The Citizen of the World is a collection of letters written by Oliver Goldsmith from the perspective of the fictional Lien Chi Altangi, a Chinese philosopher living in London. The letters were originally published separately, in series, from January 1760 to August 1761 in the daily journal The Public Ledger.
Goldsmith uses Altangi’s foreign persona as a way of satirising the ‘manners and customs’ of mid 18th-century London. During this period Britain’s perception of China was conflicted and ambivalent: on the one hand China and Eastern culture were ‘othered’ as strange, exotic, inferior and threatening, but on the other hand knowledge of Confucianism and the rational and cultivated culture of China had reached the West and drew interest from Enlightenment thinkers. In the letters Goldsmith presents Altangi, a declared Confucian, as an authoritative, credible narrator and emphasises China as a ‘tutored’ (civilised) nation (‘The Editor's Preface’, pp.iii–iv). Furthermore, Altangi’s nationality and his experiences of being personally ‘collected’ by the London elite allowed Goldsmith to criticise the commercial craze for chinoiserie – the irony of which probably wasn’t lost on Goldsmith.
Despite Goldsmith’s ‘positive’ representation, the device remains problematic from a post-colonial perspective.
Altangi describes a visit to the London theatre in Letter XXI (pp. 82–88). His chief complaint is the heavy-handed use of sentiment within the play:
I could not avoid observing, that the persons of the drama appeared in as much distress in the first act as in the last; how is it possible, said I, to sympathize with them through five long acts; pity is but a short-lived passion. (p. 82)
He goes on to comment that ‘there should be one great passion aimed at by the actor as well as the poet, all the rest should be subordinate, and only contribute to make that the greater’ (p. 82). These views were held by Goldsmith, who, in 1773, premiered She Stoops to Conquer: the play employed a fresh style of comedy which abandoned sentiment in favour of laughter.
Altangi also describes the audience, suggesting that their relentless desire for visual stimulation overspills the physical boundaries of the stage onto the surrounding spectators. He points out that this kind of licentious voyeurism was the expectation rather than an exception:
Gentlemen and ladies ogled each other through spectacles; for my companion observed, that blindness was of late become fashionable, all affected indifference and ease, while their hearts at the same time burned for conquest. (p. 78)
This is a first edition of the collected essays, published in Dublin in 1762 (coinciding with the London first edition). Goldsmith was Irish, and therefore his commentary on London and the publication of The Citizen of the World in his home country adds another layer of observational texture to the essays. How might have Irish readers – geographically on the periphery of the ‘home’ territories – responded to these criticisms of the colonial capital?