Britain’s National Anxiety and the Far East in the Early 18th Century
By Jonathan Chan
The expansion of British economic trade through the 16th and 17th centuries saw increasing encounters with nations in the "Far East" or the Sinosphere, a region encompassing present-day China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea. Historian Andre Gunder Frank argues that the entire world economic order was Sinocentric before 1800, with China emerging as the most populous, wealthiest and among the most technologically sophisticated nations. By comparison, historian Julian Hoppit characterises the time after 1689 as an "anxious age" for England. Many Britons remembered the nation being torn apart in the 1640s and the 1650s by Civil War and Oliver Cromwell's republican experiment, as well as the horrors of the bubonic plague in 1665 and the Great Fire of London in 1666.
Central to this anxiety was the difficulty of establishing an agreed relationship between politics and religion. This was made apparent by the fractious politicking that resulted in the unseating of the unpopular Catholic monarch James II and the accession of William III and Mary. In 1703, the Bishop of Salisbury warned Sophia Electress of Hanover, Queen Anne's designated successor, that "'Tis not a full hundred years that we have been fluctuating from one expedient to another." It is unsurprising then that the Far East stokes anxieties regarding political continuity and economic stability, particularly since, as Robert Markley argues, China's empire was regarded as being alien and civilised, non-Christian yet undeniably richer than the powers of Europe.
These anxieties inform Daniel Defoe's The Consolidator or, Memoirs of Sundry Transactions from the World in the Moon (1705) and George Psalmanazar's An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa: An Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan (1704). Defoe's invocation of the moon situates The Consolidator in a lineage of moon narratives such as Francis Godwin's The Man in the Moone (1638) and Cyrano de Bergerac's The Other World (1657). Initial impressions of the Far East came from accounts of the Jesuits, early missionaries who sought to convert and educate the "pagans" of such places as China, Egypt and Canada. By attacking the Moon and its government in The Consolidator, Defoe could avoid obstacles presented by censorship and criticise English and Scottish authorities while describing lunar travel as a Chinese technological advancement. Defoe's narrator traces this interstellar mobility to philosophical transactions with the wisdom of lunar civilisations.
By contrast, Psalmanazar's ethnography of Formosa (present-day Taiwan) emerges from a broader act of imposture. As with other fireside travellers of the 18th century, Psalmanazar made use of the techniques and materials of authentic voyage literature to have his imitation accepted as real. Psalmanazar formed and executed the plan of pretending to be from Formosa after his studies informed him that Europeans were ignorant of that island. He invented a false language, and studied and practised it in order not to be trapped by suspicion. After endearing himself to the Bishop of London by translating the Anglican Catechism into "Formosan", Chaplain William Innes prevailed upon his prodigy to produce a history of his supposed homeland. While Defoe is unwavering in acknowledging China's advancement, Psalmanazar writes of Formosa as a nation of strange rituals to advance a defence of the Christian faith.
Both writers play on burgeoning fascinations with the "exotic". Historian Joan Pau Rubiés explains that the description of different people groups was a valued element of early modern travel narratives, both for the entertainment value of the depiction of curious behaviour, and the philosophical issues this variety raised about the existence of universal human traits. What simmers beneath the surface of both texts is a desire to reassure an ostensibly British audience of the rudiments of their national identity: Defoe's Chinese are advanced because of wisdom from the moon, Psalmanazar's Formosans are "backward" because of their rejection of the Christian faith.
By indulging in the literary fashion of chinoiserie and glorifying Chinese inventiveness, Defoe sought to grate upon the feelings of European contemporaries who insisted their age was one of unimpeded progress and enlightenment, especially given the Royal Society's establishment in 1662. Defoe writes that for the Chinese, "Gun-powder, Printing, and the use of the Magnet and Compass, which we call Modern Inventions, are not only far from being Inventions, but fall so far short of the Perfection of Art they have attained to," satirising the uncritical adulation of Chinese wisdom and knowledge by such individuals as Sir William Temple. This persistent praise and curiosity is evidenced by the narrator's visit to the "Library-keeper of Tonquin, by whom I had Admission into the vast Collection of Books." He finds political treatises wherein "by Nature's directing the People", Chinese emperors placed "the Power of Government in the most worthy Person they could find." Defoe's reference to Chinese governance critiques Britain's monarchy, with the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the breaking of the hereditary succession in 1689 and 1701 eradicating belief in the inherited and divine legitimacy of all monarchs. Further references are made to medical documents, including "an exact Description of the Circulation of the Blood, discovered long before King Solomon's Allegory of the Bucket's going to the well." A reference to the biblical King Solomon and William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood in De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in 1628, Defoe sardonically illustrates Chinese medical advancement by dismantling both sources of wisdom. Given Britain's fraught history of dynastic politics and inchoate investment in scientific development, Defoe's grandiose proclamations regarding China would have provoked the interrogation of the contemporary rudiments of British identity.
Contrastingly, Psalmanazar exploits the same ignorance toward the "orient" to fabricate a politically dysfunctional Formosa, discrediting the notion that the Sinosphere is uniformly advanced. Psalmanazar pointed out errors in the books of former travellers to the East. He begged the indulgence of his readers because he was allegedly only 19 when he left Formosa and was therefore unqualified to discuss mature questions about it. Psalmanazar invents the king Meryaandanoo who "ravished Japan by Villany, and then conquer'd Formosa by a trick." Meryaandanoo's betrayal of the Emperor of Japan plays out like a hybrid of Othello and Macbeth, with Psalmanazar describing, "this ungrateful Villain made use of that familiarity [in the court] […] first to raise a Jealousie in the Mind of the Emperor against the Empress; and then by this means to contrive an opportunity for murdering them both." In a histrionic fashion, Meryaandanoo poses as the supposed nobleman with whom the Empress has her secret rendezvous, before killing her and the king with "a poison'd Dagger, to conceal the Murder, by stopping the Effusion of Blood." Meryaandanoo's conniving nature is further revealed in his invasion of Formosa. Operating under the pretence of illness and having "all these Sacrifices [to the Gods of Japan] proving, as he pretended, ineffectual," he instructs his Army to enter Formosa "under the Religious pretence of Offering Sacrifice for the Recovery of his Health." The infiltration further situates Meryaandanoo within a literary tradition of treacherous kings and the fictitious Formosa amidst other dysfunctional courts. While Defoe upholds the stability of Chinese regimes, Psalmanazar strives to convince readers of Formosa's volatile political similarities with Europe and, by extension, the authenticity of his account.
A sharp divergence emerges as both writers try to locate the ideological underpinnings of their chosen nations. With Defoe having established China as a flourishing nation that threatens Britain's conceptions of itself, he undermines its legitimacy through the guise of fantasy, lacing any praise with irony. Defoe reveals that the "Famous Mira-cho-cho-lasmo, Vice-Admiral of China" was "no Native of this World, but was Born in the Moon." This is particularly interesting given the real symbolic significance of the moon within the Sinosphere, in particular the adherence to the lunisolar calendar and the worship of the moon goddess Chang'e. Yet, this is not addressed in the text. Rather, Defoe asserts, "the Emperor of China prevailed with him to stay and improve his Subjects, in the most exquisite Accomplishments of those Lunar regions; and no wonder the Chinese are such exquisite Artists, and Masters of such sublime Knowledge." The illusory nature of China's claims to advancement is deftly exposed by the imputation that Chinese enterprise originates in the moon, puncturing any claims to "be deriv'd from a more Ancient Original". There is an orientalist inflection in the matter-of-fact tone adopted by Defoe's narrator, a mimicking of the "truthful" travel narrative voice, in which it is obvious that the source of Chinese knowledge must be otherworldly. Deep anxieties regarding this sense of developmental disparity are what spur the narrator on, "for the Benefit of my Native Country", to travel to the moon using the exotic engine called "Apezolanthukanistes; in English, a Consolidator", a machine "made up of Feathers". The narrative's subsequent exposition of the Solunarians, Defoe's fantastical moon dwellers, offers a more precise critique of Britain's monarchic and militaristic engagements, albeit one framed by an essential recognition of Chinese difference. The fantastical contours of Defoe's tale therefore confirm any long-held suspicions of his readers towards China, an ironic justification of Britain's seeming political and economic backwardness.
Psalmanazar, by contrast, examines the foundational notion that the Far East's inhabitants cannot be converted to Christianity. While he elucidates the possibility of assimilation by describing his conversion, later disquisitions, as Percy G. Adams argues, present Formosan religion as a blend of 18th-century rationalism, the Hebrew rites of the Old Testament, and the transmigration of the soul theory. He introduces prophets, Zeroaboabel and Chorhe Mathcin, who command the Formosans to worship "the Lord of the Sun, Moon and Stars, of the Heaven, the Earth, the Sea and all things that are in them" and to "Build him a Temple" and "Tabernacle" where "upon the Altar they should Burn 20,000 Hearts of young Children, under Nine Years of Age." The rejection of these prophets causes "wild Beasts" to "[devour] their young Children", leading to the arrival of a new prophet named Psalmanaazaar. That Psalmanazar is named for the prophet is a conspicuous attempt to confer upon his account a sense of mystical and religious authority. The similarity to Mohammed exploits contemporaneous Islamophobia, as Tobias Winnerling suggests, to indicate this religion was foreign, pagan and despicable. Formosan religion is further defined through its childbirth ceremonies, in which "the Mother and Father do solemnly promise, that they shall be ready to deliver up the Child, (if it be a Son and not the first-born) to be Sacrific'd to the Honour of God, whensoever it shall be call'd for" and if not, that "he will faithfully observe whatsoever is commanded him in Jarhabadiond [the election of the land]." While there are biblical echoes of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, the normalcy of Formosan child sacrifice allows Psalmanazar to present to a British audience an assurance of their Christian "civility", the marked absence of cruel violence in their own religious and civic lives a contrast to such pagan practices. Psalmanazar suggests that efforts to convert the Far East were marred by the "Popish Errors" of the Jesuits "by contriving that barbarous and bloody Massacre which they intended against all the poor Pagans." With Catholicism becoming bound up with absolute and arbitrary government during James II's reign, it is unsurprising that Psalmanazar exploits factionalist tensions to win his Protestant audience's affections. Psalmanazar does not uphold national distinctions in the way that Defoe does. Rather, he suggests that the Christianisation of the Formosans is possible, provided proselytisation is carried out in peaceable ways.
It would be facile to interrogate how Defoe and Psalmanazar have reconstructed the Sinosphere in ways that are plainly incorrect. Rather, their texts are deeply revealing of national distinctions between early modern Britain and China, primarily in terms of scientific innovation, learning and religion. While drawing on different conventions to achieve this, with Defoe parodying travel narratives to the "exotic locales" and Psalmanazar replicating the descriptive detail of the ethnography, their textual modes transmit an incipient nationalism, an attempt by Britain to define itself in relation to a fictionalised "East". Defoe connects China's governance of philosophers with technological advancement while Psalmanazar highlights Formosa's political dysfunction. Defoe traces China's philosophical foundations to interventions from an otherworldly wisdom while Psalmanazar insists that such differences are not insurmountable. Both texts therefore function as a refraction of British anxieties toward the rest of the world in its process of self-definition at the turn of the 18th century, a process of orientalism that would prefigure later economic and military incursions.QLRS Vol. 20 No.1 Jan 2021