Britain's Chinese Eye: Literature, Empire, and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain

Britain's Chinese Eye: Literature, Empire, and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain

by Elizabeth Chang


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This book traces the intimate connections between Britain and China throughout the nineteenth century and argues for China's central impact on the British visual imagination. Chang brings together an unusual group of primary sources to investigate how nineteenth-century Britons looked at and represented Chinese people, places, and things, and how, in the process, ethnographic, geographic, and aesthetic representations of China shaped British writers' and artists' vision of their own lives and experiences. For many Britons, China was much more than a geographical location; it was also a way of seeing and being seen that could be either embraced as creative inspiration or rejected as contagious influence. In both cases, the idea of China's visual difference stood in negative contrast to Britain's evolving sense of the visual and literary real. To better grasp what Romantic and Victorian writers, artists, and architects were doing at home, we must also understand the foreign "objects" found in their midst and what they were looking at abroad.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804759458
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 04/20/2010
Edition description: 1
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Elizabeth Hope Chang is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Missouri and editor of the five-volume collection British Travel Writing from China 1798-1901 (2009).

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Britain's Chinese Eye

By Elizabeth Hope Chang


Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-5945-8

Chapter One


Writing in 1752 of the Yuanming Yuan, or "encompassing illumination Garden," a part of the Qing imperial residential complex just northwest of Beijing, the Jesuit priest Jean Dénis Attiret declares its absolute visual difference: "every thing is truly great and beautiful, both as to the Design and the execution: and [the gardens] struck me the more, because I had never seen any thing that bore any manner of resemblance to them, in any Part of the World that I had been in before." It is a difference that proves powerful enough to shift Attiret's mode of perception permanently. "Since my residence in China," he explains, "my eyes and taste are grown a little Chinese." This fusion of the physical and the aesthetic in Attiret's account of his transformation establishes a theoretical touchstone for my book as a whole. In Attiret's concise turn of phrase, we find a miniature history of the ways that Chinese eyes could be acquired through the act of looking at Chinese things. The Jesuit's remark, then, establishes the Chinese eye as a portable-and transferable-instrument of vision.

The garden setting makes a particularly appropriate locale for initiating this particular transformation. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century descriptions of Chinese gardens, real and imagined, represent the first way that British literature came to conceive of China as a space of visual difference in the post-chinoiserie century, and, further, came to root that aesthetic difference in exigencies of politics. That the late-eighteenth-century British landscape garden was called by the French the jardin anglo-chinois is well known; yet the consequences of that perceived national-aesthetic linkage in formulating a broader political and economic conception of the relations between China and Britain throughout the nineteenth century remain relatively untraced. This chapter shows that by setting up the garden's mediated natural space as the primary location for interpretation of national difference, British authors can best describe the double artifice of Chinese landscape and Chinese governance. But they also can, in later years, imagine a remedy to that artificiality that reasserts the native and natural priority of British observations and British landscape in both organic and narrative terms.

Gardens were, of course, generally understood to be the premier formal sites for displaying power in the late eighteenth century, for both the British and for the Chinese, and as such were significant arenas for staging politically and economically significant encounters. As Chandra Mukerji argues, "Gardens are not ... an Edenic place to escape from everyday culture, but a constituting site for the development of culture." As a mediatory space between public and private, outer and inner, organic and constructed, the garden in its broadest sense defines the story and picture through which the natural world is given meaning. Thus rather than making a refuge from political and economic concerns, theories of Chinese aesthetics displayed in the garden became integral to their articulation. The space of the Chinese garden and the idea of the Chinese garden space conveyed crucial meaning to British viewers about a kind of geography encoded as despotic, excessive, fantastic, incoherent, illogical, and exotic. When seen through the eye of the British traveler, these aesthetic categories were never separate from imperial governance and economic circulation, but rather formed their indispensable naturalized expression.

But these readily apparent differences between Chinese and British aesthetics grow more complicated when we pay attention to the context of Attiret's remark. As had already been reported throughout Europe, the Qianlong emperor directed Attiret, along with fellow Jesuits Guiseppe Castiglione and Michel Benoît, to begin work in 1747 on a new section of the gardens known as the Xiyang Lou (Western-style Buildings), integrating a European aesthetic into the architecture of Qing imperial display. in writing his account, then, Attiret thus not only provided a firsthand description of the grounds but also designed their alteration. His Chinese eyes and taste operated both receptively and directively, absorbing and reshaping Chinese visual difference for audiences Chinese and European. In so doing, he further complicated the authenticity of a site already deeply mediated and yet also deeply influential. The deceptive simplicity of his declaration of visual difference established a pattern for later claims of distinction equally multidirectional.

In this chapter's history of British visions of, and interventions into, the Chinese garden, these contradictory claims of difference and assimilation proliferate. Sir William Chambers's Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772), a fictional account of a model Chinese garden, renders the imaginary spatial and visual experience of the formal Chinese garden into the terms of British narrative. In so doing, the text offers a profoundly influential definition of the way that all future observers must perceive Chinese gardens. When members of Lord Macartney's embassy visited the Qing imperial gardens in the 1790s, or when Robert Fortune hunted for plants in Chinese nursery gardens in the 1840s, the legacy of Chambers's text directed both how and where they looked at the landscape, as well as how they wrote about that vision. This chapter shows how these three sets of writings-from Chambers, the Macartney mission, and Fortune-all manage, in three distinct historical moments, to position the Chinese garden as the central interpretive problem for the British observer of China, and to parallel that interpretive effort to the project of reading national meaning in the British landscape. In writing and reading these garden narratives, Britons learned that not only their surrounding landscape but also their own organs of vision could be objects of design.

Readers have usually kept these three sets of texts separate, however, because the groups value Chinese gardens very differently. The writings of William Chambers describe a fanciful garden filled with exotic elements seemingly divorced from historical concerns. He finds the very artificiality of this garden's aesthetics-linked by others to an insipid governance rendered static by centuries of immobility-to be in fact productive of epistemological possibility through the obviousness of its own artifice. Meanwhile, the Macartney mission texts and Fortune's writings share a general disapproval of Chinese barbarism quite distinct from Chambers's admiring tone. Macartney embassy members found in the imperial gardens of the Chinese a carefully and deliberately staged occlusion of British vision strongly correspondent with the emperor's general rebuff of British economic advances. Robert Fortune, who traveled in disguise as a "pretty fair Chinaman" in an effort to discover the secrets of tea cultivation in China's forbidden interior territory, also framed cultivated and uncultivated Chinese landscape as locations where clear vision, free travel, and free trade in tea plants, horticultural specimens, and other commodities were all endlessly obfuscated.

As David Porter has shown, however, crucial political and economic contexts do in fact ground the Dissertation's chinoiserie fantasies. These contexts come through most clearly when the Dissertation is read together with the satirical poetic responses it inspired, in particular George Mason's "Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers," which demonstrates the disturbing political implications engendered by Chambers's text. Mason's horror at the Dissertation's praise for a landscape created to please a single despotic ruler emphasizes the ways that the Dissertation was produced in, and received by, an audience thoroughly sensitive to the text's potential influence. Despite the difference in his conclusions, then, Chambers's work still shares with the later texts an embedded sense of the political significance of Chinese visual and perceptual difference. Further, all three sets of texts take seriously the capacity of that Chinese difference to transform British eyes and tastes at home. Reading these three sets of texts together makes plain that the way that Britons wrote about Chinese aesthetic form profoundly influenced the way that Britons were able to write about political and personal freedoms, both at home and abroad.

Taking Chambers, Macartney, and Fortune in succession also illuminates the progression of British writing about the natural world. The flourishing of theoretical and practical treatises on domestic landscape design in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries represented a particularly intense period of scrutiny of the epistemological production of natural space within the British isles. As foreign landscape gardens become the subject of travel narratives, readers gained a new perspective on the aesthetics of the picturesque within that genre. By accepting the Chinese landscape's designed aesthetic conditions as consequential to the act of perception, the writers in this chapter record both a challenge to the picturesque tradition as well as a record of its transformation in the Chinese context. Picturesque views here reveal not only a competing global economy and autocratic empire but also an alternate aesthetic arrangement giving visual expression to that competitive difference. Even the most basic tenet of the picturesque narrative-that it represents something that can be pictured-grows more complicated in China's divergent and competitive visual regime. Only by reasserting the narrative conventions of the British travel narrative can the later writers absorb the apparently static and despotic Chinese landscape into a productively forward-moving text.

As all of these writers acknowledge, the power displayed in the landscape garden is most centrally the power of the eye to occupy and organize its surrounding space as well as the power of description to convey the eye's impressions to those not able to view the garden personally. Thus successful landscape design requires a human observer to narrate its refinements and acculturation of raw nature, as well as its representation of spatial, economic, and political power. As the predominant site for accommodating and directing practices of looking, the garden displays in its design and reception rhetorics of space and vision by bringing together the natural and national worlds. Yet while the narratives and descriptions of British gardens sought to naturalize and integrate the congruence of the vision of the garden with a more abstract vision of power, the narratives written by Britons of Chinese gardens emphasized the difficulty and artifice inherent in demonstrating that same congruence on Chinese soil. This distinction formed the key point of divergence between British naturalism and Chinese artificiality in what were often otherwise seen as interchangeable styles. Each writer's explanation of the manufacture and operations of the garden's visual trickery-in particular its manipulations of perspective-adds further evidence to the account of Chinese visual difference.

Since the very concept of perspective, as developed and refined in the Renaissance, depended on the referent of a universal, or general, human body, the arrangement of the Chinese garden around the singular body of the emperor starkly emphasized Asian despotism. As Attiret writes of the Yuanming Yuan: "There is but one Man here; and that is the Emperor. All pleasures are made for him alone. This charming Place is scarce ever seen by any body but himself, his Women, and his eunuchs." Chambers, Macartney, and Fortune all follow Attiret in acknowledging that eastern munificence makes possible the grandeur of the Chinese landscape. Yet these narratives also suggest that the reverse must be even more true: the experience of constructing and viewing the Chinese landscape itself produces viewers that are themselves visually despotic. In the British writing of China, gardens produce observers as much as observers produce gardens-a conclusion with significant implications for the role of domestic landscape design.

That is to say, critiques of Chinese gardens had more at stake than debates over the proper arrangements of vistas and pathways. It became increasingly important for Victorian readers taking up the canon of texts on China produced by Chambers, Macartney, and Fortune to clarify the kinds of observers that these gardens might produce. John Loudon, in his history of "Gardening in China," concludes that "Chinese taste in gardening ... partakes of the general character of the people.... the love of the grotesque and of monstrosities is seldom accompanied in individuals of any country with enlightened views and liberal sentiments." Likewise, an 1855 Quarterly Review article assessing the legacy of the picturesque tradition in landscape from Uvedale Price onward asserts: "The Chinese garden, with which Fortune's works have now made us familiar, and the English garden, in the form it ultimately assumed, present two distinct types. The one is nature dressed by art; the other is an artificial imitation, or rather parody, of nature, cramped and dwarfed to bring her beauties within the compass of a narrow enclosure. The English garden in its failure degenerates into the Chinese." At stake here, ultimately, is not only the right to free trade, or even the right to political liberty, but an even more basic sense of personal freedom as a warrant granted and maintained by the surrounding natural world.

Sir William Chambers and the Dissertation on Oriental Gardening

Chambers's Dissertation, then, stands both as an influential synthesis of visions of the Chinese garden and major point of opposition for later writers hostile to Chinese landscape styles. But Chambers was not the first to posit the Chinese garden as a positive visual influence. Even before Attiret's descriptions received English translation, Sir William temple's "Upon the Gardens of Epicurus, or Of Gardening in the year 1685" had earlier described the Chinese garden as emblematic of the divide between the English way of thinking and the Chinese. According to Temple, Chinese design principles seem "to lie as wide of ours in Europe, as their country does," as demonstrated by the Chinese defiance of renaissance ideals of symmetry and balance. By favoring what temple termed "sharawadgi," or "artful disorder," the Chinese gardener's "greatest reach of imagination is employed in contriving figures, where the beauty shall be great, and strike the eye, but without any order or disposition of parts." Later writers took up temple's description and expanded "sharawadgi" to become the central term in a lexicon of Chinese difference; this fanciful vision of China expanded into the European fondness for the exotic style of decoration known as chinoiserie. The popularity of chinoiserie designs, along with eighteenth-century Continental philosophical attention to the principles of Confucianism as a mode of governance and social order, all contributed to a general period of interest in China's foreignness.

Chambers, however, came to prominence during the waning of chinoiserie's popularity, during the period when the style's defiance of representational logic and multiplication of functionless ornament more disturbed than delighted. This made his work as author of the 1757 Designs for Chinese Buildings and architect of several Oriental buildings in Kew Gardens, including the now-destroyed House of Confucius as well as the Chinese pagoda, open to critiques meant for the fashion as a whole. Additionally, despite having traveled with the Swedish East India Company to Canton in the years 1743-45 and again in 1748, Chambers was frequently judged to lack adequate knowledge of China. And, too, his steady rise to royal favor-he was knighted by King Adolf Fredrik of Sweden in 1770 and appointed to the positions of surveyor-General and Comptroller of the Works by George III in 1783-may have made him more available to general criticism by those not disposed to favor the ruling monarch.


Excerpted from Britain's Chinese Eye by Elizabeth Hope Chang Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Garden....................23
2. Plate....................71
3. Display Case and Den....................111
4. Photograph....................141
Works Cited....................219

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