Death to Chinese language teachers

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In "Character amnesia in 1793-1794" (4/24/14), I described the so-called Flint Affair, which refers to James Flint (?1720-?), one of the first English persons to learn Chinese.  For his audacity, Flint was imprisoned for three years by the imperial government, and two Chinese merchants who helped him write a petition to the emperor were executed.

…James Flint, a former employee and the only one fluent in Chinese in the Canton Factory* of the East India Company, who ventured northward by sea to send a petition against Chinese custom officials in Canton to the Qian Long Emperor in Beijing, ignoring the regulation of communications through Chinese Hong** merchants. The Qing court punished the corrupted Chinese officials as well as James Flint who violated the regulation. However, they put the blame on Flint’s Chinese teacher Liu Yabian 刘亚扁 for triggering the tension by teaching Flint, ‘a foreign barbarian’, Chinese to make money, and further, for helping Flint to pen his petition in Chinese. Liu Yabian was then executed in public to warn others, and a new law 防范 外夷规条 [Precaution Regulations Against Foreign Barbarians], was enacted in 1759 to further restrain foreigners in China (Guo 1947: 381).


Source:  note 2 from p. 300 of Huiling Yang (2014), "The Making of the First Chinese-English Dictionary: Robert Morrison’s Dictionary of the Chinese Language in Three Parts (1815–1823)", Historiographia Linguistica 41.2-3: 299 –322

*Factory:  "A factory (from Latin facere, meaning "to do"; Portuguese feitoria, Dutch factorij, French factorerie) was an establishment for factors or merchants carrying on business in foreign lands."  From Wikipedia.

**Hong:  "The Hongs (Chinese: ) were major business houses in Canton (now known as Guangzhou), China and later Hong Kong with significant influence on patterns of consumerism, trade, manufacturing and other key areas of the economy."  From Wikipedia.

The repercussions of the Flint Affair were still very much in evidence when Robert Morrison, the great Anglo-Scottish missionary who would go on to write his magisterial A Dictionary of the Chinese Language, in Three Parts … (1815-1823) (brand new Wikipedia article), arrived in China in the early 19th century:

Robert Morrison (1782–1834) was a missionary, dispatched by the London Missionary Society (LMS) to China with a vision of translating the Bible into a language which was spoken by one-third of the population of the world, but was reputedly so difficult that it was feared that no British subject would ever acquire sufficient Chinese to translate the Bible (E. Morrison 1839:I, 65–69). Robert Morrison prepared for his mission by studying Chinese, but also medicine and astronomy — “which, it was hoped, might be useful to him in his mission”, as they had been to early Jesuit missionaries in China — in London (E. Morrison 1839: I, 76–78). In 1807, after Morrison had arrived at Canton via the United States, he discovered that the Chinese Qing government had prohibited Chinese people from helping foreigners to learn Chinese, and had even sanctioned capital punishment as a penalty for the Chinese who violated this regulation (Guo 1947: 381).2 Foreigners, other than businessmen associated with Chinese Hong merchants, were not allowed to reside in China beyond the trading season. This new policy against the learning of Chinese by foreigners was introduced to pose language barriers to foreigners in China, at a time when the British East India Company was increasing its Chinese trade and thereby coming into conflict with the local Chinese government and the Canton trade system.


Source:  p. 300 of Huiling Yang (2014).

Now the situation regarding Chinese language teaching seems to be quite the opposite, with the Chinese government aggressively pushing its controversial Confucius Institutes to spread the teaching of Mandarin throughout the world.

[h.t. Michael Carr]

(Update: Here is a PDF of a letter from Morrison's memoirs.)


  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 1, 2016 @ 9:19 pm

    From a colleague:

    Killing the translator/interpreter is like killing the messenger, hardcore xenophobia.

  2. Stephan Stiller said,

    May 2, 2016 @ 1:22 am

    Hong is an interesting word to me because it – like Taipan – is little-known by either expats in China/HK or present-day Chinese in China/HK, but nonetheless lives on in (how shall we call it?) the "journalistic literature for curious foreigners". Maybe we can refer to these as "colonial loanwords" or "colonial Chinglish".

  3. Sarah Aberman said,

    May 2, 2016 @ 4:26 am

    Wow, thanks for the article Victor! Interesting to know that there was a period where initiatives learning Chinese by foreigners were completely frowned upon (or worse). When Mateo di Ricci and the like started learning Chinese a few centuries before, they didn't get that kind of reaction, did they? I'm assuming the Ming were more open to that than the Qing?

  4. shubert said,

    May 2, 2016 @ 7:04 am

    Morrison and a Chinese artist

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2016 @ 8:27 am

    From a Ming historian:

    I don't recollect any instances of persons being punished for teaching or learning the Chinese language during the Ming. But it would perhaps be better to ask someone versed in the European Jesuits, etc. and their relations with the Ming.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2016 @ 9:29 am

    From Nicolas Standaert, a specialist on Jesuit history in China:

    I do not know of such cases. In the 17-18th centuries, Europeans were obliged to learn Chinese/Manchu, as there were no Chinese (with very few exceptions in the later period, mainly in priestly formation) learning European languages. This in contradistinction with what happened in Japan, where more Japanese learned Portuguese.

  7. Tim Brook said,

    May 2, 2016 @ 10:52 am

    The issue, it seems to me, is state security rather than a more generalized xenophobia. Flint and Morrison were regarded as representatives of a foreign state engaging in acts unbecoming within Qing diplomatic protocol. The Wanli and Chongzhen courts were certainly suspicious of Portugal and Holland, to the extent they could identify these states, particularly the Portuguese because they were in cahoots with Chinese in Macao. This is again the state-security mindset at work. But the scale of threat was perceived to be relatively low. I suspect it was also assumed that the most any merchant would learn would be pidgin Chinese, which could not generate offensive documents. As Nicolas notes, the learned of serious Chinese were all priests, and they were living inside the realm where command of the language was essential, and indeed expected.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2016 @ 12:54 pm

    From D. E. Mungello:

    This is an interesting story, but it has to be viewed in its historical context. First of all, the date of this Flint Affair is unclear. Guo 1947:381 is cited to claim that the Chinese teacher Liu Yabian 劉亞扁 was executed because he had taught Flint Chinese and consequently a new law 防范外夷規條 was passed in 1759 to restrain foreigners in China. The dating would imply that James Flint (?1720-?) was arrested and imprisoned prior to 1759. One wonders if Flint was a very untactful man who knew some Chinese but who had no understanding of Chinese culture or diplomacy?

    If we compare James Flint to the Catholic missionaries who had first entered China in 1580 and who were there at the time of the Flint Affair, we find in the missionaries foreigners who were forced to learn Chinese in order to achieve permission to reside in China. Beijing commonly demanded that missionaries be given that permission only if they vowed to remain in China permanently. It is unlikely that an employee of the East India Company in Canton ca. 1750 would have made such a vow. The work of the missionaries usually had very little to do with commerce. So their activities were hardly comparable to what Flint did.

    Finally, the atmosphere toward the missionaries did not turn really hostile until after the death of the Kangxi emperor in 1716, so the divide was not simply between the Ming and the Qing. The Kangxi emperor’s hostility to missionaries was directed quite explicitly at missionaries like Charles Maigrot de Crissey, M.E.P. In an audience with Maigrot on August 2nd 1706 at the imperial palace in Rehe, the Kangxi emperor condemned him for his inability to read Chinese and his lack of knowledge of important Chinese texts dealing with religion. This incident in 1706 seems very far removed from the Flint Affair which seems to have occurred less than fifty years later. It seems that what happened in the Flint Affair is less about a Chinese prohibition on learning Chinese than about the Chinese reactions to exploitive foreigners who were more interested in making money from China than in learning about its culture and manners.

    Anyway, you asked for my reaction to the Flint Affair and now you have it.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2016 @ 1:10 pm

    From Richard Smith:

    My general impression is that in China, throughout imperial times, security was always the number one priority, and it dictated language-related official policies. In the Ming and Qing periods there was, as far as I know, no general prohibition against “outsiders” learning Chinese. Prohibitions of the sort surrounding the Flint affair were invariably (I believe) local and usually temporary (although in the case of the Guangzhou “factory” system they could be quite longstanding). The interesting thing about the Manchus was, in fact, their extraordinary multi-lingualism (part of their general multiculturalism as I have tried to argue in my new book on the Qing). As Nick Standaert points out, Catholic missionaries freely learned Chinese and Manchu—and not simply in Beijing.

  10. peter C. Perdue said,

    May 2, 2016 @ 5:15 pm

    I'll just add a few mao here to the discussion. As Tim says, state security was the primary consideration, not general xenophobia. The Flint affair occurred after the Rites controversy, in which the Catholic Church rejected the accomodative practices of the Jesuits, insisting that Christian converts must reject ancestral rituals. This gave the Qing court the clear impression that foreigners were "interfering in domestic affairs." 干涉内事
    Also, Flint's timing was bad, since the Qianlong emperor was just completing the Zunghar campaigns in the northwest, so he was highly conscious of security threats on the borders.
    British and Chinese merchants communicated quite adequately through pidgin languages on the south coast; Russian priests in Beijing continued to study Chinese, founding the russian Sinology school in the 18th century; and Manchus of course conversed with Mongols, Chinese, Tibetans, etc. Qianlong was quite proud of his own linguistic ability, whether or not it was real.

  11. peter C. Perdue said,

    May 2, 2016 @ 5:20 pm

    PS As for "Chinese" [which should mean Qing, i.e. manchus, etc] learning "European" languages, we should include Tulishen, the Manchu envoy who traveled across Mongolia to the Volga river in 1712 – 1715 to meet Ayuki Khan, and on the way contacted Mongols and Russians, writing his famous travel account Lakcaha Jecen de Takūraha babe ejehe bithe [A Book describing the embassy to distant territories]. He probably did not learn a lot of Russian, but he picked up a lot of information about Central Asia from local informants. His account was translated into Chinese, French, German, and Russian, a very popular text.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    May 2, 2016 @ 5:47 pm

    From a Qing historian:

    I am personally not aware of any Ming or Qing law prohibiting the teaching of Chinese to foreigners.

  13. Chris C. said,

    May 2, 2016 @ 7:15 pm

    For several years I played an American-hosted and localized, but Korean-developed, MMORPG which had implemented a rather aggressive chat filter against offensive and obscene language. As an example of its aggression, when they released a series of storylines based on Shakespeare plays, players found themselves unable to say the name of one of the main characters from the "Merchant of Venice" based storyline. I can't say I've ever heard "Shylock" uttered as a sincere antisemitic slur by anyone in my lifetime, but asterisks don't lie.

    For some reason, "Hong" is among the filtered words, leaving a friend of mine resident in Canada but native to Hong Kong unable to say the name of his home city in chat. I've frankly never heard this word used as a slur either.

    Is there a context where it's a slur? And why?

  14. Brett said,

    May 2, 2016 @ 9:44 pm

    @Chris C.: "Shylock" still exists as a mildly pejorative term for a load shark, though I doubt that was why it was censored.

  15. K. Chang said,

    May 5, 2016 @ 11:11 am

    Early Ming was very inclusive including the Zheng He expeditions, and obviously they have to have envoys and translators to talk to all the local leaders to demand tribute. I think the xenophobia started in mid- to late- Ming dynasty and onto the Qing dynasty.

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