident seems to be at once sharpened and challenged, as eighteenth-century English and Irish writers explore and reflect upon the perceived ‘proper knowledge’ of the eastern world.

This article is freely available in the new issue of Postgraduate English, one of the UK’s leading journals publishing literary research by postgraduates. The Call for Papers for the next issue is now out, and all postgraduates or early-career researchers are invited to contribute.

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