China hurtles back to the future

Robert Markley argues that an economically dominant China, with Europeans begging for scraps off its table, would be a return to the state of affairs 300 years ago

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

Sun, Sep 10, 2006 - Page 18

Behind The Far East and the English Imagination, 1600-1730 lies one grand claim. It’s that if the future is going to bring into being an economic world that’s centered on China and Chinese products, it’s important to understand that this represents a reversion to the state of affairs that existed in the 17th and early 18th centuries, when small groups of European merchants pleaded for trading privileges from an enormously rich, highly organized and socially greatly-admired China.

This “new” view of trading history challenges the older view that for 300 years an emergent industrialized Europe engaged in the colonialist and exploitative mercantile invasion of an innocent and therefore highly profitable Orient. No, argues Markley. China was at the center, and Europe was what the Chinese emperors perceived it as being, a bit-player aiming to get its share of the splendor and organizational sophistication of the Furthest East. China needed silver, and this the Europeans provided in exchange for porcelain, silk, and later tea. They were, in other words, in the subservient position of buying Chinese luxury goods for cash.

Even so, the riches Asia offered Europe were beyond dispute. Composing his sonnet On the Extinction of the Venetian Republic, Wordsworth began, “Once did she hold the gorgeous East in fee.” Venice had been conquered by Napoleon in 1797, and what the poet meant was that the Venice of old had profited extensively from the highly lucrative trade with Asia.

Markley sets out to survey the travelers’ accounts of East Asia in his chosen era, with special attention to how the region was treated by the classic English authors Milton, Dryden, Defoe and Swift. He begins by pointing out that during this period Asia was the main focus of European mercantile attention, whereas the Americas were decidedly secondary, only coming into their own as sources of immense wealth — from the trade in sugar, especially — in the later 18th century.

Prior to that Asia was at the center, containing the most sophisticated economies in the world, Markley insists, and some of the highest standards of living as well. He even goes as far as to entitle one chapter “British Literature of the late Ming and early Qing Dynasties.”

As for adopting the views of the East in Milton, Dryden, Defoe and Swift as organizational principles for the book, this only works to some extent. The strangest anomaly is the chapter on Swift, “Gulliver, the Japanese, and the fantasy of European abjection.” In Book Three of Gulliver’s Travels (1726) Swift sends his hero, or anti-hero, to Japan, the only real-life destination among a wide array of bizarrely imagined ones. From there Gulliver obtains a direct passage home, on a Dutch ship via Amsterdam. Markley uses the incident to put together an over-view of travel writing about Japan in the period, but it’s a rather tenuous link. Swift only devotes part of a short chapter to Gulliver’s Japanese sojourn — the passage covering his stay there is only about the length of this book review.

Swift has Gulliver pass himself off as a Dutchman because the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed to trade in Japan at the date of this part of the fiction, 1710. He then uses this ruse of Gulliver’s as a basis for mocking the Dutch. They were required by the Japanese to perform a token act of “trampling upon the Crucifix,” something from which Gulliver is exempted, and Swift has a quick joke at Dutch expense by making his supposedly Christian Dutch shipmates suspicious that Gulliver may not have performed the ceremony, and proud of having done so themselves.

Markley works this up into a psychological maneuver on Swift’s part, but the reality was probably simpler. England and Holland had fought several wars in the previous decades, and Swift probably just wanted to make another joke about the old enemy. Such slights were common in England, from the frequent assertion that the Dutch were all drunkards to the would-be comic claim by the poet Marvell that they had “with mad labor fished their land to shore.”

Markley finds more material for his argument in Defoe, but then Defoe was highly productive, in effect the first English professional prose writer, turning out books at a huge rate under a variety of pen-names. What Markley concentrates on are the two sequels to Robinson Crusoe, describing Crusoe’s adventures as a merchant in the East. These books are notable for their virulent attacks on China — hardly surprising, Markley writes, when that was the richest country on earth and put unusual obstacles in the way of visiting foreign traders.

For the rest, there is much about the recurring topic of the execution of English merchants on the Dutch-held island of Amboyna in 1622 (it provided the subject for a tragedy by Dryden 50 years later as well as, in another touch of Swiftian irony, the name of the Dutch ship in which Gulliver returned to Europe).

Also notable about this pioneering book is its incorporation of ecological perspectives. History is not only a matter of money, as Marxists tend to believe — things such as land fertility and the using up of non-renewable resources matter, and mattered, too. Here again, as with Sino-centrism, the concerns and forebodings of the present unavoidably influence our understanding and account of the past.

Robert Markley challenges the conventional wisdom of the last 30 years on European expansionism in this remarkable book. It’s crammed with information, and will occupy an important place in the busy field of the history of trade in the early modern era (a description, incidentally, which the author also aims to re-define).