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

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

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

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

Synopsis

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.

Excerpt

In the British nineteenth century, vision became subjective, material, and, consequentially, modern. This book tells one part of the story of how those changes in vision came about, and tells too how literary and artistic texts directed and made plain those changes. But I recount my history of vision’s development not through accounts of new technologies but through a study of one specific subject and object of vision: China, a geographical location that also came to designate particular kinds of visual and aesthetic form, as well as a particularly antithetical kind of foreignness. China, for nineteenth-century Britons, was at once place, commodity, people, and, at the same time, something more than all of those. It was a field of imagined visual possibility that directed many other kinds of material and rhetorical interaction. Many who traveled to China, and many more who did not, understood the Chinese especially and fundamentally in terms of the way the Chinese seemed to look—or fail to look—at things. When Leigh Hunt writes of the Chinese, “little-eyed … and little-minded,” that toddle upon the surface of his porcelain teacup, he makes plain in fancy an assumption broadly held in fact: that deficient Chinese ontology manifested in the physical limitations of Chinese eyes.

Equally important, those who understood the Chinese to look differently, in both senses of the phrase, further understood Chinese objects and spaces—whether located in China or Britain—to reflect that divergent way of looking back at the viewer. Artificial, constrained design deemed Chinese in origin was held to induce constrained and artificial ways of seeing in observers both Chinese and British. These infectious consequences . . .

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