The Breath of Empire: Breathing With Historical Trauma in Anglo-Chinese Relations

Nichola Khan

Research output: Book/ReportBook - authoredpeer-review


This short book develops a psychic, historical, and literary analysis of transgenerational trauma and violence in two kinds of household: the Chinese family in British Hong Kong and wider imperial Asia, and the Anglo-Chinese family in England. Across three generations, it addresses the relative neglect of women’s stories in customary Chinese readings, colonial accounts, and ancestral family records from 1800 to the present. ‘Respiratory politics’ accords urgent attention to breathing as an intimate site for analysing colonialism, its psychic erasures and violence, and migration to the heart of empire. Drawing together elements of colonial and post-war history, literary imagination, memoir, and autoethnography, the book reveals how forms of women’s erasure, subordination, and abjection emerge from corrosive forces of empire and patriarchy interacting with the straitened times of war, and how they return across generations. It links the body as a dwelling for assaults on the ability to breathe—through tuberculosis, opium smoking, asthma, and panic—with the physical home that is assaulted in turn by bombs, killing, intimate betrayals, and fatal respiratory illness. The COVID “pandemic of breathlessness” serves as mnemonic for state repression, and for the reprisal of historical fears around suffocation and dying across transgenerational and trans-Eurasian contexts.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages100
ISBN (Electronic)9783031176906
ISBN (Print)9783031176890
Publication statusPublished - 20 Nov 2022

Publication series

NameStudies in Literary Anthropology
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan

Bibliographical note



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