The Education of Gideon Chase

Paul Edwards

  • An Insular Possession by Timothy Mo
    Chatto, 593 pp, £9.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 7011 3078 4
  • The Story of Zahra by Hanan al-Shaykh
    Quartet, 184 pp, £8.95, April 1986, ISBN 0 7043 2546 2
  • The Lightning of August by Jorge Ibarguengoitia
    Chatto, 117 pp, £8.95, May 1986, ISBN 0 7011 3950 1

‘Mastah Eastman just now come chop-chop say you plomise give him sketch-y lesson, you no lemember bime-by?’ It is shocking to find such dialogue – so squarely within the racist convention of the comic ‘Chinaman’ – seven pages into Timothy Mo’s novel about the first Opium War. Is this shameful convention, with its ‘all rightees’ and ‘yes Missees’, being endorsed as mimetically accurate by a writer at home in both English and Chinese cultures? If he does endorse it, he does so only to the extent of using it to show how small the point of contact between two cultures can be. Mo’s hero compares language to a delta; and just as the Western traders in the 1830s had access to China only through one part of the treacherous Pearl River delta and through the precarious stockade of ‘Factories’ at Canton, so linguistic contact also was straitened and treacherous. The pidgin that defined for popular consumption an image of the Chinese (along with opium dens and tong gangs) has its origin, Mo shows us, in purely commercial exchanges, where it functions as an adequate bridge between cultures so long as it carries only commercial traffic: ‘ “Half-um?” he says witheringly. “Half-um? Me tink-ee mak-ee half-um silver dollar can buy all-um duck market hab got Canton-side.” ’ (This time it is the American Eastman talking.) For any other form of cultural exchange it is worse than useless – ‘ridiculous nonsense’, as Mo reassuringly calls it later in the novel. The word ‘pidgin’, he might have added, is simply a Chinese corruption of the word ‘business’. Pidgin English is business English, purely instrumental in origin.

Such straitened exchange was all the Mandarins would allow in the 1830s. Europeans were forbidden to learn Chinese, and the only channels of communication were authorised Chinese merchants. But commerce was, in fact, all the West wanted: the commercial ethics of the Free-Traders (equivalent in inscrutability and hypocrisy to any Chinese secret society) required nothing qualitatively different from this when they demanded that China should be ‘opened’ to the West. The sinister Fu Manchu dope-den stereotype is one of several cultural spin-offs of the trade cycle described in An Insular Possession: cotton produced by slaves in the Caribbean goes to Manchester, is turned to cloth by wage-slaves, sent to India and exchanged there for opium which is sent to China as the only ‘commodity’ at least some Chinese are prepared to exchange (illicitly) for the silver bullion that China demands in payment for the tea that British traders send to Britain for a further increment of profit when it is sold to flavour the cheering cup that dulls the misery of Manchester’s factory hands.

To open China to such trade was the purpose of the Opium War, as was the resulting settlement and secession of Hong Kong – the ‘insular possession’ of the novel’s title. A progressive ‘dialectical’ history might want to trace as an unintended consequence of this opening a simultaneous cultural exchange, and up to a point Mo’s story can be read as such an account. His hero, Gideon Chase, begins as a raw 17-year-old, an all-American boy, and having been secretly educated in Chinese language and scholarship, interprets for the British during the war, and then takes his knowledge to Boston, where he joins the Transcendentalists. He finishes life loaded with honours as one of the principal intermediaries between Chinese and Western thought. The interdependence of cultural and material processes is illustrated in the novel by an emblematic expedition inland to Canton by a route through the delta (the Broadway or Inner passage) hitherto closed to Westerners. But ‘cultural and material processes’ is too leaden a term to encumber this incident with: Mo’s descriptions are superbly vivid, and the expedition is as gripping as a Boy’s Own Paper adventure. The paddle-steamer Nemesis, a commercial vessel temporarily seconded to the Royal Navy, clears the channel, knocking out shore batteries and scattering opposition with rockets. At the bow sits the world’s first modern war correspondent, doughtily failing to capture the action on daguerrotype, while at his side an artist exploits his licence to sketch the scene as it would appear from land. Under the command of the British Plenipotentiary, Captain Charles Elliot, who defers to the advice of Chase, his interpreter, the expedition succeeds in its aim without alienating the Chinese populace.

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