Britain’s Chinese Eye: Literature, Empire, and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain, by Elizabeth Hope Chang; pp. viii + 238. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010, $55.00, £48.95. The eye, Roland Barthes points out, is the anatomical metonym of the Asian body. In spite of such embarrassing Orientalism and racial objectification in his essay on the Asian eyelid, anyone familiar with Empire of Signs (1982) knows that Barthes’s book is actually a sophisticated critique of Western preconceptions of Asian difference. A similar analytic subtlety typifies Elizabeth Hope Chang’s history of literary and visual engagements with Chinese objects in British culture. In Britain’s Chinese Eye (whose title announces a physiognomical interest akin to Barthes’s), Chang explores the ocular objectification of the Celestial Empire. Chang shows how nineteenth-century British interest in Chinese things did not merely reflect visual pleasures but also shaped Western notions about how the Chinese saw ; she contends that, in this conflation of perception and presupposition, China influenced Western sight itself. Elegantly organized into four themed chapters on “Garden,” “Plate,” “Display Case and Den,” and “Photographs,” Chang identifies the most obvious material signifiers of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Western interest in China (that is, chinoiserie gardens, blue and white porcelain, museum exhibitions and opium parlors, and travel photography). While specific examples and many of the literary texts or historical episodes involving those items may be well-known, Chang invests into each new connections and greater theoretical sophistication. For example, like most histories of SinoBritish relations, the introduction begins with George Macartney’s failed 1793 mission to the Qing court; but rather than read Macartney’s refusal to kowtow as merely characteristic of East-West misunderstanding, Chang emphasizes the theatricality—and hence
brutal. As do the best imperial and museum studies. Chang shows. occasionally more private—but no less significant—histories. and hence how Western sight was inseparable from experiences of Eastern visuality and the visions those forms of visuality encompass. the subject directly faces the picture plane) and thus function as instances of Western assimilation of a perceived Chinese aesthetic and a material instance of Western physiognomic studies of the Chinese eye. Chinnery was a painter whose landscapes and portraits in Hong Kong. however. While Chang only notes his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) (which appeared in the same magazine as Charles Lamb’s essay “Old China” . Chang demonstrates China’s centrality to British notions of sight. The book’s biggest contribution. These writings. Building upon Jonathan Crary’s germinal argument about modernity and vision. Similarly. Scholars of Charles Dickens will benefit from her analysis of Edwin Drood (1870). With such a well-argued book it seems disingenuous to suggest additional topics. Britain’s Chinese Eye never loses sight of this objective. but in the abundance of interdisciplinary imperial studies and visual-culture-influenced specialties. and racialized cupidity. De Quincey wrote repeatedly on the Opium War. which situates its portrait of opium addiction amid Dickens’s journalism on Chinese exhibitions. are virulently jingoistic diatribes advocating British military involvement that signal the shift from the mythologized aestheticism of Lamb or the Confessions to a more common. which Chang also examines). but one wonders what more Chang might do more with George Chinnery or Thomas De Quincey. His paintings of native Chinese represent an interesting fusion of Western and Chinese customs of portraiture (in the latter. this is a claim about time as well as space. lies in its illustration of vision’s inextricable relationship to power. no. The deliberateness of these encounters are then repeated. an observation often implicit but always worth reiterating and historically contextualizing. As one excellent instance.
victorian studies / Volume 53. which appeared in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1840 and in Titan in 1857. Chang examines Robert Fortune. 4
. Chang’s subsequent chapters are equally well chosen and written. an embassy “carefully visually stage-managed” by both governments (10). such as museum studies. De Quincey (mentioned only once by Chang) opens a vista of diverse British perspectives on China. in other. and that narratives about sights and seeing were as crucial in shaping perception as the images themselves. Macao. and Chang’s reading of George Meredith’s “epigrammatic and densely allusive” evocation of willow ware in The Egoist (1879) is particularly fine (92). Foucauldian criticism has long recognized visibility’s role in Western epistemology. Chang shows that “home” worked dialectically with “away” (what Chang terms the “exotic familiar” ). the particularities of individual cases can sometimes overshadow broader arguments concerning the meaning of cross-cultural encounters for Western thought. and Canton are some of the only (and most accomplished) Western reproductions of Chinese culture from the decades before the Opium War.752
the ocularity—of the episode. Importantly. and Chinese things were in place long before China opened to British exploration and continued long after power within the region was established. the Chinese. the mid-century horticulturalist who introduced tea plants from China to India and who believed that donning Chinese robes so successfully transformed him into a Chinese as to enable him to appreciate (and eventually steal) Chinese plants with native acuity. Chang thus localizes Crary’s claim about the gradual emergence of modern visibility and contends that British views of China.
is key to this analysis. Are the aesthetic and racial opposed categories (where the British vision of China oscillates between highbrow refinement or lowbrow distaste) or part of a continuum? What is the relationship between bodies and things. but the relationship between the two categories remains puzzling. It is an important contribution to empire studies and British literary history that reminds us of the longstanding and inextricable relationship of vision to power. is an admirable account of the role of spectacle and perception in imperial display and dominion. postcolonial. and in juxtaposing her various chapters Chang confirms its centrality. Chang acknowledges that British interest in Chinese perception ranged between aesthetic and racial. this latter point about the racial construction of the Chinese is an issue that Britain’s Chinese Eye could develop further. nevertheless. Sino-British history would seem to imply. The beauty and artifice of Chinese culture is clearly aestheticized in refined artifacts such as porcelain and gardens. Karen Fang University of Houston
Indeed. but the degradation of the Chinese is clearly racially embodied in the case of opium. Britain’s Chinese Eye leaves one wondering how Chang would more explicitly chart that racial and aesthetic divide. and area studies. and did narratives inscribe or query these differences? Opium. Chang’s book. Yet precisely because her book is so accomplished in situating itself vis-à-vis visual culture.
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