Robert Markley. The Far East and the English Imagination, 1600-1730 (2006)

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Robert Markley. The Far East and the English Imagination, 1600-1730.
Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. viii + 316
pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN
978-0-521-81944-2.

Reviewed by: David Davies, Independent Scholar.
Published by: H-Albion (July, 2007)

East Is East

Robert Markley's book is based on some two hundred contemporary texts
from a diverse range of authors, including Jesuit missionaries, Dutch
merchants, and such well-known British writers as Jonathan Swift and
Daniel Defoe. He sets out to examine both English attitudes to the Far
East, as revealed in these texts, and to consider the impact that the
east had on English thinking during the "long seventeenth century."
Markley follows other recent writers, notably Kenneth Pomeranz, in
overtly rejecting both Eurocentricity and Americocentricity when
viewing the history of the West's relations with the Far East. He
accepts the "new orthodoxy" that sees China as the world's most
important economy from about 1500 to 1800, and notes how it served as
a political, economic, and intellectual example to the West, as well
as "a fantasy space for mercantile capitalism" (p. 4). He observes
that the notion that China was somehow inferior to the West was
entirely absent from seventeenth-century writing and can be dated
precisely to Defoe's demonization of the country in 1719, the
harbinger of the aggressive imperial acquisitiveness of the nineteenth
century. Markley's substantial introduction, "British Literature of
the Late Ming and Early Qing Dynasties," provides an overview of these
themes.

Markley's first chapter, "The Far East, the East India Company, and
the English Imagination," reviews travel writing of the early
seventeenth century, focusing on the English East India Company, and
especially on its relations with the Sultanate of Aceh. He
demonstrates the fascination with the East in such works as John
Fletcher's The Island Princess (1621), and rightly emphasizes the
sophistication of the economic analyses of such writers as Thomas Mun
and Peter Heylyn. Chapter 2, "China and the Limits of Eurocentric
History: Milton, the Jesuits, and the Jews of Kaifeng," notes the
complexity of John Milton's attitude to the Jesuits and to China
itself, which challenged his providential, republican view of the
world. Markley's third chapter examines civility and European rivalry
in Qing China, focusing on Jan Nieuhoff's descriptions of his visits
to China in 1655-56, and notes how contemporaries believed (wrongly)
that the code of civility provided common ground between upper-class
Europeans and Chinese. In his fourth chapter, Markley examines John
Dryden's play Amboyna (1672). It is true, as Markley states, that
Amboyna was an important part of the English government's clumsy
attempt to whip up anti-Dutch sentiment at the start of the third
Dutch war in 1672, although its ostensible subject matter, a fifty-
year-old massacre that happened to have taken place in the East
Indies, was very much secondary to its primary purpose, the
demonization of the enemy.

Two of Markley's chapters deal with the writings of Defoe. Chapter 5
considers the little known sequel to Robinson Crusoe, his Farther
Adventures (published the same year, 1719) in the Far East, where
Defoe asserts the inferiority of the Chinese to British Protestantism.
Chapter 6 examines Defoe's part in developing the myth of the South
Seas as an inexhaustible treasure house, particularly in his 1724
novel, A New Voyage Around the World. Here Markley also examines
earlier sea voyages, notably those of John Narbrough and William
Dampier, which became well publicized in their day and helped to
perpetuate the same mentality of fantasy economics. The final chapter,
"Gulliver, the Japanese, and the Fantasy of European Abjection,"
examines book 3 of Gulliver's Travels (1726), Swift's comparatively
neglected tale of Gulliver's experiences in Japan. As Markley (and
Gulliver) rightly assert, Japanese technology, military prowess, and
political and economic self-sufficiency under the sakoku principle
demonstrate "the irrelevance of the assumptions, values, and logic on
which the self-congratulatory rhetoric of Eurocentrism depends" (pp.
245-246).

This summary of Markley's chapters reveals both the book's main
weakness and its greatest strength. Despite the author's claims in his
introduction, this is really a collection of disparate essays on some
very different works of literature; in that sense, it is not a unified
narrative of English perceptions of the Far East in the seventeenth
and early eighteenth centuries. (Moreover, Markley's insistence on
"English," rather than "British," hardly does justice to Dean Swift,
an Irishman, or to Alexander Selkirk, the Scot who was the model for
Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, nor to the fact that the British Isles had a
unified foreign policy from 1603 onwards.) On the other hand, the
bringing together of such a lucid and often penetrating analysis of
such diverse works in one book is eminently praiseworthy. As a
collection of essays, this book works very well, and presents a series
of convincing reinterpretations of some well-known, and less well-
known, literary texts.

As one might expect from a professor of English Literature of
Markley's distinction, his coverage of literary source material is
comprehensive, but he is also strong on economic history. Markley
places a fashionable emphasis on such themes as ecological crises and
resource depletion, but neglects others, notably the key issue of
military and (above all) naval technology, which increasingly dictated
the terms of engagement in the Far East during the seventeenth
century. However, one of the most significant criticisms that can be
made of Markley's thesis is his failure conclusively to prove that the
works of Milton, Nieuhoff, Defoe and the rest directly influenced the
policies of European decision-makers in either politics or trade.
(Even Defoe's important works on the South Seas, analyzed in chapter
6, were published after the formation of the South Sea Company, not
before.) In any age, it is easy to prove that a book was published,
but rather less easy to prove that it was read--and even if it were,
that its ideas were accepted. To give just two examples, it would be
difficult to think of any more intellectually curious and politically
conscious individuals in seventeenth-century England than those great
friends, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn; but the copious writings of
both reveal little awareness of, or sympathy for, the Far East. When
the ambassadors of the East Indian kingdom of Bantam came to London in
1682, Evelyn saw "the exotic guests" at dinner and observed how they
were "much resembling in countenance to some sort of monkeys," as well
as noting their amazement at the notion that individuals other than a
king could own property (Evelyn's diary, June 19, 1682).[1]

This is an impressive book on a theme that has been neglected and
viewed through the looking glass of comfortable western preconceptions
for far too long. There is, however, an implicit danger in Markley's
perfectly explicit rejection of historical interpretations founded
upon Eurocentricity and Americocentricity (see, for instance, pp.
21-22). In their enthusiasm to abandon these undoubtedly narrow and
distorted world views, authors like Markley may be too influenced by
China's rapid transformation into the economic superpower of our
times, just as writers in Imperial Britain or post-Cold War America
were too quick to trumpet the (supposed) innate superiority of their
value systems and economic might. Ultimately, a new Sinocentricity
might become just as problematic an intellectual construct as those
that it supersedes.

Note

[1]. Many editions. See, for example, The Diary of John Evelyn, ed.
John Bowle (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 297-298.

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