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Abstract

China played a crucial role in the transformation of English ideas of civilization, enlightenment, and aesthetics during the 18th century. Well into the century, China served two crucial and imaginary roles for British readers: it offered the fantasy of both an insatiable market for British exports and an inexhaustible storehouse of luxury goods (from tea to textiles) that could be paid for by exports rather than silver bullion. Such idealizations of China, however, began to corrode over the course of the 18th century as porcelain, silk, tea, and other commodities became markers of a culturally feminized chinoiserie for novelists like Daniel Defoe. As tastes changed and chinoiserie began to fall out of favor, it still continued to mark changing aesthetic attitudes and changing perceptions of social, gender, and national identity. By the late 18th century, British accounts of the Canton trade became important sites for debating cultural difference and philosophical enlightenment for theorists from Adam Smith to Karl Marx.