A Century of Travels in China

A Century of Travels in China: Critical Essays on Travel Writing from the 1840s to the 1940s

Douglas Kerr
Julia Kuehn
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    A Century of Travels in China
    Book Description:

    Writings of travelers have shaped ideas about an evolving China, while preconceived ideas about China also shaped the way they saw the country. A Century of Travels in China explores the impressions of these writers on various themes, from Chinese cities and landscapes to the work of Europeans abroad. From the time of the first Opium War to the declaration of the People's Republic, China's history has been one of extraordinary change and stubborn continuities. At the same time, the country has beguiled, scared and puzzled people in the West. The Victorian public admired and imitated Chinese fashions, in furniture and design, gardens and clothing, while maintaining a generally negative idea of the Chinese empire as pagan, backward and cruel. In the first half of the twentieth century, the fascination continued. Most foreigners were aware that revolutionary changes were taking place in Chinese politics and society, yet most still knew very little about the country. But what about those few people from the English-speaking world who had first-hand experience of the place? What did they have to say about the "real" China? To answer this question, we have to turn to the travel accounts and memoirs of people who went to see for themselves, during China's most traumatic century. While this book represents the work of expert scholars, it is also accessible to non-specialists with an interest in travel writing and China, and care has been taken to explain the critical terms and ideas deployed in the essays from recent scholarship of the travel genre.

    eISBN: 978-988-8052-01-1
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Notes on Contributors
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)
    Douglas Kerr and Julia Kuehn

    China to the Western traveler has always been characterized by excess. There is too much of China to travel to, to experience, to comprehend, to describe, and certainly too much of it to subdue or convert. To Archibald Little, traveling through “the illimitable western mountains” of China towards Tibet at the end of the nineteenth century, the apparently endless prospect of mountains beyond mountains was both sublime and disheartening; it was a landscape which seemed to have no beginning and no end.¹ The title he gave to the account of his travels, Mount Omi and Beyond, moves from a specific...

  7. 1 Sketching China and the Self-Portrait of a Post-Romantic Traveler: John Francis Davis’s Rewriting of China in the 1840s
    (pp. 13-26)
    Tamara S. Wagner

    When John Francis Davis published his Sketches of China in the early 1840s, he capitalized on a significant increase in China’s appeal to the imagination, yet even more importantly, his work spanned crucial shifts in Britain’s political, commercial, and cultural attitudes to China over the course of the nineteenth century. A contradictory as well as complex text, the book encapsulated most effectively changing responses to China that were propelled by Romantic literary legacies, on the one hand, and early Victorian imperialist commercialism, on the other. As such, it indeed remarkably bridged two different sets of attitudes to the Celestial Empire....

  8. 2 Converting Chinese Eyes: Rev. W. H. Medhurst, “Passing,” and the Victorian Vision of China
    (pp. 27-38)
    Elizabeth H. Chang

    The Reverend Walter H. Medhurst (1796–1857) begins his travel narrative A Glance at the Interior of China Obtained During a Journey to the Silk and Green Tea Countries (1850)¹ with the following injunction: “In order to accomplish a journey into the interior of China,” Medhurst writes, “it is necessary, if the individual undertaking it be a foreigner, to assume the Chinese dress, to shave the front part of the head and temples, and to wear what is commonly called a tail. The traveller should also be able to converse readily in the Chinese language; and conform himself, as much...

  9. 3 Traveling Imperialism: Lord Elgin’s Missions to China and the Limits of Victorian Liberalism
    (pp. 39-52)
    Q. S. Tong

    James Bruce (1811–63), the Eighth Earl of Elgin, was a traveler, an imperial traveler. In his professional life over a period of about twenty years, he was sent by the British Empire on numerous “difficult and unwelcome” errands and traveled to different parts of the world as a colonial administrator — governor of Jamaica, governor-general of Canada, plenipotentiary to China and Japan, and viceroy of India.¹ Elgin’s name and reputation, however, are mainly built on his two missions to China, in 1857 and 1859 respectively, during the Arrow war or the Second Opium War, as it is known in Chinese...

  10. 4 Mirror Images: John Thomson’s Photographs of East Asia
    (pp. 53-62)
    Thomas Prasch

    A revealing verbal slip occurs in the preface to John Thomson’s Straits of Malacca, Indo-China, and China (1875), his summary of ten years’ travel with camera in East Asia. “It has been my care,” Thomson writes, “so to hold the mirror up to his [the reader’s] gaze, that it may present to him, if not always an agreeable, yet at least a faithful, impression of China and its inhabitants.”¹ If what Thomson held up is a mirror, however, the reader would see himself, not the Chinese.

    Thomson spoke more accurately than he intended. He shared with most of his contemporaries...

  11. 5 Eating out East: Representing Chinese Food in Victorian Travel Literature and Journalism
    (pp. 63-74)
    Ross G. Forman

    Writing in her 1899 travelogue The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, inveterate globetrotter Isabella L. Bird proclaimed to her readers, “Our ideas as to Chinese food are, on the whole, considerably astray.”¹ Echoing the sentiments of the periodical Temple Bar — which, in 1891, had declared, “It seems, however, impossible to disabuse people of the idea that dogs, rats, and snails frequently appear on the bill of fare” in Chinese establishments — Bird addressed head-on prevalent misconceptions about the exotic nature of the Chinese diet.² These misconceptions were often advanced through travel writers’ and journalists’ experience primarily with aristocratic banquet foods and their...

  12. 6 Encounters with Otherness: Female Travelers in China, 1880–1920
    (pp. 75-90)
    Julia Kuehn

    This essay looks at a number of female travelers in China between 1880 and 1920, and analyzes how these women experience and describe the country and its people.¹ However, rather than propose a synchronic study of history, I focus on a selection of encounters, or events, during that period.

    Foucault, in The Archaeology of Knowledge, deconstructs the totalizing, linear, causal model of history. Instead, he establishes history as a series of “widely spaced intervals formed by rare or repetitive events,” which “are juxtaposed to one another, follow one another, overlap and intersect, without one being able to reduce them to...

  13. 7 Travel Writing and the Humanitarian Impulse: Alicia Little in China
    (pp. 91-104)
    Susan Schoenbauer Thurin

    Humanitarianism does not usually spring to mind as the subject of travel writing. In writings about nineteenth-century China, however, and in particular in the writing of Alicia Little, or Mrs. Archibald Little, to use the name under which she published her books and articles about China, it has a prominent position. By humanitarianism I mean efforts undertaken to alleviate the pain and suffering of others; subjects Little addresses in her books about China. Her positive attitude toward China and Chinese women and children in particular, and her work on their behalf, distinguishes her humanitarianism. What this essay attempts to do...

  14. 8 The “Sphere of Interest”: Framing Late Nineteenth-Century China in Words and Pictures with Isabella Bird
    (pp. 105-118)
    Susan Morgan

    By the early nineteenth century the prevailing political notion in England of what constituted British interest in the “East” was typically represented, in imaginative if not in literal terms, as an overarching purpose which could unite a whole range of British activities in the region. Everything was somehow connected. What the British did on the Indian subcontinent and in the Straits Settlements, the Malay Peninsula, the East Indies and China, was all of a piece.

    What connected these multiple, particular, and scattered British activities in the places the British called the “East” was, first of all, an idea. It was...

  15. 9 China Upriver: Three Colonial Journeys between Hong Kong and Canton, 1905–11
    (pp. 119-132)
    Elaine Yee Lin Ho

    The first decade of the twentieth century up to the outbreak of the First World War has often been considered the height of the British empire. During this period, accounts of journeys by British travelers to different parts of the empire often display self-confidence in the racial and cultural superiority of Western, specifically Anglo-Saxon, imperial rule, and belief in the progress that such rule would bring to non-Western cultures. These cultures are often perceived in states of lack, variously inert, primitive, barbarous, or in decline, and their subjugation to Western imperial rule is the necessary historical stage in their regeneration...

  16. 10 With Harry Franck in China
    (pp. 133-146)
    Nicholas Clifford

    If we want an American equivalent of Isabella Bird Bishop (not that we are likely to find one), Harry Alverson Franck might be a candidate. Like her, he roamed through much of the world, often alone, though sometimes with his family parked nearby; like her, he was a prolific writer, publishing some twenty-three books on his travels between 1910 and 1943; and, like hers, his books promise his readers a direct apprehension of the reality of the lands through which he journeyed, seen through the eyes of a dispassionate observer.

    In this last, of course, he and Bird fit into...

  17. 11 Journeys to War: W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and William Empson in China
    (pp. 147-162)
    Hugh Haughton

    “Where does the journey look which the watcher upon the quay. . . so bitterly envies?” These are the opening words of “The Voyage,” the poem which launches Journey to a War, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s account of their 1938 journey to China during the Sino-Japanese war. The poem, a partial response to Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage,” raises some of the fundamental questions of travel literature, setting up an opposition between the “true” and “false” journey, asking whether travel is ultimately about a quest for “the Good Place,” and invoking the “watcher on the quay” as a figure of...

  18. 12 Agnes Smedley: The Fellow-Traveler’s Tales
    (pp. 163-176)
    Douglas Kerr

    A fellow-traveler is someone who travels along with another. In the 1930s, as the equivalent of the Russian word popútchik, the English phrase “fellow-traveler” acquired a more specialized meaning, indicating one who sympathizes with the Communist movement without actually being a party member. It seems an apt sign under which to think about the writings of Agnes Smedley about wartime China in the 1930s and 1940s. Travel writing, perhaps fortunately, rarely has unmixed motives, and the motives of Smedley’s Chinese travel writing express themselves in the genres of journalism, autobiography, historiography, war reporting, propaganda, ethnography, lyric and, as we shall...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 177-208)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 209-226)
  21. Index
    (pp. 227-232)
  22. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)