From Imperialist Commerce and Cosmopolitan Modernity to Semicolonial China: Demystifying Work Abroad in Victorian East Asia

Tamara S. Wagner


Semicolonial China crucially complicates the appropriation of “the Orient” in nineteenth-century domestic fiction. The peculiarities of East Asia’s colonial modernities add an impor-tant twist both to the multiplicities of different kinds of coloniality as they emerged at the height of imperialist expansion and, at the same time, to the notoriously conflicted fictionali-sation of a literary Orient redefined by commercial pressures. This paper explores the chang-ing functions of increasingly accessible and thereby demystified regions of Asia as part of an already global network of commerce. Stretching from the evocation of Lord Macartney’s China as a dreamy space of escape in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (1814) to the dissection of foreign affairs in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (1925), work in semicolonial spaces like China offers a complex point of access to an anti-exotic impulse in popular writing.

In a triangulation of key texts that, in markedly different ways, bring home the devel-opment of intersecting colonial modernities, this analysis of semicolonialism’s changing func-tions in fiction concentrates on shifting negotiations of markedly unexotic work abroad. An identification of commerce, cosmopolitanism, and “colonial guilt” has not just proved to be strikingly pervasive throughout nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century popular cul-ture. As a structuring device of colonial fiction, precisely such disillusionment has served to criticise (if at times in order to redefine and redirect) commercial imperialism. Semicolonial China importantly takes centre stage within expanding empires of trade by featuring as a me-tonymy of emergent modernities. Framed by the ambiguities of imperialist fantasies traced in Mansfield Park and The Painted Veil, the third key text, therefore, consists of the notably off-stage passages of work experience in China that are retrospectively detailed in Dickens’s Lit-tle Dorrit (1857). A paradigmatic episode of disappointing return prefigures an ultimately literalised collapse of business and business networks – a collapse the novel maps out by merging the “exotic” geographies of the East and the East End at home. This increasingly prevalent trope in English domestic fiction pinpoints the range, simultaneity, and interaction of competing colonial modernities. Pushing a new preoccupation with cosmopolitanism into different directions, commercial imperialism as a theme as well as a fictional structuring de-vice hence also alerts us to the still underestimated significance of these modernities for a commercial and commercialised “East” of the popular imagination and, vice versa, of domes-tic fiction for different forms of coloniality. In drawing on these three key texts, this paper simultaneously aims to investigate anew the usefulness of concepts of semicolonialism and colonial modernity for a reassessment of still prevailing forms of typecasting in current filmic as well as fictional re-presentations of commercial and scientific imperialism.


semi-colonial China, global nineteenth century, orientalism

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