The "sphere of interest": Framing Late nineteenth-century China in words and pictures with Isabella bird

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By the early nineteenth century the prevailing political notion in England of what constituted British interest in the "East" was typically represented, in imaginative if not in literal terms, as an overarching purpose which could unite a whole range of British activities in the region. Everything was somehow connected. What the British did on the Indian subcontinent and in the Straits Settlements, the Malay Peninsula, the East Indies and China, was all of a piece. What connected these multiple, particular, and scattered British activities in the places the British called the "East" was, first of all, an idea. It was captured in the phrase invoked again and again to describe and defend British imperial enterprise: "the China trade." Within the spacious rubric defined at the beginning of the century by William Pitt the Younger, that "British policy is British trade,"1 the "China trade" held a special place. The phrase functioned as a sort of lodestar for the whole notion of seagoing trade, as valued by the little island that was Britain. The "China trade" would be the best trade, the biggest trade, "potentially the most important in the world,"2 with virtually unlimited consumers as well as goods. Stamford Raffles "founded" Singapore in 1819 and the British officially bought it from the Sultan of Johore in 1824 for a lot of reasons, the foremost being to provide a port between India and China for the sake of the "China trade." "The Malay Peninsula became a place of significance for the English precisely in terms of its geographic proximity to India, as the land fronting the waterway from India to China."3 There was, of course, a wealth of material and imagined purposes for the historical processes which we have come to gather under the heading of British imperialism. These purposes are as varied as the many places and economic, political, and cultural conditions in which the British were to be found. My point here is simply that a usually implicit but always present aspect of nineteenth-century British writings about China was that they existed within a particular pre-existing rhetorical and ideological frame. That frame was, in its largest sense, the magical notion of the "China trade." Tied to that notion was another one, also a given in British writings about China. This was that China, as the endlessly repeated metaphor went, was a sleeping giant and, as Napoleon was said to have remarked, "when she wakes she will astonish the world."4 If one of the tropes of British writings was that the "China trade" was the pot of gold which would reward ambitious British trading interests, another was that China itself was a place of almost unimaginable economic potential. Therefore, almost as a moral imperative, China should not, as well as could not, be left alone. While the Qing rulers of China did not seem to realize that the country needed to fulfill its commercial destiny within the global marketplace, other nations, first merchants and then governments, did. The question for these foreign imperial powers was how to persuade China. There was always that bedrock of British policy, gunboat diplomacy. The British had relied on it throughout the "East" and throughout the nineteenth century in China. Beginning in 1839, the British navy was central to British victories in the Opium Wars. As late as 1898 Sir Claude M. MacDonald, Britain's minister at Beijing, pressing China to cede the port of Weihaiwei in Shandong to Britain, sent the warning that, "if not affirmative, matter would be placed in Admiral's hands."5 But in the simplest practical terms, force and the threat of force could never hold together an empire, certainly not an empire of trade. As Thomas Richards so memorably put it, "an empire is partly a fiction" and "the narratives of the late nineteenth century are full of fantasies about an empire united not by force but by information."6 "Opening" China, then, became in part, to borrow James Hevia's insightful term, a "pedagogical project," a matter of teaching "the Qing elite and the Chinese people in general through various means of coercion and enticement how to function properly in a world dominated militarily and economically by European-based empires."7 If the challenges were many, the rewards were, or surely would be, great. Implicit in the project was the need for the production of information, for what one can think of as textbooks for a course in the value, and inevitability, of the China trade. Nor were the Qing elite and the Chinese people the only prospective audiences who needed to be educated on the potential benefits of the China trade, and therefore needed information to be produced for them. British writings for audiences back home were similarly engaged in a pedagogy of imperialism. The lineaments of this pedagogy in regard to China included the two key rhetorical assumptions: first, of China's extraordinary commercial potential, as market and as supplier of goods; and second, of Britain's right and obligation among the foreign powers to take the central role in developing the China trade. While there have been centuries of Western writing about China, it is fair to say that the British treaties of 1860 and 1876 particularly opened China up to foreign travelers and thus to a plethora of travel writings. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century among the most well-known British accounts of China were the books of Archibald Little and Alicia (Mrs. Archibald) Little, Lady Constance Gordon Cumming, George Morrison (who was Australian), Archibald Colquhoun, John Thomson (verbal and pictorial), and Isabella Bird Bishop. There have been several critical studies of these and other writings about China. Two of the more recent ones which I see as particularly helpful are Susan Schoenbauer Thurin's Victorian Travelers and the Opening of China, 1842-1907 (1999) and Nicholas Clifford's "A Truthful Impression of the Country": British and American Travel Writing in China, 1880-1949 (2001).8 His title is taken from Bird's "Preface." Thurin has pointed out that one of the qualities of Victorian writings on China is "a high level of polemics,"9 pointing particularly to the issues of the opium trade and missionary activity. This characteristic indicates a clear awareness of some of the political and economic debates about China and a willingness to use their writings to enter those debates. In other words, travel writings about China were not innocent or politically naïve. The writers saw themselves and their books as entering into, participating in, and taking positions on some of the major issues in the discourse on China that was occurring in Britain at the time of their writing. And their polemics took in other major public issues, as well as the opium trade and missionaries. Moreover, in a way that I see as more true about books about China than about such less volatile areas of imperial enterprise as Africa and British Malaysia, travel writings had to be politically up to date, au courant, as it were. Events in China that had to do with the Qing dynasty, the advances of the other foreign powers, the activities of and treatment of the various foreign communities, new treaties, commercial activities, and incidents involving the missionary community, all these occurred with startling rapidity. And they could be read about regularly in the British press. One could not write with any authority, could not claim any superior knowledge from actually having been there, could not, in short, claim that "a truthful impression of the country" was of significant value, without first being armed with a clear awareness of recent events, particularly those events thought to be of interest to an international community and which would have appeared in British newspapers and periodicals. To "teach" British audiences, a writer had first to be informed. Travel writings had to combine the immediacy of personal experience with the detachment of political and economic knowledge. In this essay I take up one of the more well-known Victorian books about China written for British audiences, Isabella Bird Bishop's The Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899), with the purpose of placing its rhetorical strategies within the interpretive frame of an imperialist pedagogy for audiences in Britain. Bird introduces her travel narrative in language that clearly invokes its educational or textbook role. She is explicit in arguing both for the need for a course on China and for the educational value of her contribution. Bird begins her "Preface" by explicitly labeling her book as "a useful contribution to popular knowledge of that much-discussed region." She ends her preface by using the language of science to claim the pedagogical authority of this "honest attempt to make a contribution to the data." And she is careful to point out "the extreme importance of increasing by every means the knowledge of, and interest in, China and its people."10 Bird used not only words but pictures as tools with which to produce the information necessary to educate her audience. The Yangtze Valley was closely followed in 1900 by Chinese Pictures: Notes on Photographs Made in China. But before turning to these two works, some of the British rhetoric about China generally, and Bird's rhetoric specifically, needs to be placed within the historical frame of Britain's nineteenth-century economic and political relations with China. What follows is only the briefest sketch of a few of those complex and often contradictory relations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationA Century of Travels in China
Subtitle of host publicationCritical Essays on Travel Writing From the 1840s to the 1940s
PublisherHong Kong University Press, HKU
Number of pages14
ISBN (Print)9789622098459
StatePublished - Dec 1 2007
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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