China from the Ruins of Athens and Rome: Classics, Sinology, and Romanticism, 1793–1938

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Fascinated and often baffled by China, Anglophone writers turned to classics for answers. In poetry, essays, and travel narratives, ancient Greece and Rome lent interpretative paradigms and narrative shape to Britain’s information on the Middle Kingdom. While memoirists of the diplomatic missions in 1793 and 1816 used classical ideas to introduce Chinese concepts, Roman history held ominous precedents for Sino-British relations according to Edward Gibbon and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. John Keats illuminated how peculiar such contemporary processes of Orientalist knowledge-formation were. In Britain, popular opinion on Chinese culture wavered during the nineteenth century, as Charles Lamb and Joanna Baillie demonstrated in ekphrastic responses to chinoiserie. A former reverence for China yielded gradually to hostility, and the classical inheritance informed a national identity-crisis over whether Britain’s treatment of China was civilized or barbaric. Amidst this uncertainty, the melancholy conclusion to Virgil’s Aeneid became the master-text for the controversy over British conduct at the Summer Palace in 1860. Yet if Rome was to be the model for the British Empire, Tennyson, Sara Coleridge, and Thomas de Quincey found closer analogues for the Opium Wars in Greek tragedy and Homeric epic. Meanwhile, Sinology advanced considerably during the Victorian age, with translations of Laozi and Zhuangzi placed in dialogue with the classical tradition. Classics changed too, with not only canonical figures invoked in discussions of China, but current interests such as Philostratus and Porphyry. Britain broadened its horizons by interrogating the cultural past anew as it turned to Asia: Anglophone readers were cosmopolitans in time as well as space, aggregating knowledge of Periclean Athens, imperial Rome, and many other polities in their encounters with Qing Dynasty China.

Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationOxford UK
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages265
ISBN (Electronic)9780198767015
ISBN (Print)9780198767015
Publication statusPublished - 2020

Publication series

NameClassical Presences Series
PublisherOxford University Press


  • China
  • Classical reception
  • Classics
  • Empire
  • Orientalism
  • Postcolonial
  • Romanticism
  • Sinology
  • Victorian literature

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