Chi-Ming Yang. Performing China. Virtue, Commerce, and Orientalism in Eighteenth-Century England, 1660-1740

By Ballaster, Ros | Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Chi-Ming Yang. Performing China. Virtue, Commerce, and Orientalism in Eighteenth-Century England, 1660-1740


Ballaster, Ros, Restoration and 18th Century Theatre Research


Chi-Ming Yang. Performing China. Virtue, Commerce, and Orientalism in Eighteenth-Century England, 1660-1740 Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. 288pp. $70.00 USD. ISBN 9781421402161.

Chi-Ming Yang routes the journey in English representation from ancient classical models of virtue to modern sentimental and consumerist ones through the example of China. It is precisely Chinas distance and strangeness which makes possible this function of exemplarity for the British speculative imagination. Late in the book, a sensitive account of Adam Smiths theatre of spectatorship illuminates this claim: for Smith, we test our capacity for moral community by measuring our ability to imagine the other's situation across distance. Chi-Ming Yang reminds us of the surprising work that China does in Smith's 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments, for example when he imagines and condemns the British subject's inability to sustain sympathy for an entire Chinese population extinguished by earthquake (Smith relocates the 1755 Lisbon earthquake to China to make his case). China's exemplarity went beyond that of a test case for imaginative identification. Its secular civilization makes it an especially challenging limit case for English assessment of moral and commercial authority (by comparison with the Islamic Orients newly opened up to trade and travel of the period): "less a political threat or a possibility of a strategic regional alliance," Chi-Ming Yang concludes, China is "rather, a hypothetical model of virtuous paganism for England's new mercantile empire" (26).

Smith's is, of course, a theatre of spectatorship, in which the experience of imagining watching ourselves responding to an affective story is a mode of reflexivity and moral adjudication. The theatrical metaphor is important to the way in which Chi-Ming Yang's book treats China. The fascinating chapters of this significant work do not attempt to measure the authenticity of English renderings of China; rather, Chi-Ming Yang stresses the performance of the Chinese example in a variety of English works. China, she demonstrates, provided a spectacle of the contradictory simultaneity of ancient and modern, of wealth and fragility, of advanced technology and ancient principles of learning and government. English spectatorship of China's imagined excesses-of luxury, of consumption, of violence, of feeling-is a form of containment through imitation, which converts vice into virtuous self-reflection. Theatrical performances deservedly take the lions share of the analysis: discussions of Elkanah Settle's 1676 Conquest of China and Arthur Murphy's 1759 The Orphan of China bookend the main chapters. In between, a second chapter considers the fraudster George Psalmanazar's performance of the double and mutually dependent roles of pagan convert to Anglican Christianity and authentic foreign witness. And the third addresses the performance of transmigratory myth from animal to human species, and from one geographical space to another, in oriental tales and fables, especially Addison's anglicised imitation of oriental sources in the Spectator, this performance enacts the longing for selfpreservation and the strange tendency for attachment to the permanence of spirit to find itself more and more deeply invested in the corporeal.

Performing China turns away from the tendency in discussion of historical relations between China and Britain to focus on objects and things (porcelain, tea, chopsticks, costume) to concentrate on the performances of influential figures common to the representation of China who come to embody new forms of heroism by contrast with the classical masculine republican hero. Chi-Ming Yang revives the obscure term "hethnic" to refer to those non-Christian and non-Jewish pagans who come to occupy roles of exemplary ethnicity. Each chapter concentrates on one or more "hethnic" figures and their capacity to articulate morality and cultural difference for the English spectator. …

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