Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: The Conversations of History

Shih-Wen Chen. Representations of China in British Children's Fiction, 1851-1911. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate. 2013. Print.
ISBN: 9781409447351

Sara L. Schwebel. Child-sized History: Fictions of the past in U.S. classrooms. Nashville, Tennessee: Vanderbilt University Press. 2011. Print.
ISBN: 9780826517937

Reviewer: David Beagley

Early in Shih-Wen Chen's Representations of China in British Children's Fiction, 1851-1911, she notes that, as early as 1817, Jane Austen had Fanny Price, heroine of Mansfield Park, reading about Lord Macartney's 1792-3 Embassy to China. In the conversation that follows with her love interest Edmund Bertram, this book choice becomes a metaphor for Edmund's 'kow-towing' to the charismatic Henry and Mary Crawford (Macartney's embassy was reputed to have failed through his refusal to kow-tow to the Emperor).

Not only does this indicate, says Chen, that young British readers were reading about China at this early stage, but that they would be expected by the author to be familiar enough with the social and cultural reference to understand the metaphorical device, just as, some 60 years later, the British audiences watching Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera The Mikado were presumed to be able to use the Japanese references to satirise British customs and manners.

Both Chen's new volume in Ashgate's Studies in Childhood series, and Sara L. Schwebel's pedagogical study of history texts and teaching in US classrooms, consider the representations of national identities and stereotypes in the texts available and promoted to their child and YA audiences. That the teenager, Fanny Price, would be reading such a dry text is not considered unusual in the context of Mansfield Park's story, nor is Edmund's understanding of the reference. As Chen argues, the awareness and representation of China in 19th century children's and YA reading is far more extensive and nuanced than recent Orientalist and postcolonial interpretation would suggest.

Similarly, Schwebel argues that, while historical fiction in U.S. classrooms has for a long time been focussed on the same small canon of arguably outdated texts like Johnny Tremain, Sounder, Island of the Blue Dolphins and Roll of thunder, hear my cry, these can still offer perspectives and historical understandings that broaden, rather than narrowing, their readers' appreciation of cultural and national identities.

Both texts are keen to reinforce the message that meanings are constructed and that, as readers vary through time and place, so will their readings of the texts and of the history they present. We are products of our times, say both these texts, and so were the readers of the past. We are not automatically right, and they are not automatically wrong - we all are products of our times, and that includes the adult promoters of the young reading experiences.

In Chen's study of the later Victorian age of British Empire, and its view of the world, these promoters are not just the authors of stories, but the magazine editors and the columnists like 'Old Humphrey' (the Victorian equivalent of a book-blogger/commentator) who actively recommended and judged texts for their readers. She notes how their discourse was not only fluid with common disagreements, but that it also varied depending on the nature of Sino-British relations.

"For example, a child who grew up reading The Wolf Boy of China (1857) would have had a very different childhood memory of China compared with one fed on stories written during the Boxer Uprising, though both would fall under the rubric of 'Victorian children'" (p.160)

The chapter exploring that text, William Dalton's The Wolf Boy of China, and that on E. Harcourt Burrage's serial story character 'Ching-Ching', are key in her argument that representations of China have far greater range and subtlety in development than the automatic labelling of 'Otherness' that Orientalist discourse would expect.

Dalton's character, Herbert Richardson or Lyu Payo, is a striking departure from an Orientalist presumption of separation of Others. Not only is he of mixed race, with an English father and Chinese mother (and, therefore like Kipling's Kim, able to move between the cultures), but his mother and heritage are specified as Miao (Wolf people) and specifically distinguished within the broad gamut of Chinese society from Han, Si-fan and Tartars. Chen explores how Lyu Payo challenged the 19th century argument that 'half-breeds' were always inferior and untrustworthy. His Miao background instead provides him with an exotic/romantic air, as well as an element of extra information to the reader about the Miao's opposition to the Han and the Manchu government. His eventual settling (after a range of typical adventures and family secrets) as a gentleman in London is also noted by Chen as challenging mid-century notions of respectability and race.

Chen tracks the evolution of Ching-Ching through Burrage's very popular (at the time) stories (1876-93) from comic trickster, deflating the pompous, to canny detective, upholding the morality of British society. While he displays many of the markers of 'Other' stereotype - "sallow" face, pigtail, speech full of mispronunciations, clown-like contorted movement - Ching-Ching is a positive and affirming character. His 'otherness' provides him with skills and perspectives that allow him to achieve more than 'normal' characters, and Chen raises an interesting comparison with the contemporaneous Sherlock Holmes in the later Ching-Ching stories. Both have unusual skills and approaches and aim to uphold the moral structure of British society, particularly by unmasking pretenders but, while Holmes (and, thus, one can assume his author) "regarded the Orient as a place ready to infect and destroy the British Empire", Ching-Ching showed his young magazine serial readers that "Chinese people can maintain and restore order instead of causing disruptions and disorder." (p.84)

Negative representations, however, are not ignored or overlooked. The hostilities of the Boxer and Taiping Uprisings created plenty of opportunity for the heroes of 'muscular Christianity' to stand in sharp contrast to the bloodthirsty hordes and servile peasants of the 'Yellow Peril'. Chen's main premise, though, is that much of the discourse around stereotypes in such stories has been selective and has created an unbalanced perception that these representations were dominant in, even typical of, the whole Victorian age and its literature. Her clear and authoritative study, supported by 25 pages of bibliography, is a strong and convincing argument to the contrary.

Schwebel takes a similar inclusionist stance towards the typical texts used in U.S. classrooms for decades to teach history and social attitudes. While these texts may be fixtures in schools to the point of cliche, and are now often pilloried for their outdated Eurocentric attitudes towards the 'Others' of the US's last few centuries of history, Schwebel sees value in their capacity to demonstrate the evolution and relativity of social attitudes.

The historical novel, as both Chen and Schwebel recognize, is a powerful tool in forming the attitudes of a young reader to the events and consequences of the past. Often it is the first time that the reader has encountered that time, place and people, and that experience sets the foundation for future perceptions. Schwebel tracks the rapid development of the "authentic literature" approach in the 1980s, championed by Charlotte Huck, and a key force in bringing so many more novels and stories into the classroom in the guise of reading instruction.

The historical novel, she observes, is ideal for this pedagogy as it combines the opportunity for direct study in history and social studies with literacy skills and critical thinking. Where formal history texts are often seen as outdated, and regularly replaced, novels ride on their capacity for a reader's personal engagement with the characters and story to maintain their classroom presence over decades. In this, therefore, they also carry attitudes and perceptions that were in place at their creation but which may have been superseded more lately: for instance, an "empty-headed slave" in Johnny Tremain, or the almost complete absence of indigenous inhabitants in the frontier lands of Wilder's Little House books.

Schwebel structures her discussion around three of the 'great myths' of the US nation-state:

Europeans arrived in the New World, tamed the wilderness, and replaced "primitive" tribes; war established Anglo-Americans as an independent people, forged a common culture and purpose, and solidified the national virtues of freedom and democracy; and the eradication of slavery enabled the nation to embrace diversity and recognize, at last, the common bond shared by all Americans. (p.8)

These three themes, of indigeneity, war and race, are each tackled in the main chapters with textual analysis and comparisons, and demonstration of how the 'myths' can be perpetuated through the uncritical acceptance of the stories as history, rather than literary expression. Schwebel is adamant, however, that the fault is not with the texts, but with this lack of critical engagement. Using the texts as the basis for expansion of the readers' experiences and matching them with other sources is essential, she argues, to avoid the simplistic assumption of their historical veracity. She even offers an Afterword with "Pedagogical Possibilities", classroom activities that enable this broader view of the issues and texts.

The discussion is brought together with a consideration of recent pedagogical pressures towards standardised testing, and 'scientifically based' literacy practice that narrows the construction of reading from the essential and complex critical skills of interpretation. Several useful appendices offer teachers even more support with a study of recent publishing trends in historical fiction, as well as extensive bibliography and index.

History as a social force cannot be ignored and, to young readers especially, it is part of their discovery of the world in which they live; it represents from where they have come and, thus, can determine where they are going. Literature is one of the most powerful social mediators, offering possibilties and encouraging responses. Both these texts place readers and their experience at the centre of the process of interpreting historical stories and representations. Both insist on the recognition that historical/social/cultural understanding is a construction that each reader must make and that each of those readers must be given not only the opportunity and tools to do that but credit (even if they are not yet adults!) for their ability to do just that.


David Beagley

Volume 17, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, May/June 2013

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