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Durham University

Department of English Studies

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This is an archive of past events within the Department of English Studies. Please see our current events for forthcoming activities.

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'Harder if possible than the Emperor's heart': Narrating the Amherst Embassy (1816)

27th May 2015, 17:30 to 19:00, Seminar Room, Hallgarth House, Professor Peter Kitson

An Inventions of the Text seminar.

This paper concerns the second British embassy to China, that of William Pitt, Lord Amherst of 1816 and its relationship to the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and China in 1841 as recorded in John Francis Davis’ important but neglected Opium War publication: Sketches of China (1841). There has been a great deal of historical and cultural criticism relating to the first embassy to China led by Viscount Macartney of 1792-94, including two substantial historical accounts, but comparatively little has been written about its successor, which tends to be viewed largely as a farcical repetition of, or postscript to, its more famous predecessor. While contemporary responses to the Macartney embassy were mixed, with Macartney and his admirers regarding the embassy as a success, contemporary views of the Amherst embassy from both its participants and its critics viewed it as an unmitigated disaster. Yet in many ways the Amherst embassy was of major importance in changing British views of China in the lead up to the first Opium War and arguably marked the first major step taken in that process. This paper focuses on the negotiations relating to the imperial ceremony of the sangui jiukou or koutou (anglicised as “kowtow”) and the role of the exchange of presents. This paper argues that Amherst’s embassy is crucially importance in changing established British perceptions of China and the Qing court in the prelude to the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century.

About the Speaker

Peter Kitson is a Professor of English at the University of East Anglia. Previous to this he was Head of the School of English and Linguistics at University of Wales, Bangor, (1997-2000), Head of the Department of English at the University of Dundee (2002-2005), and Chair of the School of Humanities Research Committee at Dundee (2005 to 2009). Professor Kitson received his BA and PhD from the University of Hull. His doctoral thesis was on ‘The Seventeenth-century Influence on the Early Religious and Political Thought of S. T. Coleridge, 1790-1805′. He was the recent recipient of currently a holder of a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship (2010-2012) for his project on China and the Romantic Imagination 1760-1840. In 2009 he was awarded a Huntington Library Fellowship and in 2010 a Visiting Fellowship of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. Professor Kitson specialises in research into the long eighteenth century and literature of the Romantic period, and he has published widely on the subject including monographs on Literature, Science and Exploration in the Romantic Period (Cambridge UP, 2004), Romantic Literature, Race and Colonial Encounter, 1760-1840 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), and Forging Romantic China: Sino-British Cultural Encounters, 1760-1840 (Cambridge UP, 2013). He has edited multi volume editions of writings about slavery and travel in the period and several collections of essays, including (with Tim Fulford), Romanticism and Colonialism (Cambridge UP, 1998).

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