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Through an examination of England's obsession with Chinese things throughout the long eighteenth century, this book argues that chinoiserie in literature and material culture played a central role in shaping emergent conceptions of taste and subjectivity. In the wake of recent scholarship in the field of eighteenth-century writing that examines English identity and nationalism in the context of trade, commodity culture, and the social role of literature, this study demonstrates how the figure of the Chinese object was variously deployed throughout the period to authorize new epistemologies and subject-object relations, ultimately redefining what it meant to be English. The book opens with a reading of Mary Wortley Montagu's Turkish Embassy Letters that contextualizes the accumulation of imported material goods from China as part of the process by which early modern English nationalism gave way to a more commercial notion of English identity. Jenkins then considers the appearance of chinoiserie in English writing that ranges from Pepys' diaries to Restoration drama. Subsequent chapters consider international commerce and the Far East in Daniel Defoe's under-studied novel, Captain Singleton, and the relationship between subjects and objects in Pope's The Rape of Lock. Broadly considered, A Taste for China shows that prior to the nineteenth century, English culture did not necessarily organize the world in terms of the orientalist binary, defined by Edward Said. By historicizing British orientalism, Jenkins reveals how the notion of the East as anathema to English identity is produced through various competing models of subjectivity over the course of the eighteenth century.
Eugenia Jenkins is Assistant Professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University.