Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 23, 2015
Chi-ming Yang Performing China: Virtue, Commerce, and Orientalism in Eighteenth-Century England, 1660-1760 Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. 288 pp.; 16 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9781421402161)

In Performing China: Virtue, Commerce, and Orientalism in Eighteenth-Century China, 1660–1760, Chi-ming Yang contributes to the growing body of scholarship that reinvestigates and reconceptualizes the complex effects of Chinese taste on Western Europe (on England, see David Porter, Eugenia Zuroski Jenkins, Elizabeth Hope Chang, and Peter J. Kitson; on France, Christine A. Jones; on Italy, Adrienne Ward [to name only a few]; most recently in art history, see Stacey Sloboda, Chinoiserie: Commerce and Critical Ornament in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) (click here for review). Specifically, Yang joins the ranks of those who increasingly confirm the breadth and depth of East Asia’s role in defining English art, material culture, literature, and the popular imagination. By investigating various types of performances in late seventeenth- and early/mid-eighteenth-century England, Yang demonstrates that an ambiguous and ambivalent perception of “Oriental” alterity (typically but not exclusively exemplified by China) provided a foil for developing the multifaceted English discourse on virtue relative to reinvigorated Chinese commercial concerns.

Through a spectrum of performance types, from the professional to the personal, Yang proposes a highly useful theory of “early modern orientalism” to explore the ambiguous effects of chinoiserie and other East Asian cultural representations on the English virtues of heroism, piety, honor, moderation, patriotism, and sensibility. Her model of orientalism is distinct from the Saidian postcolonial model of the effeminate, sensual, despotic, and backward Islamic Middle East. Instead, what distinguishes early modern orientalism is not just its earlier time, but also its focus on East Asia, and the fact that while it “includes the vilification of the idolatrous other, it focuses more on the example’s function of mediating between contested systems of value” (186).

After sustained contact with China began in the seventeenth century, English models for exemplarity began to shift from ancient Greco-Roman models of virtue to Chinese-inflected virtues related to consumerism, imported goods, and even foreign ideas. Yang argues that particularly English virtues such as heroism, piety, sensibility, and honor were complicated by or even developed in concert with the conceptual engagement with Chinese and other East Asian cultural representations. Specifically, China provided a “hypothetical model of virtuous paganism for England’s new mercantile empire” (26). To emphasize the simultaneously religious and ethnic dimensions of this model, she resurrects the “obsolete” (65) early modern word “hethnic,” a term “not [as] widely used” (65) as its counterpart “heathenic.” “Hethnic,” which historically referred to non-Christians “through a process of intercultural translation” that conflated “heathen” and “ethnic” (65; emphasis in original), is here applied to Chinese exemplarity in order to “highlight the hybridity of religious exclusions used to interpret the alternative model of virtue presented by Confucianism. The Chinese hethnic presents a paradox of civilized paganism. Hethnicity captures the ambivalence surrounding Chinese morality, which evoked both ancient Greek philosophy and unsettled Christian universalism” (65). Although employing this (albeit rare) period term helps focus the investigation on post-Restoration England, Yang’s application of hethnic seems rather contrived, and its conceptual applicability to other early modern contexts is unclear.

Each chapter examines at least one individual or type of “hethnic figure” exemplifying the unfamiliar ethnicities and religions that were foreign to England circa 1660–1760 and that often personified the ambiguities of cultural and moral differences. These examples “negotiate overlapping controversies over the merits of Chinese civilization and the sensationalism of English theatrical spectacle” (75), reminding the reader of the twin phenomena of performance and audience response inherent in all cases. Each of these performances of East Asian exemplars demonstrate not only the contradictions of ancient and modern that the English perceived in the Chinese empire, but also how the performance and spectatorship of China’s perceived excesses offered a vehicle for self-reflection on English virtues. However, even while acknowledging the slipperiness and geographic instability of “China” during this period, half of Yang’s examples are not Chinese. Yang herself concedes that the title’s suggestion that the book is about China is a half-truth, thereby raising questions about the true import of China (even broadly conceived) and the Chinese taste to the study as a whole. Yet however inaccurate the title, the diversity of case studies in the book strengthens the general concept of early modern orientalism.

Chapter 1 analyzes effeminacy and heroism in Elkanah Settle’s The Conquest of China by the Tartars (1676). This play, about a woman warrior disguised as a male soldier during the fall of the ethnically Chinese Ming dynasty (1368–1644), is a novel embodiment of effeminacy. Yang argues that this literally effeminate warrior epitomizes a new approach to heroic virtue, an innovation that resonated with the English after the decades of political unrest that concluded with the Restoration in 1660. Although the chapter predominantly and convincingly discusses Settle’s play, Yang’s argument about the introduction of China as a moral exemplar on par with the classical tradition is unsettled by a much shorter discussion that attempts to characterize perceptions of Confucius as an alternative but equal example of the heroic effeminate. With the strong woman warrior contrasted with the perception of Confucius as a gentle male philosopher, Yang thereby argues that this pair offers acceptably effeminate alternatives to the barbarous Tartars (the Manchu Qing who established their new dynasty in 1644). (Masculinity was in fact an important part of Manchu culture and identity; see Mark C. Elliott, The Manchu Way: The Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.) Although the surprisingly brief comparative treatment of Confucius unbalances an otherwise strong and innovative chapter, Yang demonstrates that the English saw both characters as admirable feminized alternatives.

Chapters 2 and 3 depart from Chinese examples. Chapter 2 considers the virtues of sincerity and authenticity as performed by George Psalmanazar, a Frenchman who in the first decade of the eighteenth century fooled many English into thinking he was a pagan convert to Christianity from Formosa (now Taiwan, which he presented as under Japanese control). These doubly fraudulent performances, of a sincere native convert and of an authentic foreigner, are examples of “how performance is at the heart of religious attempts to keep conversion separate from the corrupting world of commerce” (80). Explicitly pretending not to be Chinese, Psalmanazar took advantage of the minimal European knowledge of both Taiwan and Japan alongside the idea of “converts as commodities” (103). Taking Psalmanazar’s cue, Yang argues for the “epistemological unity of fakeness, and faking China, in the mutually operative realms of virtue and commerce” (108). Yet as Yang herself repeatedly reminds the reader, Psalmanazar was not faking China, even as China was the natural example against which he differentiated his identity as a Formosan under Japanese colonial rule. Psalmanazar’s case therefore begins to offer some of the diversity that constitutes early modern orientalism with broad attention to East Asia.

Chapter 3 investigates performances of the myth of the transmigration of souls from humans to animals and across space and time. Specifically, these ideas are read through the Anglicized “oriental tale” tradition (i.e., Arabian Nights) presented in the 1711–12 Spectator papers of Joseph Addison and Richard Steele. The “oriental tale” tradition, which primarily focuses on the Middle East, India, Islam, and Hinduism, has received significant scholarship on which Yang relies heavily (Rosalind Ballaster, Fabulous Orients: Fictions of the East in England, 1662–1785, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005; Laura Brown, Fables of Modernity: Literature and Culture in the English Eighteenth Century, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001). Yang’s contribution is to link the fable/tale idea of the permanence of the soul to the permanence achieved in lacquerwork. Connecting ideas about ancient Egyptian embalming and mummification, porcelain (“china”), and lacquer (“japanwork”), she yokes the vice of idolatry inherent in the idea of a soul’s reincarnation after corporeal death to the ability of certain East Asian artisanal techniques to preserve fragile materials. Borrowing culture and ideas from the generic East, specifically the didactic fables and the practice of “japanning” furniture and objects to preserve them, thus became a metaphor for self-improvement rather than something to take literally.

Chapter 4 considers Arthur Murphy’s The Orphan of China (1759, adapted from a thirteenth-century Chinese opera) and its relationship to luxury viz. both commercial consumption and excessive feeling (whether patriotic or personal). The play was performed the same year as the publication of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Yang links the two texts through concepts of spectacle and spectatorship that reflect period anxiety about reconciling classical ideals with modern commercial life and its imported luxuries. The luxurious excesses of Chinese dress, exemplified by the fabulous costumes that the actors wore (which were also pictured in paintings, prints, and other publications), complicate the deeply moral commitments to family and to country expressed in the play. Such seeming contradictions of “morality and manufactures” (182) performed in The Orphan of China thus reflect the ambiguous exemplarity of China as perceived by the eighteenth-century English.

In both the introduction and the conclusion, Yang uses the West’s continued ambivalence toward China to demonstrate its persistent difficulty with taking China as an exemplar. She begins the book with a consideration of the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics, and concludes by discussing both the 1998 performance of Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot in the Forbidden City and the 1987 performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida in Luxor. The inclusion of both China and Egypt in the conclusion mirrors Yang’s scope in other chapters, as well as the period conflation of the various places that constituted the “Orient.” However, ranging this far afield in time and space showcases examples of orientalism and even auto-orientalism that are more closely related to post-Saidian ideas than to her early modern theorization.

With two chapters about theatrical chinoiserie and two about other performances of orientality, Yang’s stated approach to chinoiserie is explicitly not focused on the imported objects (such as porcelain, tea, and silk) that usually ground discussions of Sino-British relations during this period. Yet while she focuses on the more ephemeral expressions of Chinese taste in the imagination, popular culture, literature, and especially the theater, she repeatedly relies on the material traces of chinoiserie to illustrate her point in all four chapters, most notably in her discussion of lacquer in chapter 3. This desire to include the objects without prioritizing them may be why she only rarely considers the subjects of her sixteen illustrations with anything more than a passing acknowledgement. By offering compelling images to support and illustrate her theory but not providing much analysis of those highly complex examples, Yang’s use of images often undermines her argument. Offering the reader some insight into these evocative touchstones would have strengthened her case.

With the continuing attention being paid to early modern global interaction, Yang’s theory of early modern orientalism is unquestionably useful and, indeed, overdue. With its wide geographic coverage, Performing China is an important contribution to the trend of moving away from Eurocentric ideas of “influence” and toward recasting chinoiserie as a culturally and intellectually significant subject of use to diverse audiences. By focusing on the various performances of East Asia from late seventeenth- through mid-eighteenth-century England, Yang articulates a theory that would be equally applicable, for example, to the Asian-inflected cultural milieu of early modern New Spain. And as she herself demonstrates, one can never truly escape the objects, which should encourage art historians investigating the products of early modern global exchange to consider including the concept of early modern orientalism among their methodologies.

Kristina Kleutghen
David W. Mesker Career Development Professor of Art History, Washington University, St. Louis