Shafquat Towheed (Open University)

Posted on Friday, March 5th, 2010

‘Relocating Stevenson: reading between Confucius and the “China-boy”’

This paper proposes to relocate Stevenson’s engagement with China, Chinese civilization and culture, and the overseas Chinese, by re-examining a series of tropes evident in his fiction, verse, essays and correspondence. First: the trope of China as irredeemably exotic, alien and distant; this eighteenth-century trope is evident in ‘Travel’ in A Child’s Garden of Verses, for example. Second: a post-Romantic aesthetic trope, that of the ‘Chinaman’, or even more potently, the ‘China-boy’, as a literary device, feuilleton or sub-plot, used to involve the reader in the development of the narrative; an example of this is the failed negotiation for a ‘China-boy’ to work as a household servant in The Silverado Squatters. Third: an interpretative trope not always clearly defined in their published writing, but one that is more ubiquitous amongst nineteenth-century Anglo-American writers than we might care to admit, namely, an intellectual investment in attempting to understand the newly translated canon of Chinese classical civilisation (especially Confucian moral philosophy).

As an amateur emigrant travelling by land and sea to settle close to California’s newly opened gold fields, and later as an itinerant celebrity traversing the South Pacific, Stevenson invariably encountered Chinese workers, traders, and settlers everywhere he went. Traders on Apemama, plantation workers in the Marquesas, laundrymen in California, cooks, servants and general workers absolutely everywhere: itinerant Chinese emigrants constituted the understated (and often underwritten) workforce of the Pacific world. In many cases, their presence preceded the formal institutions of colonial rule, and represented the first engagement of indigenous Pacific Islanders with free trade and the cash economy. Stevenson’s representation of Chinese emigrant workers was often conspicuously metonymic, with occupation displacing individuality.

While scholars have started to piece together the considerable disaggregated presence of Chinese workers and traders – the other ‘Other’ – as anonymous bit parts in Stevenson’s factual and fictional representations of the South Pacific, there has so far been very little investigation of his engagement with the other stream of nineteenth century Western Orientalist thought about China, namely the fixing and interpretation of the Chinese Confucian canon. In the final part of this paper, I will conclude by considering an (until recently) neglected aspect of Stevenson’s intellectual preoccupations, and one fitting another widely held trope about ‘understanding’ China, namely his interest in the four books of classical Chinese philosophy and morality ascribed to Confucius (Kǒng Zǐ) and Mencius (Mèng Zǐ). Closely examining Stevenson’s reading of M.G. Pauthier’s translation Les quatre livres de philosophie morale et politique de la Chine (Paris: Charpentier, 1858) through the numerous marginal traces left by the author, I want to consider his engagement with the ideas of Confucianism, and whether these are reflected in his writing.

Stevenson’s ‘contact zone’ with the Chinese world was shaped not only by his often random encounters with Chinese emigrant workers, but also by a more focused interest in the high, classical culture of Confucian moral philosophy. Between these two poles of interpretation – that of the ‘China-boy’ as a literary device and aesthetic investment, and the elevated, putative world of Oriental scholarship – we can begin to map out Stevenson’s spatial, cultural and intellectual locations in a Pacific poised between China and the West.

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