CHINA FROM THE RUINS OF ATHENS AND ROME by Chris Murray, Reviewed by James Watt
 


CHINA FROM THE RUINS OF ATHENS AND ROME
By Chris Murray
(Oxford, 2020) xx + 222 pp.
Reviewed by James Watt on 2021-09-25.

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The point of departure for this ambitious and original book is that "you can't understand how Anglophone ideas of China formed without paying attention to classics" (6). According to Chris Murray, classics provided a language with which British and Irish writers sought to comprehend and mediate Chinese difference, and in turn, this literary engagement with China produced "a classical Cathay, a vision of China which is explicitly informed by Greek and Roman ideas and serves as an imaginative substitute for the real China" (7). Murray also shows how classics and a broader "Orientalism" were interlinked: the "classical paradigms" invoked to evaluate China, he argues, were themselves "touched by interactions with Asia," because "Classics and Orientalism are accretions, and each contains the other to an extent" (7).

Within the field of classics itself, Murray distinguishes between the broadly "high" and "low" sources with which his group of writers worked. While Tennyson, for instance, recycled Aeschylus, Homer, and Virgil, Keats and Lamb are said to have been more often "drawn to peripheral figures from the ancient world" (130). It is something of a stretch to group writers such as Lamb and De Quincey under the rubric of "nineteenth-century cosmopolitanism," but Murray skilfully uncovers what he terms "the web of relations behind British views of China" (98). The phrase "web of relations" nicely exemplifies his approach to the "back-and-forth exchange between east and west" that is one of the organizing themes of his book. "Classics," he writes, "could help outsiders who adopted unilateral perspectives on China, but could also affect gazes in the opposite direction" (7). Accordingly, he recognizes Chinese engagement with the classical tradition as well as with works of British literature that directly or indirectly involve Chinese subject-matter.

Chronologically, Murray's account ranges from 1793, when Lord George Macartney led a mission to the Chinese imperial court (where Macartney's Chinese interpreters spoke Latin and Italian, but not English), to 1860, when -- towards the end of the Second Opium War -- the British burned and looted the emperor's Summer Palace. These two historical episodes of diplomacy and barbarism provide bookends of a kind. But Murray mainly seeks to elucidate what he terms a "Romantic mode of viewing China" (222), which is especially evident in the poetry of Keats, Tennyson, and to a lesser extent Coleridge. Though none of them had first-hand experience of Asia, they variously demonstrated a curiosity about Buddhism and Daoism, the spiritual traditions marginalized by eighteenth-century Jesuit authorities on Chinese culture. In a coda, Murray presents Yeats's ekphrastic poem "Lapis Lazuli" (written during the run-up to World War II) as the final instance of poetry in what he calls the "Romantic mode," and his other two chapters consider the now canonical prose writers Lamb and De Quincey, who (as noted above) may not readily be grouped with literary figures whose imaginations were "captured" by Asia (23).

Setting Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" beside Gibbon's account of the thirteenth-century Mongol emperor of that name, Murray argues that with the pleasure dome serving "as a figure for Gibbon's disillusionment with the khans" (58), Coleridge's poem offers a similarly prophetic warning about the corrupting impact of empire upon political virtue. (Given its suggestive claim about the importance of Gibbon for Coleridge, this chapter might have engaged more fully with J.G.A. Pocock's magisterial series of books Barbarism and Religion [1999-2015].) Furthermore, Murray notes, Keats's Lamia not only draws on a story told in Philostratus's life of Apollonius (as paraphrased in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy), but also displays similarities with the White Snake legend of Chinese folklore. Emphasizing the "Asian origin" of both "Keats's classical source material and the Chinese legend," Murray seeks to show how "many forms of cultural exchange converge in a relatively short text" (63).

Moving on to essays by the frustrated classicist Lamb, who wrote as "Elia," Murray discusses the porcelain-inspired reveries of "Old China" and identifies what he takes to be the "real source" of "A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig." The story Elia tells in this essay, writes Murray, springs from the Neoplatonist Porphyry of Tyre, whose treatise On the Abstinence from Animal Food "contains the story that Elia relates" (108) about the discovery of pork crackling by the pig-keeping Chinese peasants Ho-ti and Bo-bo. As for Tennyson and De Quincey, Murray attempts to recover in their writings forms of engagement with China other than the denigratory and bellicose interventions with which they are most often associated. Even if, he argues, the reference to "a Cycle of Cathay" in "Locksley Hall" dismissively recasts Chinese antiquity as backwardness, Tennyson's "eclectic reading" elsewhere demonstrates "an imaginative interest in Asia unaffiliated with imperial ideology" (142). If De Quincey seems an even harder figure to recuperate, Murray notes the recurrent appeal to Greek tragedy in his journalistic writings on China during the Second Opium War. Given this appeal, Murray writes, De Quincey's apparent advocacy of violence towards the Chinese entails "a symbolic violence rather than a literal call-to-arms" (174).

Finally, Murray's coda suggestively links war to Yeats's "Lapis Lazuli," his poem about a carved piece of stone that represents three Chinese figures climbing a mountain. In returning to the positive story about cultural exchange and shared heritage that he tells in his earlier chapters, Murray argues that the images and the text inscribed on this stone, which was given to Yeats, offered the poet a consolatory "perspective on catastrophe" (223) at a time when Europe appeared to be on the brink of another war.

This brief summary cannot encompass all the detail in the "web of relations" that Murray uncovers or weaves among his primary texts. His impressive scholarly achievement is founded on a formidable range of reading and an enviable facility with languages. As part of a series titled "Classical Presences," the book makes salutary claims about the centrality of classics in the formation of nineteenth-century "Anglophone ideas about China," albeit the claims are somewhat intimidating for any modern reader without the same depth and breadth of learning.

Nonetheless, Murray sometimes overstates his argument. To support his opening premise that "you can't understand how Anglophone ideas of China formed without paying attention to classics," he reads various classically inspired or inflected literary texts as "vehicles" for thought about China in sometimes rather reductive ways. In his chapter on Coleridge and Gibbon, for example, his "triangulation" of their work with narratives of the Macartney embassy generates an allegorical mode of interpretation (where x corresponds to or "recalls" y) that leads to several tendentious inferences. At the close of "Kubla Khan," the injunction "Beware! Beware!" is said to "capture[ ] public negativity towards Britain's embassies to China"; and in the 1816 preface to the poem, Coleridge's claim that a man from Porlock interrupted his composing is said to "mimic[ ] the sudden termination of Macartney's adventure" (52). Murray also finds such allegorizing in the poetry of Keats. Even while arguing that Keats, having abandoned the possibility of a career as a surgeon in India, "staked a claim to the imagined world of the Orient" (83) in Lamia, Endymion, and other poems, Murray contends that Lamia evokes recent events in China: "Excited with material possession," Murray writes, "the thwarted curiosi in Lamia recall the unhappy British Embassies to China in 1793 and 1816" (82).

Murray also overstates his argument by moving beyond his valuable point about the nineteenth-century "status of classics as a master-knowledge" (20). His own source-hunting contextualization bccomes a critical master-language that provides the key to interpreting any work he treats. In the case of Lamb's "Dissertation," for example, Murray's claim that Porphyry supplies its "real source" sidesteps aspects of its manifest content to make it a more appealing text: the pork-eating Chinese peasants "are really Greeks" with whom the pork-loving narrator "establishes common ground" (131).

As an unquestionably shifty piece of writing, Lamb's essay erects binaries (their Confucius/ our Locke) only to undermine them (Elia confesses to being a barbarically gluttonous figure himself). But by insisting that "the joke is on the reader who fails to realise that the Chinese are really Greeks" (111), Murray ignores how the text's obviously bizarre and fantastical rendering of China may actually have resonated for audiences past and present. Given "the obscurity of Lamb's Neoplatonic source," Murray suggests, some readers have mistakenly assumed that that the essay offers "commentary on China." For Murray, interestingly, they include students at a US university who, perhaps responding to what he refers to as the essay's "ostensible" derision of "ancient Chinese culture" (111), found it to be "horribly racist" (123).

Like this derision, the racism of De Quincey's journalism on China is for Murray only "ostensible" (111, 173), and critics who flag it do so as a "cheap holiday" (which seems to imply that this is a rather hackneyed or obvious topic). De Quincey's "use of Greek tragedy to call for war on China," Murray claims, "offers evidence ... of his aversion to violence" (171), and as noted above, Murray teases out allusions or subtexts that apparently exculpate De Quincey because they seem to suggest that the violence he advocates is only "symbolic" and/ or self-directed. At the same time, Murray plays down the manifest bellicosity of De Quincey's writing and the actual impact it had, even though he admits that his 1840 essay "On Opium and the China Question" may have influenced the Duke of Wellington's pro-war speech in the House of Lords, and that his articles on China "were sufficiently popular to be republished as an independent pamphlet" (171). Like others before him, Murray foregrounds De Quincey's fear of being "Orientalized," but it is unclear what is to be gained from considering De Quincey's direct journalistic reference to China and his self-obsession in either/ or terms. "Where De Quincey declares that Britain should 'thump them well,'" writes Murray, "I think he displays self-contempt" (191). But why can't self-contempt go hand in hand with bellicosity?

James Watt is Professor of English in the Department of English and Related Literature and the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York.


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