Somewhere Between Civilization and Savagery

American Rhetoric of Stagnation and Opportunity between the Opium Wars, 1843–1856

in Journal of American-East Asian Relations
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This article examines the language in mid-19th Century accounts emphasizing Chinese cultural “stagnation” in the face of growing American influence in East Asia to investigate the emergence of a belief in the rising position of the United States on the world stage. This construction played off of critical observations that attempted to explain how the China trade was strong enough to be of u.s. national interest, while at the same time clarifying how the Chinese were weak enough to succumb to foreign influence. As such, Americans attempted to diagnose and cure the ills of stagnation through intervention. From religious conversion, to economic expansion, to cultural influence, Americans proposed a litany of solutions to China’s problems. A common theme within these larger tropes focused on the unique role that Chinese women played in American hopes for enacting change in China. In defining Chinese stagnation, Americans betrayed their own perspectives on the role of women in society and attempted to influence Chinese women to adopt that idealized model as the means by which the United States could profit from elevating China into the ranks of modern civilized nations.

References

1

P. T. Barnum, Ten Thousand Things on China and the Chinese: Being a Picture of The Genius, Government, History, Literature, Agriculture, Arts, Trade, Manners, Customs, and Social Life of the People of the Celestial Empire, as Illustrated by the Chinese Collection (New York: J. S. Bedfield, 1850), 198.

2

Matt Matsuda, Empire of Love: Histories of France and the Pacific (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

4

Jacques M. Downs, “Exploitive Role-Myths and the American Opium Trade,” Pacific Historical Review 41, no. 2 (May 1972): 133–34. See also, Jacques Downs, “American Merchants and the China Opium Trade, 1800–1840,” Business History Review 42, no. 4 (Winter 1968): 418–42.

5

Paul Cohen, “Christian Missions and Their Impact to 1900,” in The Cambridge History of China, vol. 10, part 1, John K. Fairbank, ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978), 543–90; Daniel H. Bays, A New History of Christianity in China (Malden, ma: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).

6

Michael C. Lazich, “American Missionaries and the Opium Trade in Nineteenth-Century China,” Journal of World History 17, no. 2 (June 2006), 223.

8

Amy Greenberg, Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

11

S. Augustus Mitchell, A System of Modern Geography, Comprising a Description of the Present State of the World, And Its Five Great Divisions, America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Oceania, With Their Several Empires, Kingdoms, States, Territories, Etc. Embellished by Numerous Engravings (Philadelphia: Thomas, Cowperthwait, 1853), preface.

14

Barnum, Ten-Thousand Things on China and the Chinese, p. 188.

24

Lowrie, Memoirs of the Rev. Walter M. Lowrie, Missionary to China, p. 388.

25

Robert B. Forbes, Remarks on China and the China Trade (Boston: Samuel S. Dickinson, Printer, 1844), 56.

26

Stephen Pearl Andrews, Discoveries in Chinese, or the Symbolism of the Primitive Characters of the Chinese System of Writing, As a Contribution to Philology and Etemology and a Practical Aid in the Acquisition of the Chinese Language (New York: Charles B. Norton, 1854), 29.

28

Barnum, Ten-Thousand Things on China and the Chinese, p. 152.

29

Robert Sears, Pictorial History of China and India; Comprising a Description of Those Countries and their Inhabitants, Embracing the Historical Events, Government, Religion, Education, Language, Literature, Arts, Manufactures, Productions, Commerce, and Manners and Customs of the People, From the Earliest Period of Authentic Record, to the Present Time (New York: Robert Sears, 1851), 208.

30

American Sunday-School Union, The People of China, p. 162.

31

Barnum, Ten-Thousand Things on China and the Chinese, p. 161.

32

Brownell, The People’s Book of Ancient and Modern History, p. 271.

33

Lowrie, Memoirs of the Rev. Walter M. Lowrie, Missionary to China, p. 201.

34

Reverend William Speer, An Humble Plea, Addressed to the Legislature of California, in Behalf of the Immigrants from the Empire of China to this State (San Francisco: Office of the Oriental, 1856), 4.

35

American Sunday-School Union, The People of China, pp. 25, 127.

36

Eliza J. Gilleit Bridgman, Daughters of China; or, Sketches of Domestic Life in The Celestial Empire (New York: Robert Carter and Brothers, 1853), 91.

37

Taylor, A Voyage Round the World, and Visits to Various Foreign Countries, in the United States Frigate Columbia, p. 170.

43

American Sunday-School Union, The People of China, p. 5.

44

Taylor, A Voyage Round the World, and Visits to Various Foreign Countries, in the United States Frigate Columbia, p. 117.

47

Edward Cunningham, Our Commercial and Political Relations with China, by an American Resident in China (Washington: n.p., 1855), 2.

48

William A. M. Gammell, A History of American Baptist Missions in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America (Boston: Gould, Kendall, and Lincoln, 1849), 205.

50

Speer, An Humble Plea, Addressed to the Legislature of California, in Behalf of the Immigrants from the Empire of China to this State, p. 96.

52

Bridgman, Daughters of China, p. 103.

53

Lowrie, Memoirs of the Rev. Walter M. Lowrie, Missionary to China, p. 385.

56

Gammell, A History of American Baptist Missions in Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America, p. 196.

57

Barnum, Ten-Thousand Things on China and the Chinese, p. 56.

58

Abbott, China and the English, p. 92.

59

Benjamin Lincoln Ball, Rambles in Eastern Asia, including China and Manila, During Several Years’ Residence: With Notes of The Voyage to China, Excursions in Manila, Hong-Kong, Canton, Shanghai, Ningpoo, Amoy, Fouchow, and Macao (Boston: James French and Co., 1855), 275.

60

Barnum, Ten-Thousand Things on China and the Chinese, p. 49.

61

American Sunday-School Union, The People of China, p. 87.

62

Lowrie, Memoirs of the Rev. Walter M. Lowrie, Missionary to China, 218.

66

Bridgman, Daughters of China, p. viii.

68

Barnum, Ten-Thousand Things on China and the Chinese, p. 77.

69

Osmond Tiffany Jr., The Canton Chinese, or The American’s Sojourn in the Celestial Empire (Boston: James Munroe and Company, 1849), 34.

70

Bridgman, Daughters of China, p. 127.

71

Barnum, Ten-Thousand Things on China and the Chinese, p. 94.

73

George Henry Preble, “Diary of a Cruise to China and Japan, 1853–1856,” p. 522, Manuscript Division, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, ma.

74

Sears, Pictorial History of China and India, p. 199.

77

Bridgman, Daughters of China, p. 57.

79

Ibid., pp. 129, 131.

81

Speer, An Humble Plea, Addressed to the Legislature of California, in Behalf of the Immigrants from the Empire of China to this State, p. 28.

82

Robert B. Forbes, On the Establishment of a Line of Mail Steamers from the Western Coast of the United States to China (Boston: Boston Journal Office, 1855), 16.

83

Bridgman, Daughters of China, p. 81.

84

Lowrie, Memoirs of the Rev. Walter M. Lowrie, Missionary to China, p. 381.

85

Bridgman, Daughters of China, p. ix.

87

Bridgman, Daughters of China, p. 71.

88

Bridgman, Daughters of China, pp. 191, 218, 28.

89

Ibid., pp. 48, 76

90

Ibid., pp. 82, 170.

91

Ibid., p. 69.

Figures

  • In his A System of Modern Geography, S. Augustus Mitchell visually represented a hierarchy of civilization. Unlike “barbarous” and “savage” peoples, the Chinese were grouped with “half-civilized” cultures like the Ottomans, only a short step away from the “Civilized and enlightened” peoples of Europe. It remained unclear, however, how these less-than-civilized groups could improve their status.11

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  • “Sampan Girl”—Throughout the written record Americans consistently interacted with women laboring as boat guides or as farm workers like the “Sampan Girl,” an illustration made during Cushing’s negotiation. Nevertheless, the focus of reform efforts generally ignored this class of women.67

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  • “Untitled”—“Since the days of the ‘old woman who lived in a shoe,’ nothing can be found which has been made to contain more human beings in the same space than a Chinese fast, or tanka boat.” The familial and gender dynamics of the “Boat peoples” was so unlike what Americans expected that the recollection of the first interaction with them was a common element of travel accounts from this era.72

    View in gallery
  • “Domestic Scene—Ladies at their usual Employments.”78

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  • “Chinese Lady”—Chinese middle and upper-class femininity was often purported to be mentally limiting. Americans believed that traditional women’s activities in China such as needlepoint and learning of musical instruments paled in comparison to the domestic and religious challenge of American-style domesticity.80

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