BMCR 2021.11.02

China from the ruins of Athens and Rome: classics, sinology, and Romanticism, 1793-1938

, China from the ruins of Athens and Rome: classics, sinology, and Romanticism, 1793-1938. Classical presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. xii, 265. ISBN 9780198767015 $85.00.


The historian’s term “the long nineteenth century” is conventionally used to refer to the period between the French Revolution and the First World War. It might equally describe an era in relations between Europe and China, beginning with the famous Macartney Embassy to the court of the Qianlong Emperor in 1793, and ending in 1911 with the collapse of Imperial China. This version of the long nineteenth century moves from European admiration, respect, even resentment of Chinese wealth and power to the semi-colonial subjugation of China and consequent internal drive for modernization in that nation newly forged of ancient empires.

European elites of the era (as readers of the BMCR well know) regularly interpreted the world around them through lenses crafted by the study of the Greek and Roman worlds, and particularly through the reading of Greek and Latin authors. Chris Murray’s intriguing China from the Ruins of Athens and Rome examines just how China looked to European eyes through those Classical lenses, specifically in literature written in English during the Romantic and Victorian eras. Although political history necessarily impinges on Murray’s study, this is not primarily a work of historical analysis, nor is it quite a work in Classical reception studies, nor yet in East-West cultural relations (though of course both of those topics emerge at times as well). Readers will be well advised not to expect Murray’s book to fall neatly into any of these categories. Rather, I would suggest, it should be understood as a work of nineteenth-century British literary and intellectual history, viewing both the Greco-Roman world and contemporary China as objects of interest to that history without themselves coming under analysis. There are moments, as I shall suggest, where this seems an unfortunate lack, moments where a stronger focus on existing scholarship in Greek and Latin literature and/or on China might have yielded clearer insights and stronger arguments. In particular, there are moments where Murray is compelled to re-invent wheels he could have found ready-made in the workshops of Classics and Chinese Studies. These are, however, the inherent dangers of working in a interdisciplinary and cross-cultural way (as I do myself). My reservations on such questions of detail do not alter my enthusiasm for the ambitions of this project, nor do those questions of detail alter the usefulness of the argument.

The chapters of China from the Ruins of Athens and Rome work through a sequence of literary texts, mostly fairly canonical. After an introductory first chapter, the second chapter examines both Coleridge’s Kubla Khan and Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in terms of the then-contemporary failed British embassies to China. The next chapter reads Keats’ Lamia, both in terms of its borrowings from Philostratus’ biography of Apollonius of Tyana and for its close parallels in Chinese literature, particularly in the work of the important early vernacular fictionist Feng Menglong (1574-1646). The fourth chapter examines two comic essays by Charles Lamb, “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig” and “Old China,” both of which imbue Chinese topics with Classical references. The fifth chapter turns to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, with a particularly close reading of “The Lotos Eaters,” a poem in which Odyssean allusions mingle with the politics of the opium trade with China, as well as with Tennyson’s family history with opium. In the sixth chapter, Thomas de Quincey’s anti-Chinese journalistic agitations in favor of the Opium Wars are situated in terms of the author’s own status as a frustrated classicist (and famous English Opium Eater). The seventh and final chapter reflects on classical echoes in memoirs of the burning of the Summer Palace near Beijing during the Second Opium War. An epilogue reads William Butler Yeats’ 1938 poem “Lapis Lazuli,” on a Chinese objet d’art he had received as a birthday present, partly in relation to Matthew Arnold’s later-retracted 1852 poem “Empedocles on Etna,” while an appendix treats an intriguing poem, recently rediscovered, in which Sara Coleridge (daughter to Samuel Taylor Coleridge) re-works Tennyson’s “The Lotos Eaters,” deleting some lines and adding others.

Overall, then, the book offers a broad survey of English literature of the period and its complex engagements with China. The sequence is largely chronological (with some overlaps of course) and traces a period in which British knowledge of China increased vastly, if not as rapidly as the smugness of British imperial superiority. Perhaps because of this change in knowledge of China, the later chapters tend to read more convincingly than the earlier ones .

For example, in Chapter Seven Murray reproduces a passage from a pamphlet by the US merchant Charles William King, written in 1839 to advocate against war with China over the opium trade. King imagines a dialogue between a British visitor and a Chinese man, who identifies a location as “Afooyongshan… aeternumque tenet per secula nomen.” (Murray 199). Afuyong is the name of the opium poppy (transliterated from Arabic), and King has been discussing Chinese proposals to incinerate confiscated opium, while the Latin of this line and of the preceding page is taken from Aeneid VI 212-235, the description of the funeral of Misenus.

The hill on which that opium would burn is thus imagined as equivalent to Cape Misenum, site of the funeral pyre of that unfortunate hero, and the Chinese landscape as renamed and renewed by the struggle against opium much as the Italian landscape is re-shaped by Aeneas’ travels, including Misenus’ hubristic musical challenge to the gods. Throughout this chapter, Murray offers perceptive and persuasive readings of English (and French) accounts of the Opium Wars, and especially of the burning of the Summer Palace on the outskirts of today’s Beijing in 1860 as shaped in part by pessimistic readings of the Aeneid. Britain certainly saw itself as a new Rome in many respects; here, Murray shows that at least some observers worried that this new Rome was no better, and quite possibly worse, than the original at following Anchises’ advice to Aeneas parcere subiectis et debellare superbos (Aeneid VI.853), “to spare the conquered and battle down the proud” in Robert Fitzgerald’s translation. The episode is an elegant example of the ways in which Europeans, confronted with new worlds, map those worlds onto the Greco-Roman past in ways which range from strategic to imaginative to virtually helpless.

In some of the earlier chapters, however, the connections are made less persuasively. The chapter on “Kubla Khan”, for example, finds useful parallels and connections between Coleridge and Gibbon, and suggests an intriguing reading of Coleridge’s famous poem in reaction to the failed embassies to China, but does not quite persuade, either of the reading itself, or of how the reading of the poem itself builds on the Greco-Roman heritage. At other times, the book would benefit from deeper engagement with existing scholarship in classical reception or in East Asian Studies. I offer an example of the latter, which will be less obvious to many readers of the BMCR. Murray discusses at some length (pp. 176-177) the British anxiety over the translation of the Chinese term yi 夷 as “barbarian” (the term was frequently used of the British, so the stakes were high here). He explores debates on the translation in the English-language newspaper of the era, the Canton Register, and does so ably. His discussion could, however, have been enhanced by consulting Lydia Liu’s The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making. (Harvard University Press, 2004), and particularly her chapter on the yi/ “barbarian” debate as the emergence of what she calls a “hetero-linguistic super-sign” linking ideas (and the spaces between ideas) in more than one language in ways that have political implications for both cultures. Liu’s findings do not contradict Murray’s, but they would have allowed Murray to pursue his ideas further.

At other times, Murray seems to make roundabout cases for points which could be made more straightforwardly—and convincingly. In his discussion of Tennyson, for example, he mentions that the poet was familiar through Sir William Jones’ translations of Arabic poetry with the metrical scheme of the pre-Islamic qasida as found in the Mu’allaqat, and seems to argue on the strength of a similarity to the meter of Locksley Hall for possible thematic links between that poem and the celebrated pre-Islamic qasida of Imru-al-Qays (137). On its own, that connection might seem tenuous and unconvincing, but in fact we have no less an authority than Tennyson’s own son Hallam and his biography of his father to confirm that Tennyson indeed had the Mu’allaqat in mind in composing Locksley Hall (Tennyson, Hallam. Alfred Lord Tennyson: A life by his son. New York: Macmillan, 1897. Vol. II, p. 491). (Murray refers to the biography, but not to this particular anecdote; for one recent discussion of the connections between the poems, see Lahiani, Raja. “Unlocking the Secret of ‘Locksley Hall’.” Comparative Critical Studies 17.1 (2020): 25-46).

Given that the connection is not central to the argument of the book as a whole, it’s unfortunate that it’s presented in the weaker form that it is, which might make the reader skeptical of other speculative connections, as with Murray’s interest in suggesting a possible shared origin for Keats’ Lamia (borrowed from Philostratus) and Feng Menglong’s Lady White Snake. Here, Murray plausibly argues that the narrative similarities are too profound to be explained as a mere folkloric motif, although attempts to trace a connection have always proved frustratingly difficult. Murray is able to show that there was a copy of Philostratus’ biography of Apollonius of Tyana in the Jesuit library in Beijing in 1619, when Feng Menglong was a young man (97), and he temptingly argues that the Jesuits may have shown visitors some of their rare volumes, and described their contents. It would be more of a challenge, unfortunately, to get knowledge of Philostratus the final few hundred miles from Beijing to Suzhou, where the young Feng Menglong was still struggling at the time to pass the civil service examinations. Murray wisely doesn’t press the point, and nothing in his argument depends on Feng having had access to Apollonius (in fact, Murray tends towards the more likely solution that Apollonius and Feng Menglong derive their tale from a common source).

These relatively minor objections, of course, mostly point at the challenges of comparative method(s). How do we make connections between authors and texts if historical linkages are impossible, or simply unknowable? And how do we evaluate scholarship which crosses disciplinary boundaries, and which therefore almost certainly offends disciplinary sensibilities on one side or another? Is it necessary to demonstrate mastery of all fields touched on (in which case comparative work becomes next to impossible), and if not how do we deal with the inevitable errors or imprecisions of comparative work? These are questions, one suspects, that Classics will need to address more openly in the years ahead, as the discipline evolves to reflect the world in which it is studied. Murray’s own methodological commitments are not always clear, which may dismay some readers but should not distract them from the rich and interesting story he has to tell. As I noted at the beginning of my review, this is not a work in classical reception, nor yet in the reception of China in Europe, but those interested in either field will read this book with profit and pleasure, even if also with occasional frustration.