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The New Middle Kingdom

China and the Early American Romance of Free Trade

In the imaginations of early Americans, the Middle Kingdom was the wealthiest empire in the world. Its geographical distance did not deter commercial aspirations—rather, it inspired them. Starting in the late eighteenth century, merchants from New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Salem, Newport, and elsewhere cast speculative lines to China. The resulting fortunes shaped the cultural foundation of the early republic and funded westward frontier expansion.

In The New Middle Kingdom, Kendall A. Johnson argues that—for the merchant princes who speculated in the global Far East, as well as the missionaries and diplomats who followed them—Manifest Destiny spurred more than the coalescence of the fractious regions into the continental Far West. It also promised a golden gateway to the Pacific Ocean through which the nation would realize its historical destiny as the world’s new Middle Kingdom of commerce. Examining the influential accounts of westerners at the center of early US cultural development abroad, Johnson conceives a romance of free trade with China as a quest narrative of national accomplishment in a global marketplace.

Drawing from a richly descriptive cross-cultural archive, the book presents key moments in early relations among the twenty-first century’s superpowers through memoirs, biographies, epistolary journals, magazines, book reviews, fiction and poetry by Melville, Twain, Whitman, and others, travel narratives, and treaties, as well as maps and engraved illustrations. Paying close attention to figurative language, generic forms, and the social dynamics of print cultural production and circulation, Johnson shows how authors, editors, and printers appealed to multiple overlapping audiences in China, in the United States, and throughout the world. Spanning a full century, from the post–Revolutionary War era to the Gilded Age, The New Middle Kingdom is a vivid look at the Far East through Western eyes, one that highlights the importance of China in antebellum US culture.

About the Author

Kendall A. Johnson is an associate professor of American studies and the head of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Henry James and the Visual and the editor of Narratives of Free Trade: The Commercial Cultures of Early US–China Relations.

Endorsements

"Johnson, a superb prose stylist, relies on sophisticated close readings to demonstrate the richness of a number of obscure and forgotten texts. Probing deeply into the US experience in China, The New Middle Kingdom brings a marginalized story out of the shadows and connects it to broad American themes, issues, and debates."

- John Haddad, Penn State Harrisburg, author of America's First Adventure in China: Trade, Treaties, Opium, and Salvation

Reviews

"... Johnson chronicles a fascinating account of how the nation forged a new alliance with China in a triumphalist era to reposition the US as the world’s new Middle Kingdom. Recommended."

- Johns Hopkins University Press

"The New Middle Kingdom is at its core an account of those who shaped the US’ early relationship with China. By examining these figures through their own works and their national context, Johnson crafts a remarkable argument about the intricacies of both the China trade, and, more challengingly, the roots of American empire to be found there."

- American Literary History

"... in exploring, in so much depth and so persuasively, the "romance of free trade," Johnson has prepared the way for further explorations of how different approaches to American political economy intersected with US-China relations, as well as provided a basis for interrogating why—and how—there could have been such ideological and narrative continuity amid such significant change in this complex relationship."

- H-Net Reviews
Johns Hopkins University Press
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9781421422510 : the-new-middle-kingdom-johnson
Hardback
384 Pages
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384 Pages
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