Reviews 2014

Representations of China in British Children's Fiction, 1851 – 1911

Representations of China in British Children's Fiction, 1851 – 1911. Shih-Wen Chen. Surrey: Ashgate, 2013. 203 pages. £54.00 (hardback).

This book is an extensive study on Victorian and Edwardian children's literature published between 1851 and 1911 on the representation of China at the time. The quantity and variety of both primary and secondary sources referenced offer a comprehensive overview, and establish the study on firm and representative grounds. One of the main purposes of this book is to provide evidence of representations which contradict the negative stereotypes which characterize Victorian children’s literature. As Chen herself concedes, the commonly accepted impression that Victorian literature is infested with negative stereotypes of the Far East still remains obvious, but her study tables the heterogeneity of representations of China during the period. This book, as Chen pledges to "provide a more expansive look at representations of China and the Chinese in Victoria and Edwardian children’s fiction" (p.13), is therefore an important contribution to the body of scholarly work on the study of primary texts from the same period as Chen makes critical discussion on variety available, complementing the many other studies which tend to identify patterns and generalizations.

Chen frames her study within new historicism, justifying the choice of theoretical framework by addressing the limitations of postcolonial theory and the fallacy of basing the analysis on readers' reception. This study is not bound by the concerns and, as Chen argues, the inevitable conclusions of postcolonial theory or Orientalism; nor does it attempt to trace the influence of the images of China disseminated through these books among the Victorian and Edwardian public. Instead, Chen provides detailed text analyses which map the relationship between the political context, the source information about China available to the authors at the time and the texts they produced.

The book proceeds along two dimensions: specificity and chronology. This sixty-year period (1851-1911) is also long enough to illustrate the ecology of the public discourses concerning China and identify certain publishing trends. It charts the British society's increasing understanding and sophistication in their knowledge about China over the period studied. Chapter 2, therefore, aptly opens the analysis chapters with how novels by Anne Bowman and William Dalton transmit various sources of "knowledge" about China available in the mid-nineteenth century to their young readers. Chen attributes the lack of specificity and the variety of the culture in inland areas in works published to the fact that, before the signing of the Treaties of Tianjin in 1858, foreigners’ activities in China were limited to the coastal treaty ports. Chen argues that Bowman and Dalton are mediators between "experts" about China and young readers: "children's fiction published from mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth century [which] disseminated and popularized 'knowledge' of China through various discourses about 'the Chinese'"(p.2).

In Chapter 3, Chen's substantial analysis of a character featured in a boy's journal for seventeen years, Ching Ching, illustrates how the social situation (i.e. presence of Chinese migrants in Britain) and understanding of China and the Chinese (i.e. the Chinese Pidgin English used by Ching Ching) at the time influence Ching Ching's characterization. Chen consistently puts "experts" of China at the time in quotations, indicating a general misunderstanding of China during this era.

Chapter 4 and 5 proceed onto greater specificity concerning two important events that occurred during the studied time frame: Taiping Rebellion (1850 – 1864) and Boxer Uprising (1899 – 1901). These two chapters provide a detailed illustration of how popular views of Sino-British relationships influenced literary representations. The limitation of these two chapters is Chen’s dependence on Western secondary sources on this period of Chinese history, which I will illustrate with the case of the Taiping Rebellion, the period addressed in Chapter 4. From the abundant secondary sources Chen quotes about the Taiping Rebellion, the rebels are portrayed as a destructive force that ruined China's beautiful landscape and human lives. Taiping's demonized image is reflected in primary sources by Samuel Mossman and Bessie Marchant. Chen states that "[t]he Taiping rebellion narratives by Mossman, Marchant, and Boy's Own Paper authors reveal that from the 1870s onwards, it was no longer possible to hold onto the romanticized view of China presented in Dalton and Bowman's books....The China of the Taiping era is a horrific place where nightmarish scenes constantly confront the reader" (p.126). In this way, Chen successfully establishes the link between the knowledge available in the public discourses and the children's texts written. However, there is a possible inherent bias in such knowledge which Chen did not address. Chen, justified by her secondary sources, holds the Taiping responsible for "the nightmarish" China. In my opinion, the Taiping is only partially responsible for this era of unrest. The widespread civil war and constant foreign invasions were consequential to the dwindling power of the Qing Empire. Unanimous condemnation of the Taiping forces expressed by Chen is not found in Chinese historical sources. Luo Er-gang, the most acclaimed Chinese historian specialized in the Taiping Rebellion, presents the Taiping as a disciplined troop of fair governance. The discrepancy between the two historical discourses reflects the differences in available source materials, or possibly different political interests. By launching the Second Opium War (1856 – 1860), England directly contributed to the unrest. Also, the Anglophone sources inevitably antagonize the Taiping Rebellion force against the West since the Taiping leader, Hong Xiuquan, severed all connections with Western missionaries at the beginning of the insurgence. The version of Christianity preached among the Taiping was also appropriated, and from a western perspective, Hong was spreading blasphemy. These two factors possibly illustrate the political stance upon which the Anglophone secondary sources are written. In addition to political motives, Chen could also have addressed the misunderstandings about the Taiping Rebellion among the general public at the time, which is evident from the sources she quotes. As Chen describes the British society's general views on the Taiping insurgents when the news first reached England, "[i]n their mind, this would then lead to the abandoning of barbarous customs such as foot-binding, the banning of opium-smoking, and the encouragement of trade" (p.97). This generalized view of the Chinese "barbarous customs" reveals ignorance of the internal differences between the Chinese peoples. The majority of the Taiping force comprised of Hakka people, whose women are known for not binding their feet. Therefore, Chen's conclusion, that the British at the time were no much more civilized than the Chinese, falls short in addressing the real issue of cross-cultural misunderstanding and homogenizing the Other.

All in all, Chen's study addresses a very challenging period in history. The sheer quantity of the material is impressive and is presented in a systematic, reader-friendly manner (i.e. including the timeline which incorporate major historical events and the publishing years of the texts). By using a New Historicist approach, Chen also foregrounds the importance of the historical context. It is an important addition to the works on Victorian Children's Literature and on cultural representations, such as the substantial series on Children's Literature and Culture (Jack Zipes (ed.).

Faye Dorcas Yung
The University of Cambridge, UK

Work Cited

Luo, Er-gang. Tai-ping tian guo shi. (The History of the Heavenly Kingdom) (Vols 1-4). Beijing: Zhonghua, 1991.