A Cycle of Cathay: The Chinese Vogue in England during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

A Cycle of Cathay: The Chinese Vogue in England during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

A Cycle of Cathay: The Chinese Vogue in England during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

A Cycle of Cathay: The Chinese Vogue in England during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Excerpt

When Tennyson wrote "Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle of Cathay," he was voicing both nineteenth century England's optimism and its exasperation with the static and reactionary policies of China. The times were moving, but the Manchu emperors refused to move along with them. The unsatisfactory trade relations between the two countries may have in part prompted his observation. It was probably also a reflection of the prevailing intellectual temper. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a mythical China had been created. Largely a synthetic product, the China that Stuart and Augustan Englishmen visualized was seen refracted through Jesuit eyes; it was associated with the artistry of Chippendale, the wit of Goldsmith, and the deistic worship of Confucius. Few were the British voyagers who brought back firsthand accounts, and fewer still were the genuine Sinologists. As the disparities between the myth and the actuality became apparent, the reaction set in. Enthusiasm dwindled to bewilderment and irritation and, ultimately, to downright hostility.

For a study of this cycle the year 1600 serves as an approximate starting point, marking as it does the founding of the East India Company. The failure of the English embassy to China at the end of the eighteenth century brackets its close. Between these dates the Chinese legend slowly grew, flourished briefly, and died lingeringly. Its effects upon English life and letters were spasmodic and various. So scattered were these manifestations that it is virtually impossible to treat them chronologically.

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