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Somewhere Between Civilization and Savagery

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American Rhetoric of Stagnation and Opportunity between the Opium Wars, 1843–1856

image of Journal of American-East Asian Relations

This article examines the language in mid-19th Century accounts emphasizing Chinese cultural “stagnation” in the face of growing American influence in East Asia to investigate the emergence of a belief in the rising position of the United States on the world stage. This construction played off of critical observations that attempted to explain how the China trade was strong enough to be of U.S. national interest, while at the same time clarifying how the Chinese were weak enough to succumb to foreign influence. As such, Americans attempted to diagnose and cure the ills of stagnation through intervention. From religious conversion, to economic expansion, to cultural influence, Americans proposed a litany of solutions to China’s problems. A common theme within these larger tropes focused on the unique role that Chinese women played in American hopes for enacting change in China. In defining Chinese stagnation, Americans betrayed their own perspectives on the role of women in society and attempted to influence Chinese women to adopt that idealized model as the means by which the United States could profit from elevating China into the ranks of modern civilized nations.

Affiliations: 1: Kent State University,


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