While traveling to DC and back last week, I read The Mandarin’s Daughter by Samuel Mossman, 1876, which is another 19th century novel about China that I read so you don’t have to.
(Previously: Out in China by Mrs. Archibald Little, 1902)
Mossman’s introduction states that the amount of fiction in his novel, The Mandarin’s Daughter, is “infinitessimal[sic].” In relating the Second Opium War and the involvement of the British in the Taiping War, he narrates the facts as they were understood by the foreign residents of China. In relating customs of the Chinese during the interludes between battles, Mossman’s perspective differs little from other books about China intended for young readers at this time, for example Peeps into China, or The Missionary’s Children (1882), or Adventures of Kwei, The Chinese Girl (1872), to name a couple others. He intends this novel to educate youth about the wars that happened before they were old enough to remember them and entertain adults who watched the wars with a mix of disappointment and hope.
The infinitesimal fiction, embroidered over the warp of troop movements across the Chinese countryside and woof of timeless native customs, is what gives the book its title and forms the core of its argument about Britain’s place in China. When the British troops sack Yuan Ming Yuan in 1860, the fictional hero of the tale, Sergeant Cameron discovers a scared young woman, formerly an attendant to the empress, who was left behind at the palace when the royal family fled. Cameron, who became conversant in Chinese on his voyage from Melbourne to Tianjin, reassures her that he is a gentleman and means her no harm. He escorts Loo A-Lee to safety, first at a Buddhist convent, and then once the gates of Beijing have been breached by the British, home to her father, a mandarin. Loo A-lee, this “forlorn damsel” and the mandarin’s daughter of the title, is not the hero of the novel, but the focal point around which Cameron’s experience in China is shaped.
Mossman needs to establish A-Lee as a Chinese worthy of Cameron’s affections, unlike the uncouth and superstitious Chinese who have so far made up the majority of his descriptions. A-Lee, being northern, is paler than the dark Chinese of the south, Cameron observes, and her eyes are nowhere near as slanted as Chinese are commonly represented, and her hair was softer and not so black. Her feet were not bound. His description of her concludes that she “would have appeared the belle of an English drawing room.” In so doing, A-Lee is stripped of the stereotypical qualities of Chinese that British audiences would see as alienating and brought into the realm of acceptability.
As the story continues, further descriptions of A-Lee continue to distance her from the typical Chinese customs that Cameron describes. She provides him access to observe these customs – showing him around a Buddhist temple, attending a banquet and watching a theatrical performance at her home, taking him to a traditional wedding ceremony – but then it is revealed that she and her father are secretly Eastern Orthodox Christians and that she would like to marry Cameron rather than face an arranged marriage. Her father Meng-kee takes Cameron into his confidence, expressing his sympathies for the Taipings and the Christian kingdom they were purportedly establishing in the south. Soon Meng-kee and A-Lee defect from Beijing to join the Taipings themselves.
After Meng-kee and A-Lee have become thoroughly disillusioned by the Taipings, Cameron comes to the rescue again, saving both their lives. Before heading back to battle, he bids his fiancé farewell:
“Fear not my ‘Pearl of Beauty,’ as you are called in your poetic language, I shall return safe and sound ere long to claim you as my bride.”
With some hesitation she said, “I know you like my native maiden name, but I should wish to change it into one of a Christian character, before mingling it with your surname in wedded bliss. I have spoken to my father about it, also to the good missionary, and they both agree that I should be received into the Protestant Church by the sacrament of baptism. Do you, my love, agree that it should take place also, and that during your absence at the wars ; where, if you be taken from me, I should ever mourn for you as your betrothed Mary?”
A tear started to my eyes as she expressed herself in these sentiments of holy and enduring affection for me; and in a last close embrace I whispered my assent in her ear, coupled with words of love and confidence.
The effect achieved by continually contrasting Meng-kee and A-Lee with the common Chinese is that they cease to be Chinese at all, instead becoming people appealing to the fantasy that, somewhere in China among the superstitious, heathen, dirty masses, some “pure Chinese” wait for British civilization to come and elevate the rest of their brethren. The Qing rulers, aside from Cixi, it describes in terms of their weakness, cunning, and depravity. The Taipings are barbaric, violent, corrupt, and dishonest. The average Chinese is deluded by Buddhism and bound by centuries of tradition. However, through contact with westerners, Meng-kee and A-Lee prove that Chinese have the potential to transcend what the West saw as their limitations.
Baptized a Protestant, renamed with a practical Christian name rather than an exotic, poetic one, and behaving quite like the heroine of a British romance novel, by the end A-Lee is fully transformed into a proper wife for Cameron. One assumes the next step is for Cameron to take A-Lee home with him, but here the story takes a surprising turn. Cameron discovers that Chinese and British law make no provisions for interracial marriage and their children would not be considered legitimate heirs in British law. The missionaries, however, are pleased to marry the couple within the church, which is apparently satisfactory for all parties involved. Cameron stays on in China, where his success as a military administrator nets him a promotion to a mandarin of the fourth grade.
The final sentence of the novel thumbs its nose at British hereditary titles, announcing “we expect that our son and heir will receive in course of time similar honours to those which have been bestowed upon his father and grandfather by his own merits; for titles are not hereditary in China among the mandarins.” Mossman, British colonist in Australia and frequent traveller of East Asia, turns from his criticism of the Chinese to fire a shot back at his home culture. China hold great potential for the civilizing Westerner. Notwithstanding the detailed descriptions of the nation’s flaws, Mossman embroiders a fantasy of an idyllic life Cameron lives in China after the wars. He suggests that only in China, freed from the strictures of hereditary traditions of the Old World, can unappreciated British men achieve their due and find their own civilized mandarin’s daughter waiting for her British savior.
Does this sound anything like certain 21st century Western fantasies of East Asia?