China in the European Imagination
Updated: Feb 14, 2022
On December 16th, 2021, we not only celebrated Jane Austen's birthday but we also welcomed Professor Peter Sabor to talk about "From Xo Ho to Mi Li: Horace Walpole and China." This fascinating talk introduced us to everything from Anglo-Chinese gardens to the dangers of goldfish bowls to unsuspecting cats.
In eighteenth-century England, the fashion for "Chinoiserie" (or Chinese-inspired decorative arts) inspired great interest in Chinese culture and history. That said, few Europeans had visited China, and most who traveled to China at this time were affiliated with Jesuit missionaries. This means that most people writing about China never experienced first-hand knowledge of the country.
To help you understand how the English might have perceived China in the eighteenth century, we've compiled a list of resources about depictions of China and Chinese people produced in eighteenth-century Europe, including the story of a famous visitor to China, the Great Pagoda in Kew Gardens, and the strange case of George Psalmanazar.
One of the first recorded Chinese visitors to England was named Shen Fu-Tsung.
Jesuit convert Shen Fu-Tsung (沈福宗, also known as Michael Alphonsus or Shen Fuzong) came to England in 1687. James II personally requested to meet with Shen. Shen impressed the King so much that James commissioned a painting of him to be completed, which was completed by Sir Godfrey Kneller. Among his most important contributions, Shen helped Thomas Hyde catalogue the Chinese collection at the Bodleian library, an exchange of knowledge that was crucial to sparking the study of China in England.
2. Most Europeans learned about China through Jean-Baptiste du Halde's Geographical, Historical, Chronological, Political, and Physical Description of the Empire of China and Chinese Tartary.
Du Halde never visited China himself--he actually lived in Paris--but he claimed to have based his account on the records of other Jesuit missionaries who had lived in China. The book includes histories, maps, and prints, but because du Halde never verified the information himself, some of the more fantastic tales should be regarded with a pinch of a salt. That said, this text is often attributed for inspiring the "Chinoiserie" style in eighteenth-century Europe.
3. A Frenchman named George Psalmanazar once fooled people into thinking he was from Taiwan.
George Psalmanazar claimed to be a traveler from Formosa (the name that modern-day Taiwan was known by in eighteenth century England). There was just one problem: he was actually a blond-haired, blue-eyed Frenchman. Despite the fact that the Royal Society proved he was a fraud, Psalmanazar managed to convince thousands that he was the real deal. He even wrote a book, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa (1704), which included an invented alphabet that he claimed was the real language of Formosa.
4. William Chambers built a replica of a pagoda in Kew Gardens.
In 1762, William Chambers built what he claimed was an authentic Chinese pagoda in Kew Gardens in
honor of Princess Augusta. While Chambers had studied and written about Chinese architecture, his pagoda was undoubtedly of European design. Most notably, it contained ten stories instead of the traditional seven. He also built a replica of the Alhambra and a mosque in the gardens as well. The Great Pagoda can still be viewed at Kew Gardens today, although the other structures did not survive.
5. Horace Walpole wrote a political pamphlet from the perspective of a Chinese philosopher.
Horace Walpole is best known for writing The Castle of Otranto and thereby inventing the genre of gothic novels that Catherine Morland loved so much in Northanger Abbey. But Walpole wrote more than just gothic novels. His first piece was an anonymously published political pamphlet called "A Letter from Xo Ho, A Chinese Philosopher at London, to His Friend Lien Chi at Peking." Walpole used the perspective of a Chinese traveler to critique the absurd aspects of English politics. According to Peter Sabor, the name "Xo Ho," which may appear Chinese to an unknowing English audience, was actually intended to be pronounced like the London district of Soho.