Porcelain Bodies: Objects of Race in Early Modern England’s China
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Porcelain Bodies: Objects of Race in Early Modern England’s China

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Between the 1580s to 1640s, proponents for eastward trade expansion to China, such as Richard Hakluyt and Sir Robert Cecil, created contactless “encounters” between early modern England and Ming China through Chinese objects. Such “contact” zones produce a rich site for exploring early modern English racial thinking and race-making. However, in early modern critical race studies, China remains an unstudied area—China seems invisible. To fill this gap, “Porcelain Bodies: Objects of Race in Early Modern England’s China” examines early modern racial thinking and race-making objects through the absent-present white Other, China. I show how England constructed both its whiteness and white supremacy through an imagined “China” and Chinese objects, both material and immaterial. In England’s self-white-making through “China,” England formulates a sophisticated race-making methodology: a racially fluid “China” with racial affordances that could move along the spectrum of a black and white binary, though never embody either limit of whiteness or blackness. By imbuing China with varying degrees of whiteness through material and immaterial manifestations, England constructs a complex racializing object, an exploitable technology to co-construct and reinforce a racialized black/white binary. This case study limits its historical scope by using the earliest and latest publications of its primary sources. I draw on travel writing, masques, poetry, and prose, by such writers as Richard Hakluyt, Ben Jonson, and Francis Bacon. This dissertation explores English racial ideologies through an “invisible” white Chinese constituted in the early modern English imaginary. Patterns of racial thinking and racialization emerge as part of the material texts related to the representation of China and East Asia. Such patterns establish raced language frequently used in the construction of the “Yellow Peril,” the Model Minority, and the unassimilable Asian/Alien. Inspired by Toni Morrison’s call to reexamine whiteness and its pervasiveness in racial thinking alongside the racialization of blackness, this dissertation explores how early modern Europe “invented East Asia” as a white supremacist technology.

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This item is under embargo until June 11, 2026.