[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. Thackeray created the decorated initial “I” for Vanity FairJay Rosenthal]

Forman bookjacket Illuminated initial I

n recent years, a number of books have examined representations of East Asia in British literature of various historical periods. For the nineteenth century, this work includes Eric Hayot's The Hypothetical Mandarin (2009), Karen Fang's Romantic Writing and the Empire of Signs: Periodical Culture and Post-Napoleonic Authorship (2010; offsite in Review19), Elizabeth Chang's Britain's Chinese Eye: Literature, Empire, and Aesthetics in Nineteenth-Century Britain (2010), and Shih-Wen Chen's Representations of China in British Children's Fiction, 1851-1911 (2013). In general, such scholarship seeks to extend and complicate previous studies of imperialism by highlighting a region of the world outside the bounds of Britain's formal empire. Critical interest in this region has also been fueled by the contemporary emergence of China as an economic superpower. As Forman observes, though, the vision of China as a vast, tantalizingly untapped market was as influential in the nineteenth century as it has been in the early twenty-first.

By foregrounding China "as a place of possibility, not just negative association" (16-17), Forman differentiates his work from the large body of scholarship on China's involvement with opium. Besides recognizing the commercial value of the hundreds of millions of potential Chinese consumers, we learn, Victorian observers praised the diligence of Chinese workers, both in their native land and in East London, where Chinese immigrants were credited with making excellent husbands for their working-class British and Irish wives. But in Forman's telling, Victorian (and Edwardian) writers hardly idealized the China of their time. Toward the end of nineteenth century, the Boxer movement threatened to kill all Westerners and Chinese Christian converts, culminating in the summer of 1900, when thousands took refuge in the Legations of Peking. In the early twentieth century, a number of novels represented masses of Chinese rising up and threatening to obliterate the West. And in 1913, as Forman explains in his conclusion, British bookstores offered Sax Rohmer's The Mystery of Fu Manchu, the first in a series of novels and films featuring this most notorious stereotype of the Chinese male as criminal mastermind: a stereotype that is still with us today.

To illustrate the complex interaction of China and Victorian England, Forman examines an impressive number of novels, short stories, and dramas, many of which have received little or no prior critical intention. By identifying genres and subgenres within this archive, the book presents numerous opportunities for future research. Forman loosely arranges his six chapters according to the distance at which his writers worked relative to the metropolitan center. The first two chapters consider literature--chiefly short stories--produced by English writers living in the treaty ports, the parts of China "opened" to foreign commerce after the unequal treaties concluding the two Opium Wars. The middle two chapters consider how metropolitan writers represented violent encounters between China and England, both real and imagined: while chapter 3 highlights novels written in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, chapter 4 treats what Forman calls the "Asian invasion" novel. Chapter 5 shows how Chinese characters were dramatized in a wide range of London plays, and the final chapter shows how fiction writers portrayed the Chinese residents of East London.

Given the size of this body of literature, it is difficult to see how it could be grasped by a single overarching argument. Instead of trying to characterize and define the Anglo-Chinese relationship in any one way, Forman argues that these divergent fictional responses to China spring from a fundamental uncertainty about its future. Would China at last succumb to the appeal of Western industrialization? If colonizing all of China was not feasible, could outposts such as Hong Kong become dazzling gemstones, if not full-fledged jewels, in Britain's imperial crown? Would the Chinese Empire collapse into several states? Could conflict within China and among the Western powers vying for influence there trigger a world war? By asking these questions, Forman argues, Victorians granted a "great sense of importance and possibility" to China, but "as late as the turn of the century... China's relevance to British imperialism on the whole remained undetermined" (4). Because of this indeterminacy, China is particularly useful as a contrast to the more thoroughly studied regions formally incorporated in the British Empire.

Chapter 1, which examines fiction written in the treaty ports, finds an openness to mixed-race sexual relations. Because the British presence in China was much smaller than in Indian or African colonies, Forman argues, English writers living in China could "tacitly discount late Victorian strictures against miscegenation" (51). While such relations did not result in marriage (as they did in the Limehouse narratives discussed in the sixth chapter), treaty port tales are said to display an "overwhelming preponderance, almost banality, of figures of racial hybridity" (50-51). For instance, Julian Croskey's "The S. G.": A Romance of Peking (1900) features a Kim-like character named Valda, the illegitimate daughter of a Manchu mother and Russian father--or, it is revealed near the end, the daughter of the Superintendent General himself, a character modeled on Robert Hart, Inspector General of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service. (While it "would have been scandalous," Forman writes, for any high official to consort with native women "in formal colonies like India," Hart's affairs with Chinese women were widely known [49].) Valda is a potent chameleon. Instead of being a "tragic-mulatto" figure, her hybridity makes her useful to the British imperial project by enabling her "to be either Chinese/Manchu or Russian/British as needed and even to switch gender" (50). Unlike her counterparts in India, she is to be admired rather than pitied, for in China "racial hybridity and miscegenation are neither erased under the sign of cultural hybridity (as in Kim) nor punished, as in many India-set narratives" (50). Forman is careful to note, though, that in Croskey's novel, like many others, the acceptance of mixed-race characters often depends on the social class of the Chinese mother. Besides probing these tales of Eurasian characters, Forman also describes two other subgenres: domestic narratives authored by the substantial number of women writers in the treaty ports; and hunting narratives, featuring comic shooting expeditions that move outside the treaty ports into sovereign Chinese territory.

Subsequent chapters are similarly organized. After defining a genre and delineating subgenres, Forman draws key contrasts either within the genre or subgenres, or with literature produced elsewhere. The third chapter, for example, highlights the Anglophone literary response to the Boxer Rebellion. Within this category, the chief subgenre is adventure fiction featuring British boys who must disguise themselves as Chinese in order to venture safely outside the Legations. British novels about the impact of the Boxer Rebellion, Forman shows, differ sharply from novels prompted by the Sepoy Uprising of 1857 in India. G. A. Henty's With the Allies to Pekin> (1904), for instance, is essentially a rewriting of his Indian Mutiny novel In Times of Peril> (1881). But novels prompted by the Boxer Rebellion are said to "practically avoid the issue of sexual violence towards European women," which may be due to "the idea that Chinese men were effeminate and sexually enervated" (117-18).

Chapter 5, "Staging the Celestial," provides an overview of the London theater's treatment of China, dividing these works into pantomimes based on the Aladdin story, plays enacting the arranged-marriage tragedy supposedly depicted on willow-pattern plates, melodramas where a Chinese woman falls in love with a Briton, and "pyro-spectacular" productions depicting contemporary military conflicts in China. The Chinese Mother (1857), by "Dr. Tanner," is anomalous, a sympathetic treatment of Chinese women who kill their infants not out of barbaric cruelty but because of famine. In China as in Ireland, the Irish Catholic Tanner finds an "oppressed humanity in need of salvation" (188). The play, however, was not written for the London stage; Tanner dedicated the piece to his children and their boarding school, and it ends with a "long soliloquy extolling the virtues of Catholicism" (192).

The final chapter treats fictional representations of Chinese immigrants living in London's working-class Limehouse. Instead of the opium-den sensationalism of Drood and Dorian Gray, the stories of George R. Sims and Thomas Burke show Chinese immigrants in a positive light. "All the established Chinamen," writes Sims, "have married Englishwomen, and in their case marriage has not been a failure, for they seem happy... [Their] dark-haired, black-eyed boys and girls, with the rosy cheeks and happy looks, are real little pictures" (qtd. 206). In fictional narratives, though, such praise of the Chinese often comes at the expense of working-class white men. One particularly brutal character, "Greaser Flanagan" from Burke's "The Paw" (1916), abuses his common-law wife Daffodil, who escapes to the house of the kindly Phung-tsin, or "Chinky," as he is called. Though Flanagan tries to brainwash the daughter whom Daffodil left behind into murdering the "Chinky," she mistakenly kills her mother. Thus, instead of Gayatri Spivak's "white men saving brown women from brown men," Limehouse stories depict yellow men potentially saving white women from white men, or at least Irish men. However, this model minority discourse was far from predominant, as many Britons mobilized against the Chinese, and after Sax Rohmer (the penname of Arthur Sarsfield Ward) originated the Fu Manchu character, his popularity in the 1920s and 30s indicated an "increased resentment toward and an overall codification of racism directed at the Chinese" (217).

Most successful, in my view, is the fourth chapter, on the Asian invasion novel. While other chapters can appear narrow in their focus on obscure literary specimens, this chapter investigates a seemingly major cultural phenomenon, judging both from the nature and number of novels produced. Within England, M. P. Shiel wrote three books on the theme, with other authors including S. N. Sedgwick, William Carlton Dawe, and Percy F. Westerman. Outside England, there was Jack London's "The Unparalleled Invasion" (1910), Kenneth Mackay's The Yellow Wave: A Romance of the Asiatic Invasion of Australia (1895), Féli-Brugière and Jules Louis Gastine's L'Asie en feu: le roman de l'invasion jaune (1904), and Capitaine Danrit's L'invasion jaune (1909).To read the plotlines of these novels, written on the eve of World War I, is chilling. One of the chapter's epigraphs, a passage from Shiel's The Yellow Danger, is particularly striking: "The Chinese host was to resemble a flight of locusts... [The individual's] duty was hardly to fight, but to occupy time in dying. For this service none were too old, few too young--and women were as good as men. Yen How's army would consist of the 400,000,000 which formed the population of China" (130).

Forman makes a number of intriguing observations. Like Dracula (1897), these novels reflect anxiety over imperialism in reverse, but one in which modern education and technology, and not animalistic atavism, are predominant. In novel after novel, the invasions are led by "corrupt mandarins who are both Western-educated and technologically ingenious" (145). Moreover, a number of these villains are half-Chinese and half-Japanese, reflecting the genre's investment in "sutur[ing] over historical and political differences between the Chinese and the Japanese... in order to mold them into a combined super-threat" (132). While the novels solidify racial divisions, modern technology renders traditional borders and boundaries permeable. East and West both employ biological warfare, submarines, airships, cinematic propaganda, and pharmacological substances. Finally, novels in this genre often "conclude with an image of some form of utopian socialism," as if "to correct the mistakes of absent-minded imperialism" (159). Scholars working on fin-de-siècle representations of race, war, technology, and reverse imperialism will find much of interest in this chapter.

Only one chapter, the second, focuses on the work of a single author: James Dalziel, a Hong-Kong-based writer whose short stories were particularly well-reviewed in London. Like the narratives discussed in the first chapter, Dalziel's fiction "present[s] miscegenation as a mere fact of life" (76). What makes Dalziel unique is the distinctness of his characters, who come from a diverse range of class, religious, and geographical backgrounds and do not conform to dominant gendered stereotypes, unlike the characters in so many of the other texts considered in Forman's book. However, although Forman succeeds in demonstrating that Dalziel's stories are worthy of more critical attention, he gives little evidence of the stylistic sophistication that Dalziel's reviewers praised, or, for that matter, for Forman's own claim that the stories are "sometimes bizarre" (66). Certainly, as he notes, it is not the purpose of his study to "canonize Dalziel on aesthetic or thematic grounds" (67), but the chapter could have been more engaging had more attention been paid to sustained description and exegesis of individual plotlines. Only one story is treated in detail. Indeed, the book as a whole is much stronger in drawing connections between disparate works than it is in close reading of specific texts. Presented with a number of texts she is not likely to have heard of, let alone read, the reader of this book will certainly learn much about the breadth of writing on China, but may find it hard to recall any individual narratives.

I would also question Forman's use of "Victorian" in the book's title. Most chapters deal with early twentieth-century texts. Only the chapter on theater is devoted primarily to texts published during Queen Victoria's reign, with the chapter on treaty-port fiction split more or less evenly between the 1890s and Edwardian fiction. Granted, Forman justifiably conforms his study to Chinese and not British sovereignty, with his terminus ad quem in 1911, the year the Qing Dynasty ended. Even so, a number of texts, especially in the Limehouse chapter, fall after this date because, Forman explains, they "constitute a continuation or earlier modes of portraying the Chinese" (22). Instead of continuity, however, the proliferation of texts following the Boxer Rebellion, along with the relative paucity of texts produced during the nineteenth century proper, suggests that post-Victorian writers saw China in ways profoundly different from the Victorians. Though Forman briefly acknowledges this shift at the end of his chapter on the Boxer Rebellion, he does not develop this point in his introduction or conclusion.

Despite these objections, Forman's book is an immensely valuable and rewarding piece of scholarship. The lengthy bibliography of primary texts alone should prove useful to the growing number of scholars interested in the Anglo-Chinese encounter, and Forman admirably makes sense of this dauntingly large archive, providing many opportunities for future research on China and the British Empire. Besides the genres treated in individual chapters, several themes recur throughout. There is the centrality of the Sino-Japanese relation and its oscillation between one of contrast and one of conflation. Correspondingly, the relationships between Western powers are a frequent concern, with tension between celebrations of international cooperation and justifications of Britain's supremacy. There is also a surprising obsession with depicting Buddhism as a religion of violence: "Buddha loves blood," declares a character from The Chinese Mother (190). Forman also notes that treaty-port fiction includes the work of many women writers, inviting comparison to conditions of literary production for women elsewhere in the Anglophone world. Finally, the idea of Chinese masculinity seems particularly fraught, a rich area for investigation. Chinese men are by turns effeminate, sexually obsessed, sadistic, and gentle. The work as a whole exemplifies the interpretive gains to be made by viewing the project of British imperialism, formal and informal, as heterogeneous and shifting, an approach that the singular conceptions of Empire or Orientalism have tended to obscure.


Forman, Ross G. China and the Victorian Imagination: Empires Entiwned. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. ISBN: 9781107013155. Pp. 318.

Last modified 15 October 2014