Orientalism as Performance Art:
The Strange Case of
George Psalamanazar

By Jack Lynch,
Rutgers University

Delivered 29 January 1999
at the CUNY Seminar on Eighteenth-Century Literature

Eighteenth-century Britain is filled with famous plagiarists, tricksters, charlatans. James Macpherson induced pan-European rapture for a half-century over ersatz Gaelic epics. Young Tom Chatterton forged thousands of pages of medieval manuscripts before offing himself at the age of seventeen. One of the most somber letters in Samuel Johnson's often somber correspondence is his consolatory epistle to William Dodd, a clergyman carted to Tyburn for passing bad checks. Charles Bertram published phony maps of Roman Britain, and Richard Evans manufactured frescoes supposedly imported from Herculaneum and Pompeii. Eighteenth-century fakers passed off bogus banknotes, paintings, Shakespearean plays, and epic poems — anything valued might be forged.

No one else, though, managed to forge himself with quite the cheek that George Psalmanazar did. Those unfamiliar with his colorful history will benefit from a recap. His real name is unknown: Psalmanazar comes from Shalmaneser, king of Assyria, in 2 Kings; he later admitted that "since my coming into England, I altered [it], by the addition of a letter or two."1 Even the Christian name George was given him by his patron. His place of birth is equally obscure: many speculated that his accent placed him in Gascony, but he boasted that "I never met with, nor heard of any one, that ever guessed right, or any thing near it, with regard to my native country."2

Such uncertainty is typical of everything surrounding Psalmanazar. This much is, if not certain, at least probable: he was born to Catholic parents around 1680, probably somewhere in the south of France. After an onerous Jesuit education, he resolved to travel. Partly to secure safe and cheap passage through France, and partly for a lark, he passed himself off as a mendicant Irish Catholic on a pilgrimage to Rome. After forging a passport to that effect, he stole a pilgrim's cloak from a church and set out.3

The Irish identity quickly proved troublesome: surrounded by people who actually knew something about Ireland, Psalmanazar perpetually ran the risk of being exposed. He looked, therefore, to the other side of the world, where that risk was negligible. And so he became a native of the island of Formosa, modern Taiwan, under the control of the great emperor of Japan. A brief tenure in the military brought him some minor celebrity among the officers, who introduced the charming faux Formosan to the beau monde, and he was soon hooked. In 1703, accompanied by a Scottish clergyman, he arrived in England and represented himself as a Formosan. Once accepted as an exotic Oriental, he was fêted by all the literary and philosophical lions of the day.

Never having been to Formosa, nor even having met anyone who had been, he spent his time spinning tales about his homeland — and not only spinning tales, but living them. He drew attention by eating his meat raw and absurdly heavily spiced, because that's the way they eat in Formosa. He slept in a chair with a lamp burning, so observers assumed he studied through the night without ever sleeping, because that's the way they do it in Formosa.

Lies, he discovered, once hatched multiplied almost beyond control. He lived by one principle, remarkable for its temerity:

There was one maxim which I could never be prevailed upon to depart from, viz. that whatever I had once affirmed in conversation, tho' to ever so few people, and tho' ever so improbable, or even absurd, should never be amended or contradicted.4

His lies were not always successful, but the one time he was caught entirely off-guard it was by a friend, who from then on regarded him with a knowing wink. Innes, his patron, asked him to translate a passage from Cicero into Formosan; he obliged with page of gibberish. Some time later, Innes asked him to translate the same passage again; this time, unable to produce similar gibberish, he was nicked. But rather than exposing him, Innes chose to be an accomplice, warning that he "ought to take care to be better provided for the future."5

He was indeed well provided from then on, and managed to convince a great many. His most important work, the Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, was published in 1704, a year after his arrival in England, and within a year appeared in an expanded second edition and a French translation. It brought him some real celebrity: he is mentioned in the Tatler, in A Modest Proposal, and (much later) in Humphry Clinker. He was even asked to teach the Formosan language at Oxford.

There were, of course, doubters; both Jesuit missionaries who had actually been to Formosa and experts in geography were dubious. And so the Royal Society called him on the carpet, asking him to defend himself from charges of fakery. He was able to deflect the Jesuits' accusations simply by accusing them of being Jesuits, and, well, we all know how they are. But other challenges looked more formidable. Edmund Halley, the astronomer, for instance, put a question to him that seemed certain to expose him: did the sun, he asked, ever shine all the way down the chimneys in Formosa? (Formosa being between the tropics, it follows that the sun would sometimes be directly overhead.) No, said Psalmanazar. Aha! said Halley, and it seemed the jig was up. But recalling his vow that "whatever I had once affirmed in conversation, . . . should never be amended or contradicted in the narrative," he quickly explained that Formosan chimneys twist and turn on their way down, so the sunlight never reaches the bottom. Psalmanazar one, Halley nil.

Such moxie was typical of his early days in London, when he was still a society darling. But the doubts continued to pile up, and he soon found himself a discredited has-been. He later confessed the entire imposture, first privately to a few friends, and later in an anonymous encyclopedia article on Formosa. Over the last decades of his long life he composed a lengthy confession, published in 1764 (a year after his death) as Memoirs of ****, Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; a Reputed Native of Formosa. There he disavows his Description as "that scandalous romance," "a mere forgery of my own devising, a scandalous imposition on the public," "that vile and romantic account," "that monstrous romance," and so on.6

His reformation seems genuine; Samuel Johnson was a close friend, and said he respected few people more for their piety. As Birkbeck Hill tells the story:

He was very well acquainted with Psalmanaazar, the pretended Formosan, and said, he had never seen the close of the life of any one that he wished so much his own to resemble, as that of him, for its purity and devotion. . . . Johnson was asked whether he ever contradicted Psalmanaazar; — "I should as soon," said he, "have thought of contradicting a bishop"; so high did he hold his character in the latter part of his life.7

Timing is everything, and much of the interest of Psalmanazar's story is owing to when it was set. He arrived in England just a few years after the publication of the most influential work of philosophy of the long eighteenth century, Locke's Essay concerning Humane Understanding, which in a section called "Identity and Diversity" takes up the question "Wherein Identity consists." He arrived, in other words, at a time when notions of identity were in flux, receiving a basis in the new empiricist epistemology. This is not to justify him; his charade would have been offensive under both the old dispensation and the new. But to consider his adventures in the context of these new Lockean conceptions of identity may help us to understand how his contemporaries regarded him.

Locke's establishment of the basis of personal identity is worth quoting:

Since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and 'tis that, that makes every one to be, what he calls self; and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things, in this alone consists personal Identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational Being: And as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past Action or Thought, so far reaches the Identity of that Person; it is the same self now it was then; and 'tis by the same self with this present one that now reflects on it, that the Action was done. (p. 335; 2.27.9)

Personal identity, that is, consists in consciousness, and nothing else. Personal identity extended across time is nothing more than consciousness extended across time, apparently through the mechanism of memory; if the Jack Lynch of 1999 shares memories with the Jack Lynch of 1989 or '79 or '69 — although those last are probably confined to favorite Sesame Street sketches — then they are the same person.

But locating identity in consciousness has the significant effect of shielding it from third-party scrutiny. Modern scientific ideas about what constitutes an identity — fingerprints perhaps, or a unique DNA structure — don't make for easy tests in casual conversation, but identity is at least theoretically something objective, something that can be verified by a third party. Lockean identity, though, is by definition subjective; it is subjectivity itself. As Locke explains, "The Substance, whereof personal self consisted at one time, may be varied at another, without the change of personal Identity" (p. 337; 2.27.11). Matter doesn't matter.

And here Locke begins to entertain some apparently paradoxical ideas about personal identity: "Personal Identity consists, not in the Identity of Substance, but . . . in the Identity of consciousness, wherein, if Socrates and the present Mayor of Quinborough agree, they are the same Person: If the same Socrates waking and sleeping do not partake of the same consciousness, Socrates waking and sleeping is not the same Person" (p. 341; 2.27.19). So the Mayor of Quinborough may well be Socrates, and for that matter Rudy Giuliani may be Richard Rorty waking and Michel Foucault sleeping. As Edwin McCann muses, "With personal identity thus placed in consciousness, we have the possibility that one and the same man should be two persons,"8 and vice versa.

But aren't we losing touch with reality? And aren't we being unfair to Locke, who clearly wasn't writing a how-to manual on recognizing people?9 Locke in fact distinguishes the identity of the person, which consists in continued consciousness, from the identity of the man, which consists in the continuance of a physical body, and such physical identity is obviously an important part of our ability to recognize people. I know the Marika sitting here today is the same Marika I last saw in December not because I have access to her consciousness, but because she looks like the same Marika. And that's good enough for most purposes.

But with Psalmanazar, we've gone beyond "most purposes," for the man was of no use to Londoners in 1703: no one had seen him before, or indeed anyone like him. And this is where the importance of his Oriental identity comes into play, for Locke's most important contribution to eighteenth-century epistemology was a thoroughgoing empiricism. Ideas, said Locke, come from perception and reflection, and judgment comes from the comparison of ideas. But how are we to make any judgments about Psalmanazar's claim without empirical data, without having perceived a Formosan?

Let's start with the most obvious evidence that Psalmanazar was a liar: that a blond and fair-skinned European could pass himself off as a southeast Asian strikes us at once as absurd. But we should remember that very few Europeans had any contact with such exotic natives. Empirical evidence was lacking, and even the racial theories of Blumenbach lay nearly a century in the future. There was, of course, widespread belief that a torrid climate would produce dark-skinned inhabitants, though even on this point the experts were divided over whether the darker pigmentation was permanent or would come and go with more or less exposure to the heat of the sun. But Psalmanazar had a ready answer:

My complexion, indeed, which was very fair, appeared an unanswerable objection against me. . . . I soon hatched a lucky distinction between those whose business exposes them to the heat of the sun, and those who keep altogether at home, in cool shades, or apartments under ground, and scarce ever feel the least degree of the reigning heat.10

There's a playfulness here, a delight in spinning yarns — a subterranean race sounds like a Baron Münchausen story. As his confession makes clear, the Formosan imposture had a greater attraction than mere ease of passage: he "thought [it] afforded a vast scope to a fertile fancy to work upon, and I had no mistrust of myself on that head."11 The opportunity to exercise his fancy is clearly the real enticement, and he soon discovers he's good at it: "when any question has been started on a sudden, about matters I was ever so unprepared for, I seldom found myself at a loss for a quick answer, which, if satisfactory, I stored up in my retentive memory."13

Asian identity is an "Antipodes" to European identity: it is literally and metaphorically the other side of the world. More important, it's up for grabs, infinitely flexible. It's illuminating to watch him make arbitrary changes in Western cultural practices solely for the sake of exoticizing his imaginary world. Formosans, like all exotics, wear outlandish clothes, which he illustrates with engravings in his Description. Whereas the European languages use the second-person plural to show respect, the Formosans have a different etiquette: "in speaking to [the nobility], and even to the Emperor himself, they make use of the second Person of the singular Number."14 Some of the revisions of European norms are more curious, as when he gives the Formosan calendar ten months (twenty in the Memoirs) instead of twelve. Of course, the reckoning of twelve months in a year is not as arbitrary as the use of the second-person plural; slice it however you will, in Imperial or metric units, the moon circles the earth roughly twelve times for every time the earth circles the sun. But who can say with confidence how many months there are at the Antipodes? Without evidence, a good Lockean shouldn't presume to be sure.

The most notorious discussion of Formosan culture concerns the island's religion, to which Psalmanazar devotes many pages. He describes the old religious practices, and how they were abandoned by the people after two prophets called for a new faith. The first command from above declared that "they should make a Tabernacle, and an Altar, and upon the Altar they should Burn 20000 Hearts of young Children, under 9 Years of Age."15 Thereafter, the annual sacrifice of 18,000 boys' hearts became a central feature of the Formosan faith. The second edition of the Description goes even further, describing how the high priests — the sacrificators — divide the remains of the unfortunate youths with the congregation, who eat their raw flesh. In case description is not enough, Psalmanazar provides a number of illustrations, including one of the temple showing such gruesome appurtenances as "The Gridiron upon which the hearts of the young Children are burnt" and "The pit in which their Blood and Bodies are placed."16

This grotesque fantasy of Oriental culture is based on no real experience with Formosa — nothing but Psalmanazar's invention and his desire to be singular. Yes, we can see continuities with traditional accounts of the East, stretching back through Mandeville and Marco Polo to Herodotus, and forward to the present; lurid exoticism is a perennial component of such accounts. But what's remarkable about Psalmanazar's description is just how little he relies on tradition or other accounts: it's precisely European ignorance of Formosa that gives him a "vast scope" for a "fertile fancy." Evidence, whether genuine or traditionary, only gets in the way.

This marks an interesting episode in what we might call the prehistory of Said's Orientalism. For him, real Orientalism requires that the West have a stake in the East. Britain soon had such a stake, having established enough connections with the Near, Middle, and even Far East that a Formosan imposture of this sort could not have succeeded much later. Empirical data were plentiful, and would conspire to expose the deception. He arrived right on time, and timing, as I said, is everything. But even though this strange case lacks many of the qualities of Orientalism proper, or "mature" Orientalism, it has one of them in spades. It shows the susceptibility of the Orient to be written upon by others, a characteristic it has never entirely shaken off. For Psalmanazar takes advantage of the fact that Oriental consciousness was entirely unavailable to Europeans.

What, then, of his real identity? We are left with a cipher, both in the sense of a zero (we have nothing to work with) and in the sense of a code to be cracked. Three centuries of scholarly exertion have failed to turn up even his name; we'll never have access to his consciousness. And what of real Formosan identity? It's significant that many Londoners, early in the age of Britain's Eastward imperial push, had only Psalmanazar to show the outward signs of Oriental interiority. The inventive young man took advantage of Lockean conceptions of identity, and mapped Britons' ignorance of Asian lands onto Asian consciousness. The Eastern mind becomes its own sort of blank slate, a tabula rasa marked not by Oriental perception but Western preconception.


1. Memoirs of ****, Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; a Reputed Native of Formosa (London, 1764), p. 169.

2. Memoirs, p. 199.

3. Memoirs, pp. 117-18.

4. Memoirs, p. 218.

5. Memoirs, p. 185.

6. Memoirs, pp. 6, 8, 11, 12, 66, 219.

7. Johnsonian Miscellanies, ed. G. B. Hill, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1897), 2:12-13.

8. Edwin McCann, "Locke on Identity: Matter, Life, Consciousness," Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 69 (1987): 55-77, p. 73.

9. This has not saved some critics from perverse interpretations of Locke's text. See, for instance, Margaret Atherton, who scolds philosophers for such misreadings: "Locke's theory has generally been assumed to be offering a way of telling how one ought to go about reidentifying other people. Conceived as a practical suggestion about how to reidentify people, it has been thought to be problematic because it relies exclusively on a psychological rather than a physical criterion. . . . [But] The criterion of personal identity that Locke is establishing is not meant to solve third-person problems about whether our friends or Perkin Warbeck or the Princess Anastasia are the same when encountered today as someone encountered earlier" ("Locke's Theory of Personal Identity," Midwest Studies in Philosophy 14 [1984]: 273-93, pp. 274-75).

10. Memoirs, p. 197. Notice that most contemporary explanations of pigmentation emphasize the heat rather than the light of the sun as the darkening agent.

11. Memoirs, pp. 135-36.

12. Memoirs, p. 138.

13. Memoirs, p. 135.

14. Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa (London, 1704), p. 216.

15. Description, p. 171.

16. Description, p. 175.