The ultimate point which Eric Dolin aims to prove in this book is that Chinese culture is incomprehensible, or nearly so, to the uneducated Westerner, and that attempting to apply our perspectives to China today — or two hundred years ago — will result in a tangle of fetishization, Orientalism, and precious little understanding of why Chinese businesses, institutions, or people act in the ways that they do. Unfortunately, the way by which Dolin proves this point is primarily object lesson, with himself as the object of the lesson. To put it another way, Dolin appears to be attempting to illuminate the ways in which Chinese culture appeared almost wholly foreign to the traders who landed on its shores, and he does this. But he does this by referencing stereotypes and myths unselfconsciously, seemingly without any idea that they merely are stereotypes and myths. In doing so, he proves the point that he may have been trying to make. As a work of pseudo-historical fiction, it would be brilliant — Dolin should have published this book as if it were written in the 19th century, which would serve as a better primer on the Euro-American thought at the time than any other.
One of the ways which Dolin tries to prove his point (about how Other the Chinese allegedly were) is by referencing the traditions and practices that seemed most incomprehensible to traders and other Western visitors (Dolin 178–180). For instance, Dolin references foot-binding and female infanticide in great detail, seemingly more for the shock value that they provide than for historical illumination. Dolin also discusses the Chinese justice system, but not on its own terms. It would be truly fascinating to see a discussion of China’s justice system that attempted to make it understandable to an outsider in sympathetic terms — instead, Dolin falls into the trap of Orientalism, in which foreigners are exoticized and made as alien as they could possibly be (Said). It isn’t as if the practices of China at the time can’t be contextualized in a way that focuses on common humanity and understandable motives; it’s that Dolin chooses not to.
Dolin also discusses the sexual ethics of the foreign populations he examines. Never, of course, in ways that would make them seem recognizable to Western readers. For instance, he asserts that Hawaiian women were indiscriminate with their sexual favors (Dolin 112). Without context, though, this is just titillation, and he does not examine any of the reasons for this allegedly different ethics of sexuality. None of the socio-cultural exploration that we would expect to see in a book of this nature about a European culture was even attempted, with respect to Hawaiian seuxal practices. This is because, again, Dolin views the final explanation for different practices between western and non-western cultures as “they are different because They are Different.”
The final way in which Dolin’s point is made is in discussing the vulnerability and helplessness of these Eastern populations. At times Dolin adopts a sort of paternalism, as if this were a case of Americans “being cruel to be kind” (e.g. Dolin 130). Further, he projects a posture of passivity onto the Chinese, painting them as passive and agency-less recipients of whatever the Americans and Europeans wished to do to them (e.g. Dolin 249, 304, 341). He rarely explores the ways in which the Chinese worked actively in making political and trade deals with Americans and Europeans, because to do so would disrupt his focus on the Chinese as recipients (and, however he pretties it up, “beneficiaries”) of western “civilization.” It would have been a breath of fresh air to see in-depth consideration of the ways in which Chinese immigrants took unprecedented steps in forging communities with strong economies even in the face of economic discrimination (Zhou), but such consideration is regrettably absent.
This is, on the whole, a regrettable book. To engage critically with the history that has been handed down about China and the Pacific islands from that time is to acknowledge that those histories were motivated ones (Yang). They were not crafted by disinterested parties. They were written by people who participated in the very trips and committed the very abuses which they documented, and to expect faithful adherence to the truth from them strains credulity. One wonders precisely why Dolin would choose to rely entirely on western sources, which themselves relied entirely upon western sources, and so on down the line, when there is a rich tradition of historiography and scholarship in China with which he could have engaged. If he did not believe such an effort would be valuable, then that is clearly false and a disappointing decision; if he believed such an effort would ruin the narratives which he crafts, then he engaged in motivated rather than sincere reasoning in crafting these pages. In either case, his conclusions should be regarded as highly suspect.
There is one quality of the book which is highly disappointing and underscores all of the little disappointments that this book contains. It is, of course, impossible to reduce any work of scholarship (or work of “scholarship”) to a simple factoid about its content, but this one seems too perfect to pass up. In all of the pages in When America First Met China, the word “stereotype” does not appear even once. The word “exotic” appears fifty-one times.
- Dolin, E. J. When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail. Liveright, 2012. Print.
- Said, E. W. “Orientalism Reconsidered.” Race & class 27.2 (1985): 1–15. Print.
- Yang, C. Performing China: Virtue, Commerce, and Orientalism in Eighteenth-Century England, 1660–1760. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Print.
- Zhou, Min. Chinatown: The Socioeconomic Potential of an Urban Enclave. Temple University Press, 2010. Print.