Character amnesia in 1793-1794

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The first British envoy to China was George Macartney; his mission is referred to in the historical literature as the Macartney Embassy.  The basic purpose of the embassy was to open up trade between Great Britain and China, which theretofore has been greatly restricted in various ways by the Chinese authorities.

Naturally, Macartney would have needed translation assistance to communicate with Chinese officials.  However, due to some peculiar circumstances that will be related below, translators were not easy to come by, as is detailed in this passage from the Wikipedia article on the Macartney Embassy:

As a result of the tribulations of East India Company supercargo and translator James Flint in the 1750s at the hands of the Chinese [VHM:  the so-called Flint Affair, which will be described briefly below], the East India Company, the only quasi-official British government presence in China, had become hostile to the idea of training its employees as Chinese interpreters and were unable to provide Macartney with assistance. Instead, the embassy employed two Chinese students from the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith in Naples who were tasked with teaching Chinese to Thomas Staunton, 12-year-old son of mission secretary Sir George Leonard Staunton and John Barrow, later Sir John Barrow, 1st Baronet.[3] Although the delegation had access to missionary interpreters in Beijing, as non-embassy members they were not permitted to attend the audience with the Emperor leaving Macartney with a child and a student of Chinese as his sole interpreters. Furthermore, memories of the execution of James Flint's scribes meant that no Chinese scholar-official dared to translate Macartney's speech. Instead, his words were translated into Latin then transcribed into conversational Chinese and finally rewritten in accordance with official protocol with the draft destroyed to protect the scribe.[3]

What a strange and convoluted method for transmuting Macartney's words from English into written Chinese!  The historical background for this procedure lay in the Flint Affair referred to at the beginning of the passage quoted above.

James Flint (?1720-?), one of the first English persons to learn Chinese, was an 18th-century British merchant and diplomat employed by the East India Company.  The British chafed at being restricted to dealing only through Cantonese merchants and officials.  They wished to expand their mercantile contacts through ports further north, such as Ningbo in Zhejiang.  The Cantonese were strongly opposed to this, since it meant that they would lose a large portion of their income (including graft and extortion as well as profits from commercial transactions).  Flint decided that he was going to submit a petition directly to the Qianlong Emperor in order to break through the impasse.  With the help of Chinese merchants from Sichuan and Ningbo, he did exactly that, causing an enormous furor.  It was unthinkable that a foreign barbarian would dare to submit a request directly to the emperor.  Consequently, Flint himself was imprisoned for three years, and the two Chinese merchants who helped him write the petition to the emperor were executed.  After that, Chinese were very reluctant to help foreigners write documents for submission to the government.

A side note is that, after he returned from China, Flint introduced the soya bean to North America.  An associate of Flint from the East India Company named Samuel Bowen obtained land in Georgia on which he planted soya beans, from which he produced soy sauce and soy vermicelli.  Even more noteworthy is that Flint corresponded with Benjamin Franklin about how to make tofu from soya beans.  This is considered to be the first use of the word "towfu" in English.

Turning to the matter of character amnesia in the late 18th century, the following selection from An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China (1797), by the Macartney Embassy secretary, George Staunton, father of the boy interpreter, Thomas Staunton, who accompanied the embassy, is revealing.

The passage occurs on pp. 309-313, following a description of the kowtow. (Transcribed by Brendan O'Kane from Google Books; Brendan offers apologies for any non-historically accurate typos.)

Upon this delicate occasion, his Excellency [VHM:  i.e., George Macartney]
determined to try every method in his power, to gratify the supposed wishes of the Emperor, in this respect, as far as it was possible so to do, without failing in duty towards his own sovereign. He did not, therefore, propose to avoid complying with the ceremony of prostration; but offered to go thro the whole, on a condition which did not render it less personally respectful to the Emperor; yet took away the principal objection that lay to it as an act of homage or dependence in his representative character. The condition, which he offered, was, that a subject of his Imperial Majesty, of rank equal to his own, should perform, before the picture he had with him of his Majesty [VHM:  King George III], dressed in his robes of state, the same ceremonies that the Embassador should be directed to do before the Chinese throne. It was of importance that this proposal should be given in writing, and translated into Chinese accurately, lest it should fail of its effect thro any misrepresentation or mistake. The interpreter of the Embassy, tho a native of China, was utterly unacquainted with the style necessary for the palace; and in writing Latin and Italian, for the many years he had lived at Naples, he had lost the habit of writing the complicated Chinese characters, of which there are not fewer than
eighty thousand. Even the European missionaries at Pekin, in the employment of the court, tho they understand the language, seldom attempt to write, at least any official paper, for doing which they employ a native bred to letters, to whom they signify the purport of what they want to have properly communicated. The Legate, who aimed at obtaining nothing less than an unconditional compliance with his proposition, was disinclined to receive any stipulation in writing from the Embassador, and would offer, or willingly allow of, no assistance for such a purpose. This difficulty might however be surmounted thro the means of the European missionaries. His Excellency therefore urged for permission to be given that these should be allowed to visit him, which he knew they were well inclined to do. It was obvious, how necessary it became that some of them should aid his own interpreter, who sometimes suffered by ill health, to explain for the several gentlemen and others belonging to the Embassy, in the common occurrences of life. Among those missionaries it was likely, in consequence of the recommendatory letters brought to them from their superiors and friends in Italy in favour of the Embassy, that some could be found who would ven-
ture to procure a faithful translation of necessary papers; and perhaps also be able to supply much useful information. After many applications on the part of the Embassador, several of those Europeans were introduced to his Excellency; but in a formal and cautious manner, in presence of the Legate, and having at their head the Portugueze jesuit, described in the Pekin missionary's letter. This person seemed to feel the importance, which the spiritual character sometimes inspires, increased by his late accession to the dignity of a blue button, which rendered him superior to his colleagues, who only had white ones. He was little qualified, however, to be an interpreter to a British minister, as he neither understood the English language, nor that which is the most generally spoken in modern Europe; but in his conversation with some of his companions, he sufficiently betrayed the adverse temper of his mind, while the missionaries from other countries gave as evident signs of good will, and of zeal for the welfare of the Embassy. Even in the desire, which this meeting afforded an opportunity of expressing, that the Embassy might remove to Pekin, where preparations might be made with more convenience, than at Hoong-ya-yuen, for the journey to Zhe-hol, he en-
-couraged the Legate in resisting this request, against the united voice of the other Europeans. In the only other interview which the Embassador could have with this Portugueze, his Excellency endeavoured to reconcile him to the interest of the British nation. He changed, indeed, his tone, and gave assurance of his service, as did for him some very worthy persons of his country; but his Excellency's own interpreter was afterwards preferred by the Chinese, as his method of speaking the language, being a native, was more agreeable to them than the foreign accent of the missionary.

Rendering one language into another is never an easy task, but when there are serious political and cultural obstacles standing in the way, it becomes an even more daunting challenge.  And, when the target language is one that is as difficult as written Chinese, it is sometimes necessary to resort to extraordinary means to get the job done passably well.


  1. Rubrick said,

    April 24, 2014 @ 10:58 pm

    The tofu side note is fascinating (and makes me miss James Burke's Connections columns in Scientific American).

  2. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 6:05 am

    A question which I have been wondering about for a while is how comprehensible everyday Literary Sinitic documents were to the Chinese themselves. My understanding is that an imperial edict which was distributed over the country would be translated into the local vernacular (not necessarily in writing but orally) at the target site by someone knowledgeable. Is this correct? I am curious about the details of such a process. What difficulties were there? What content was hard to translate into LS? Did it occur that content was lost or misunderstood at the target sites?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 6:17 am

    @Stephan Stiller:

    Many of the answers may be found here:

    Victor Mair, "Language and Ideology in the Sacred Edict," in Andrew J. Nathan David G. Johnson, Evelyn Sakakida Rawski, eds.,, Popular Culture in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, [1])

    The Wikipedia article seems to draw heavily on mine (I'm fine with that):

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 6:43 am

    ". . . who were tasked with teaching Chinese to Thomas Staunton, 12-year-old son of mission secretary Sir George Leonard Staunton and John Barrow, later Sir John Barrow, 1st Baronet."

    Had to read that three times to figure out that Tom wasn't the son of George and John. Someone needs to add a comma to that Wikipedia page. As the Facebook meme has it, a comma is the difference between "Let's eat, Grandma" and "Let's eat Grandma."

  5. Matt Anderson said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 9:07 am

    That's fascinating! The full text of Flint's letter to Franklin, a subsequent letter from Franklin to John Bartram, and a recipe from Bartram's Commonplace Book can be found here, if anyone else is interested. In the interest of bringing this comment back to the topic of orthography, it's interesting to me that, in the three documents presented (assuming they are transcribed correctly), tofu is spelled three different ways, from Flint's "Towfu" to Franklin's "Tau-fu" to Bartram's "Teu-fu" (though he also uses "Tau-fu").

  6. Victor Mair said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 9:27 am

    @Matt Anderson

    Thank you for your great contribution.

    Bartram is a very big name in Philadelphia when it comes to plants.

    The oldest surviving botanical garden in North America.


    John Bartram (March 23, 1699 – September 22, 1777) was an early American botanist, horticulturist and explorer. Carolus Linnaeus said he was the "greatest natural botanist in the world."[2]

    I get a thrill reading that remark of Linnaeus, since he is a giant in my eyes. I have spent much time in his gardens in Sweden, and ran along the trails outside of Uppsala that he walked on daily. Now, being close to Bartram's Garden, I experience an affinity with these two larger than life 18th-century botanical geniuses.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 10:35 am

    Is character amnesia a "highly erotic experience"? That would certainly tend to increase its popularity. :-)

  8. julie lee said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

    Victor Mair's post is fascinating in many details. I have learned more from reading accounts and memoirs written by foreigners about the details of life in China in those days than from Chinese texts. There was a brouhaha on the British side over the fact that Chinese protocol required Lord McCartney to prostrate himself before the Chinese sovereign, but a Chinese person would never think prostration before the emperor (or ruling empress) at an audience noteworthy because it was simply a famiiar part of Chinese culture.

  9. julie lee said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 1:42 pm

    I believe the blue button and the white button that signified rank went to the top of the skull-cap worn by men in those days, and that the color showed which level of the civil-service exam you had passed, whether you were, so to speak, a bachelor's, a master's, or a doctoral-degree holder.

  10. Chris C. said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 5:04 pm

    In one of those coincidences that happen from time to time, the current issue of Archaeology (the magazine) has an article on Bartram's Garden. As a very rare piece of urban real estate that has never been significantly developed, it's of high archaeological importance not just for Bartram's lifetime and later, but for the prehistory of the area.

    In the same issue is a piece on Chinatowns in the US.

  11. Stephan Stiller said,

    April 25, 2014 @ 10:03 pm

    I find it quite interesting how vague the Kangxi edict is. (I mean the 16 maxims, not the Amplified Instructions thereto.)

    Early written language seemed to exist for ritualistic purposes, perhaps as a memory aid. Yet, 3000 years later, the practice of writing and distributing such an edict in LS (Classical Chinese) is still a mere ritual, for it by itself was incomprehensible to the common masses.

  12. Andrew said,

    April 26, 2014 @ 10:43 am

    Should "therefore has been" in the first paragraph read "theretofore had been"?

  13. Andrew said,

    April 26, 2014 @ 10:45 am

    Sorry, I'm a dunce. It does already say "theretofore". But I think "has" is a typo :)

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