Chinese Dreams in Romantic England: The Life and Times of Thomas Manning by Edward Weech - review by Robert Bickers

Robert Bickers

Slow Boat to China

Chinese Dreams in Romantic England: The Life and Times of Thomas Manning


Manchester University Press 246pp £25

Close by the desk on which I write, I have some pieces of Tibet, a collection of ordinary stones picked up at various places thirty years ago on my one and only visit there. They are each wrapped in an envelope and labelled ‘Potala Palace’, ‘Yamdrok Lake’ and ‘Norbulingka Palace’. This set of otherwise unremarkable objects is testament to the powerful hold on my teenage imagination of Heinrich Harrer’s 1952 memoir Seven Years in Tibet, which describes its Austrian author’s escape from a British internment camp in India in 1944 and subsequent trek to, and sojourn in, Lhasa. I stumbled across the book in a tiny public library in a Hampshire village. The contrast between the setting and the book’s subject could not have been sharper.

This set me on course to the study of China, which eventually led me to Tibet. It came to my mind as I read Edward Weech’s engaging book about the odd life of Thomas Manning, by all accounts an intelligent and amiable polymath who set his heart on going to China, the great empire of the Qing, the borders of which were closed to Europeans at the time. It did so partly because at one point in the eleven years Manning spent trying to get there, he fetched up in the Potala Palace in Lhasa, hoping that he might be able to gain access to the country from there. He was eventually sent back to the border with British India under guard and with a ‘collar’ (that is a ‘wooden cangue’, or portable pillory) around his neck. This was an unusual position for an Englishman to find himself in, but Manning was an unusual Englishman.

He was born in rural Norfolk in 1772, the son of a clergyman. In 1790, he went to Cambridge, where he became part of the network of friends, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb, who formed the heart of the Romantic movement. This was an electric moment in

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