The Barbarians

“Swaying the wide world, I have but one aim in view, namely, to maintain a perfect governance and to fulfil the duties of the State: strange and costly objects do not interest me. If I have commanded that the tribute offerings sent by you, O King, are to be accepted, this was solely in consideration for the spirit which prompted you to dispatch them from afar. Our dynasty’s majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures. This then is my answer to your request to appoint a representative at my Court, a request contrary to our dynastic usage, which would only result in inconvenience to yourself. I have expounded my wishes in detail and have commanded your tribute Envoys to leave in peace on their homeward journey. It behoves you, O King, to respect my sentiments and to display even greater devotion and loyalty in future, so that, by perpetual submission to our Throne, you may secure peace and prosperity for your country hereafter.”
-A letter from Emperor Qianlong of China to King George the III of the United Kingdom of England, Whales and Scotland.

By the 1700’s Britain was not in a good place. It had just lost the majority of its New World colonies after the American Revolution and had a ludicrously huge trade deficit to what was then the world’s most powerful economy, China. This was due impart to the various trade restrictions placed on any foreigners attempting to trade. As a result the British government sent a group of men carrying the greatest inventions of the Western World to demonstrate the benefits of trade with Britain. The result of this can be seen in the Emperor’s letter.

In the eyes of the Chinese, China was quite literally the center of the universe. Their name for themselves was Zhong Guo, literally Central Kingdom, as in the center of the world. Any outsider was a barbarian destined to one day be conquered by the emperor. Any arts or sciences from these people was to be ignored. This letter eventually lead to Britain to sell ungodly amounts of opium to the Chinese to make up for the loss. China did not like this and started the Opium Wars as a result, leading to China’s century of humiliation.

The reason as to why I am bringing this up is to Illuminate the fact that the driving reasoning behind what Said calls Orientalism is in fact merely human nature. It is a cross cultural phenomena unique to nobody. We are discussing this from a European perspective, flip it around 180 degrees and we see the the same thing from an Oriental perspective.

One thought on “The Barbarians

  1. John, I don’t think Said would disagree with you here. His point was that culture reflects psychology, and yes, humans tend to justify their power through creating an Other. Insomuch as China did this to justify their power, it is also reflective of the same human phenomenon.

    Now a couple of things. I do think Said (and Benjamin, from a broader perspective) would argue that power creates this view of the world; it does not come from human nature, which has the potential — and need — for what Benjamin calls “mutual recognition” — a meeting of equals.

    Another important point is that most of Said’s work focused on the European portrayal of what they called the Middle East — not the “Far East,” which would include China — or places like South Asia, Africa, Latin America, etc. I think other theorists have taken inspiration from Said to create a more general field of postcolonial studies that ties all of these regions together, in some sense. But Said did a meticulous analysis of a more localized phenomenon — how Europeans wrote about, in historical and literary works, and represented visually a Middle Eastern world they actually knew very little about. The made up a culture essentially that played into their needs.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s