Chris Murray's China from the Ruins of Athens and Rome & Emily Sun's On the Horizon of World Literature. Reviewed by Jennifer L. Hargrave
Jennifer L. Hargrave
Over the last decade, literary scholars have diversified our understanding of long nineteenth-century networks of connection and communication between the British and Qing Empires. Written in response to the pioneering studies of Elizabeth Hope Chang, Peter Kitson, Robert Markley, and David Porter, these cross-cultural studies continue to identify new points of intersection between these behemoth empires, intersections that illuminate and revise our understanding of interimperial relations. The recent works of Chris Murray and Emily Sun not only augment our understanding of Anglo-Sino discourse (both synchronic and diachronic) but also introduce reading methodologies that encourage more dynamic analyses of England’s and China’s literary overlays. Most notably, both Murray and Sun challenge synchronicity as the delimiting factor in establishing cross-cultural literary and intellectual resonances. Murray asserts that a classical lens elucidates nineteenth-century Anglophone ideas of China, while Sun establishes the unknowingly shared conceptions of literary modernity in the writers of Romantic England and Republican China. Considering these texts together temporally shifts extant studies of Anglo-Sino relations that focus primarily on the century of humiliation; together these texts position Romantic-era literature as representative of a unique confluence between literary inheritance and literary modernity.
In his China from the Ruins of Athens and Rome, Murray demystifies Britain’s often enigmatic literary perceptions of China (from the Qing Empire to the early Republic) by revisiting and emphasizing Britons’ self-positioning as the cultural inheritors of classical Greece and Rome. He utilizes Britain’s classically informed interpretations and representations of China to expound upon “the Anglophone reader of the long nineteenth century” (25). It is Murray’s use of classical literature to disrupt Britain’s Orientalist readings of China and, consequently, to reveal British insecurities vis-à-vis China that is the hallmark of this scholarship. In his second chapter, he provides an incisive account of Edward Gibbons’ History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–88) that refocuses readers’ attention on Gibbons’s perception of Asia’s impact—particularly the ripple effect of the Mongol Empire’s expansion—upon the Roman Empire. In so doing, Murray demonstrates how nineteenth-century writers’ and scholars’ perceptions of Qing-dynasty China—such as those of Samuel Taylor Coleridge—were intimately connected with their classical knowledge. In his fifth chapter, Murray argues for Alfred Tennyson’s use of Graeco-Roman literary devices to provide Victorian readers with fresh perspectives on Asia in such poems as “Recollections of the Arabian Nights” (1830), “The Lotos-Eaters” (1832), “Locksley Hall” (1835), and “The Ancient Sage” (1885). He focuses particularly on Tennyson’s negative depictions of opium to suggest the poet’s engagement with ethical debates surrounding the British exportation of opium into China. Throughout his monograph, Murray provides perspicacious readings of classical literature within the long nineteenth-century context.
Though providing innumerable astute readings of canonical English texts informed simultaneously by the classical Graeco-Roman world and imperial China, Murray at times homogenizes nineteenth-century British interactions (both observed and imagined) with the Chinese. For example, his fifth chapter on Tennyson could afford more geographic specificity. While his repeated references to Asia allow him to connect more convincingly those poems evoking the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and China, the use of “Asia” as a catchall term rather than specific geographic locations also risks homogenizing the entire continent, especially through the problematic lens of opium addiction. Finally, given Murray’s insightful focus on historical precedents for Britain’s nineteenth-century imperial development—including Oriental tales such as Antoine Galland’s The Arabian Nights Entertainment (1706) and classical histories such as Gibbons’ History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—his study would have benefitted from a more direct consideration of long eighteenth-century scholarship that champions a decidedly less Eurocentric history of global encounters, including those with China. I am thinking, for example, of Srinivas Aravamudan’s Enlightenment Orientalism: Resisting the Rise of the Novel (University of Chicago Press, 2012). While Murray acknowledges a diverse intellectual milieu in which figures pivotal in Anglo-Sino affairs—such as ambassador Lord George Macartney—circulated, such acknowledgements wither in light of more unambiguously imperialist readings of the literature. Nevertheless, the already ambitious scope of Murray’s work from the first British Embassy to China in 1793 to the publication of W. B. Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli” in 1938 productively revises discrete studies of Anglo-Sino relations that adhere more closely to traditional literary periodization. It is a scope that allows Murray to trace a rich textual history of Chinese representations and its intersections with public opinion and imperial policy. It is a scope—of interest to Romantic Circles’ readers—that places Romantic writers in productive conversation with classical and eighteenth-century predecessors as well as nineteenth-century successors (and readers).
Emily Sun’s On the Horizon of World Literature disrupts normative comparative models by establishing asynchronous, bilateral resonances between early nineteenth-century English and early twentieth-century Chinese literatures. Rather than exploring the influence one body of literature (Romantic English) had on a subsequent body of literature (Republican Chinese), Sun establishes literary connection by exploring the cultural frameworks that permitted shared conceptions of literary modernity in geographically and temporally distinct spheres, spheres not necessarily dependent upon identifiable points of intersection. For example, in her second chapter, Sun explores the genre of the tale collection—specifically Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (1806) and Lin Shu’s translation of the Tales as Yinbian Yanyu (1904)—as a literary text crafted with the “common reader” in mind. Accordingly, the primary resonance that Sun identifies is the shared “quest for modernity,” texts that “[enact] modernity as a set of questions rather than as the fulfillment of preconceived and programmatic definitions” (13). The Lambs and Lin each repackage Shakespeare for the new reading public emerging alongside burgeoning public presses. This shared implicit argument for Shakespeare’s relevance to contemporary readers challenges a “linear model of enlightened historical progress” by denying the erasure of past or distant forms of knowledge (60). Instead, the Lambs and Lin—by recasting Shakespeare’s dramas into children’s tales and chuanqi literature written in classical (rather than vernacular) Chinese—reveal literary modernity’s “recursive newness,” a selective renewal of past literary traditions remade for the new, imagined common reader (62). In each of her four chapters, Sun investigates how a different literary genre common to both cultural traditions—the literary manifesto, the tale collection, the familiar essay, and the domestic novel—functions as a space to explore and to define a different facet of the modern experience. Again, as with her asynchronous comparative model, Sun resists generalizations of either national literature by grounding each chapter in close readings, not broad surveys. In fact, in each chapter’s constant movement between modern literary texts and their respective cultural antecedents, between the early nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and between England and China, Sun destabilizes the very notion of national literatures to privilege “world literature,” which Sun understands as “not only what already is or has been ascertained, but future, yet unknown possibilities that unfold in practices of reading” (3). While linguistically and culturally attentive readings of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry (1821), the Lambs’ Tales, Charles Lamb’s Essays of Elia (1820s), and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) will be of obvious interest to Romantic Circles’ readers, Sun’s conscious and determined decentering of Western literary iterations in her comparative readings offers an incredible analytic model to those Romanticists working to explore and expand the field’s global remit.
Chris Murray’s and Emily Sun’s respective studies expand understanding of the British Romantic era not by compounding the number texts to be included within the canon but rather by providing new temporal lenses through which to read, to reposition, and to redefine already familiar literary texts. Both value a cyclical model of reading. Murray illustrates how nineteenth-century writers—from Coleridge to Joanna Baillie to John Keats to Charles Lamb to Tennyson to Thomas de Quincey—utilized classical Graeco-Roman texts to access and to illuminate dynamic nineteenth-century Anglo-Sino relations. Sun illustrates how literary modernity—whether in Romantic England or Republican China—is predicated on writers’ recursive engagement with literary history. Sun then questions “what it means to read these writers [of Romantic England and Republican China] as distant peers in oblique conversation with one another” (75), a question that Murray’s work similarly explores. Murray reveals extant nineteenth-century practices of reading trans-historically and trans-spatially to establish Eurasian resonances; Sun advocates for new models of comparative reading that challenge and undermine traditional presumptions of monoculturalism.