Imagining the Other

Oliver Goldsmith, from The Citizen of the World (1760–1761)

The Chinese philosopher named Lien Chi Altangi, "a native of Honan in China" (Letter I), is the invention of Oliver Goldsmith (c. 1730–1774). Lien Chi Altangi is a scholar who has learned English through his contact with the factor >> note 1 and other Englishmen at Canton, yet he is "entirely a stranger to their manners and customs" (Letter I). Altangi's letters from London to his friend Fum Hoam, the president of the Ceremonial Academy at Peking, "examine into opulence, buildings, sciences, arts, and manufactures, on the spot" (Letter II), and in so doing, expose both England's most ridiculous customs and its defining characteristics. For example, of the British reliance on sea-trade, Altangi exclaims: "I have known some provinces [in China] where there is not even a name for the ocean. What a strange people therefore am I got amongst, who have founded an empire on this unstable element, who build cities upon billows that rise higher than the mountains of Tipartala, and make the deep more formidable than the wildest tempest" (Letter II).

This device — using a foreign traveller as the naive narrator of a contemporary social satire — had been popularized by many writers, most notably Charles.Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, in his Persian Letters (1721). As a reviewer of Elizabeth Hamilton's novel, Translations of the Letters of a Hindoo Rajah (1796), observed:

There is no better vehicle for local satire than that of presenting remarks on the manners, laws, and customs of a nation, through the supposed medium of a foreigner, whose different views of things, as tinctured by the particular ideas and associations to which his mind has been habituated, often afford an excellent scope for raillery; and the mistakes into which such an observer is naturally betrayed, enliven the picture, and furnish the happiest opportunity for the display of humour and fancy. [The Critical Review, vol. 17 (July 1796): 241–249]

In addition to these literary precedents, Goldsmith had journeyed through much of Europe as a young man, and was familiar with the sense of cultural parallax or changed perspective that travel could induce in the traveller. He exploited this discovery in The Citizen of the World, and in his later fictionalization of his own travels, The Vicar of Wakefield (1766).

Although Goldsmith emphasizes Lien Chi Altangi's differences from that "strange people," the English, Goldsmith also wants to establish his narrator's authority to conduct an enquiry into English manners. He therefore constructs an idea of Chinese identity that stresses China's status as a civilized or "tutored" nation:

The truth is, the Chinese and we are pretty much alike. Different degrees of refinement, and not of distance, mark the distinctions among mankind. Savages of the most opposite climates have all but one character of improvidence and rapacity; and tutored nations, however separate, make use of the very same methods to procure refined enjoyment. ("The Editor's Preface," iii–iv)

Altangi is given further credibility and depth as a character through the creation of a frame story concerning his family in China. The frame story adds dramatic unity and tension to the letters, much like the frame of another popular "oriental" narrative, the Arabian Nights' Entertainments (first translated into English c. 1706–1721 by an anonymous Grub Street hack).

Originally printed in a periodical called The Public Ledger (1760–1761), Goldsmith's "Chinese Letters" were first collected and published as The Citizen of the World in 1762. The letter below satirizes the brokering of European peace treaties, and explains how the British love of luxuries such as fur leads them to pursue unsound colonial policy.

Letter XVII

WERE an Asiatic politician to read the treaties of peace and friendship that have been annually making for more than an hundred years among the inhabitants of Europe, he would probably be surprised how it should ever happen that Christian princes could quarrel among each other. Their compacts for peace are drawn up with the utmost precision, and ratified with the greatest solemnity; to these each party promises a sincere and inviolable obedience, and all wears the appearance of open friendship and unreserved reconciliation.

Yet notwithstanding those treaties, the people of Europe are almost continually at war. There is nothing more easy than to break a treaty, ratified in all the usual forms, and yet neither party be the aggressor. One side, for instance, breaks a trifling article by mistake; the opposite party upon this makes a small but premeditated reprisal; this brings on a return of greater from the other; both sides complain of injuries and infractions; war is declared; they beat, are beaten; some two or three hundred thousand men are killed; they grow tired, leave of[f] just where they began; and so sit coolly down to make new treaties.

The English and French seem to place themselves foremost among the champion states of Europe. Though parted by a narrow sea, yet are they entirely of opposite characters; and from their vicinity, are taught to fear and admire each other. They are at present engaged in a very destructive war, have already spilled much blood, are excessively irritated; and all upon account of one side's desiring to wear greater quantities of furs than the other.

The pretext of the war is about some lands a thousand leagues off; a country, cold, desolate, and hideous; a country belonging to a people who were in possession for time immemorial. The savages of Canada claim a property in the country in dispute; they have all the pretensions which long possession can confer. Here they had reigned for ages without rivals in dominion, and knew no enemies but the prowling bear or insidious tyger; their native forests produced all the necessaries of life, and they found ample luxury in the enjoyment. In this manner they might have continued to live to eternity, had not the English been informed, that those countries produced furs in great abundance. From that moment the country became an object of desire; it was found that furs were things very much wanted in England; the ladies edged some of their cloaths with furs, and muffs were worn both by gentlemen and ladies. In short, furs were found indispensably necessary for the happiness of the state: and the king was consequently petitioned to grant, not only the country of Canada, but all the savages belonging to it, to the subjects of England, in order to have the people supplied with proper quantities of this necessary commodity.

So very reasonable a request was immediately complied with, and large colonies were sent abroad to procure furs, and take possession. The French, who were equally in want of furs, (for they are as fond of muffs and tippets as the English), made the very same request to their monarch, and met with the same gracious reception from their king, who generously granted what was not his to give. Wherever the French landed, they called the country their own; and the English took possession wherever they came, upon the same equitable pretensions. The harmless savages made no opposition; and could the intruders have agreed together, they might peaceably have shared this desolate country between them. But they quarrelled about the boundaries of their settlements, about grounds and rivers, to which neither side could show any other right than that of power, and which neither could occupy but by usurpation. Such is the contest, that no honest man can heartily wish success to either party.

The war has continued for some time with various success. At first the French seemed victorious; but the English have of late dispossessed them of the whole country in dispute. Think not, however, that success on one side is the harbinger of peace: on the contrary, both parties must be heartily tired to affect even a temporary reconciliation. It should seem the business of the victorious party to offer terms of peace; but there are many in England, who, encouraged by success, are still for protracting the war.

The best English politicians, however, are sensible, that to keep their present conquests would rather be a burden than an advantage to them, rather a diminution of their strength than an increase of power. It is in the politic as in the human constitution; if the limbs grow too large for the body, their size, instead of improving, will diminish the vigour of the whole. The colonies should always bear an exact proportion to the mother-country; when they grow populous, they grow powerful, and by becoming powerful, they become independent also. Thus subordination is destroyed, and a country swallowed up in the extent of its own dominions. The Turkish empire would be more formidable, were it less extensive: Were it not for those countries, which it can neither command, nor give entirely away, which it is obliged to protect, but from which it has no power to extract obedience.

Yet, obvious as these truths are, there are many Englishmen who are for transplanting new colonies into this late acquisition, for peopling the desarts of America with the refuse of their countrymen, and (as they express it) with the waste of an exuberant nation. But who are those unhappy creatures who are to be thus drained away? Not the sickly, for they are unwelcome guests abroad as well as at home; nor the idle, for they would starve as well behind the Appalachian mountains, as in the streets of London. This refuse is composed of the laborious and enterprising, of such men as can be serviceable to their country at home, of men who ought to be regarded as the sinews of the people, and cherished with every degree of political indulgence. And what are the commodities which this colony, when established, are to produce in return? Why, raw silk, hemp, and tobacco: her hardy veterans and honest tradesman must be trucked for a box of snuff or a silk petticoat. Strange absurdity? Sure the politics of the Daures >> note 2 are not more strange, who sell their religion, their wives, and their liberty for a glass bead, or a paultry penknife. Farewel.


© 2010 W.W. Norton and Company :  Site Feedback  :  Help  :  Credits  :  Home  :  Top of page    
Home