The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire 
by Henrietta Harrison.
Princeton, 341 pp., £25, January, 978 0 691 22545 6
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In​ 1793 George Macartney, the former governor of Madras, arrived in Beijing as the envoy of George III. Nobody in Beijing knew why he was there. He assumed that his commission from William Pitt made him an ambassador, and that his mission was to negotiate new trade relations between Britain and the Qing empire. Like many in Britain he believed that the ‘Canton System’ was designed to restrict the scope of British trade at Guangzhou and thereby obstruct British access to the China market. Macartney hoped to persuade the Qing to reconstruct their trade practices entirely, as well as their ways of communicating with foreign states. He failed on both counts, and returned home with nothing more than a letter from the Qianlong emperor, translated to English, filled with grandiose stylings: ‘Our dynasty’s majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.’

Today the fiasco of 1793 is the postulate for an elaborate paradigm that is supposed to explain China’s decline in power in the 19th century. In this paradigm, empires based in China had for millennia seen themselves as being at the centre of a ‘Chinese world order’. They adhered inflexibly to debasing rituals, such as prostration and beating the head on the ground, to assert their dominance over other societies, and refused or severely restricted trade. When the ballooning quantity of tea imported from China caused a trade imbalance for Britain in the later 18th century, the British turned to selling Indian opium to the Chinese. This led to the Opium War of 1839-42, which in turn produced a series of unequal treaties that inhibited Chinese development for almost a century. But the paradigm is problematic: it isn’t only ahistorical but, as Henrietta Harrison suggests in The Perils of Interpreting, it focuses on the wrong people. Her account supplements the existing European language scholarship on the Macartney saga by John Cranmer-Byng, Alain Peyrefitte, James Hevia, John Watt and others, redirecting our attention to those who did the real work of communicating.

The Chinese world order (or ‘tributary system’) that Macartney sought to challenge is mostly imaginary. Empires in China had long used ‘guest ritual’ to introduce persons into the presence of the emperor. Such rituals, which in China and elsewhere included prostration, had once been common across Eurasia and were still performed in many religious contexts in Macartney’s time. But as a political gesture it continued almost exclusively outside Europe. Imperial courts in China expected some foreign sovereigns to send envoys who performed the guest ritual, though absolute conformity was not required. The Tokugawa shoguns of Japan, for instance, wrote to say they would break with the past by no longer sending envoys or tribute. Others wrote ahead to advise the court in China what gifts their envoys would be expecting. The Romanovs tried guest ritual once and didn’t like it; they later switched to negotiated treaties between equal sovereigns. Most important, being on the guest ritual list determined nothing about the relations between foreign rulers and the Qianlong emperor: they could be invariably friendly, as they were with Ryukyu (modern Okinawa, more or less); or coercive, as with Korea; or by turns attentive or indifferent, as with Vietnam; or bellicose, as in the cases of Nepal and Burma (each of which informed the Qing court they would send envoys but no tribute). There was a ritual, and some societies had a long history of performing it. There was no ‘Chinese world order’ or ‘tributary system’.

The so-called Canton System was equally mythical. Apart from some anomalous and very brief periods, the kingdoms and empires ruling China had always been fully engaged in trade, by land and by sea. In Macartney’s own time, China had become the world’s wealthiest society and the greatest influence on global trade. The value of goods produced by Britain, France, the German states, the Netherlands and Italy together barely equalled half the value of what China produced, and the United States was still a blip in the world trade league. In the Qing period, China exported and imported on a scale unrivalled not just by any of its contemporaries – the Qing empire accounted for a third of global GDP – but also by the People’s Republic today.

China didn’t get itself into this position by rejecting foreign products. When the Qianlong emperor wrote ‘we possess all things,’ he may have meant that long before Macartney arrived, the Qing emperors, aristocracy and the Chinese elites had already acquired the European goods they wanted: pocket watches, muskets, spectacles, magnifying glasses, telescopes, mechanical models of the solar system, harpsichords, clavichords, textbooks in mathematics and anatomy, snuff with its boxes. Earlier European visitors to Beijing had written that the palaces of the Forbidden City were crammed full of such things (including some four thousand standing clocks). The imperial family sent its personal shoppers to Guangzhou to sort through the boats before the items were unloaded and shown to brokers. In 1793, as Macartney was on his way to China, the Qianlong emperor personally spent 100,000 ounces of silver – his biggest splurge – on items from Europe. Across the Qing trade network, timber, horses, furs, ginseng, ivory, cobalt, cotton, lacquered goods, fruits and scrap metal were all among the goods China routinely imported. But there was no negotiating the fact that China was the world’s greatest manufacturer and exporter, and no country could sell to China more than it bought.

Imported goods entered China through a number of entrepôts, both on the coast and at the interior borders of the empire; Guangzhou was only part of the network. At each place, foreign products were taxed and the income sent directly to the emperor. Though regulations varied from port to port, the aims were similar everywhere: officials were tasked with suppressing piracy and smuggling, minimising corruption, and ensuring the continued flow of revenue to the emperor. Foreign traders were assigned specific ports: because Europeans arrived by the South China Sea they were allotted to Guangzhou, where Britain controlled over three-quarters of the trade.

So, if there was no Chinese world order, and no system to impede legal British trade, and prostration was no more than a negotiable matter of ritual, what was Macartney actually doing in China? As Harrison shows, just about everyone – the emperor, the emperor’s advisers, the aged Portuguese and French Jesuits looking on, Macartney himself – wondered that at one point or another.

Pitt was concerned about the drain of silver from Britain to China. Though British private wealth and government revenue were all rising on the China trade, ‘bullionists’ argued that a trade imbalance with China put Britain at risk. At the suggestion of his home secretary – and president of the Board of Control – Henry Dundas, Pitt decided to send Macartney (who had some diplomatic distinction, apparently because Catherine the Great found him fetching) as an ‘ambassador extraordinary’ to China. Dundas wanted more direct access to the China market; some kind of territory for wintering, repairs and resupply; and that the Qianlong emperor accept him as a permanent ambassador.

Harrison narrates the ensuing comedy of errors by rotating between British and Chinese actors. Long before Macartney arrived in China, the East India Company had informed Qing officials that an envoy was coming to celebrate the Qianlong emperor’s 82nd birthday. On arrival, Macartney was alarmed when Qing officials attempted to educate him in guest ritual. Even before leaving England he had been mocked in the press as the kind of ingratiating milksop who would humiliate his country by grovelling before the emperor. Once prostration had been broached, Macartney seemed to fear that every encounter would entail a demand that he and his entourage fling themselves to the ground. The evidence strongly suggests, though without complete proof, that when the emperor realised Macartney had not arrived to offer ritual obsequies, but was a person of some standing (which Macartney attempted to manifest with his Order of the Bath cape), he modified the rules of etiquette to allow Macartney to bend a knee – or two. As he noted later in his letter to George III, ‘it has never been our dynasty’s wish to force people to do things unseemly and inconvenient.’ Nevertheless, Macartney’s obsession with prostration did not subside, and on his return to Britain the press went on a shaming spree, insinuating he had done the hated deed.

The emperor, for his part, brooded on the meaning of Macartney’s arriving with a fleet of warships. He was puzzled by the British attempt to plant an uninvited ambassador in Beijing and also by the proposal that the empire should abandon coastal law enforcement and sacrifice the emperor’s own income in order to make trade more convenient and profitable for the British. In a long response, he detailed why he was refusing Macartney’s demands. He pointed out that British trade issues were handled at Guangzhou, far from Beijing, and so a permanent British official in the capital would be pointless. In addition, he explained that he could not keep the peace and suppress crime if he permitted unfettered trade and allowed foreigners free run of the Chinese countryside. Macartney’s group was carted back to Guangzhou, edicts in hand, to meet their ships and go home. Once they had departed, the emperor ordered that all trade officials in Guangzhou should conform strictly to the regulations so the British would have no grounds for lawsuits. And he strengthened coastal defences, particularly at places in which the British had evinced a persistent and troubling interest.

Otherwise, the emperor expected things to go on as they had, and they did. Britain continued to profit from the China trade, both legal and illegal, and in fact increased its share. China remained the world’s greatest exporter. Macartney survived his public hazing and was made an earl. British scholars who had accompanied Macartney, among them Joseph Banks and John Barrow, published huge amounts of information on China’s flora, fauna, agriculture, music, language and customs. The memoirs of the entourage introduced the word that would become ‘kowtow’ to the English language. Nobody thought Britain and China had been put on a path to war, or that irreconcilable differences between the two had been exposed. That came later.

Historians have fastened their attention on the letters that passed from George III to the Qianlong emperor and back again. But, as Harrison shows, written texts are not so fixed as one might assume. Neither the Chinese nor the British officials read the originals of the messages from the other side; they were content to receive translations (and the British were willing to accept a translation rendered from a recitation of the text). In such circumstances, Harrison emphasises, meanings become elusive. More than king, emperor or ambassador, the translators decided the substance of the exchange. Historians have tended to attribute meaning to the speakers and not to their humble interpreters. But the evidence shows that it was the intermediaries – ambassadors, negotiators, translators – who delivered the meanings. The important people in this process were those in between.

Harrison’s view of this betweenness is expansive. She invokes the long history of Jesuits as interpreters in China, the compradores of Guangzhou as interpreters for the British merchants, and Protestant missionaries as new interpreters after Macartney. In many instances, the interpreter was the person blamed when things went wrong. Chinese interpreters who helped British merchants pursue lawsuits were executed if the judge ruled against them. Guangzhou compradores implicated in the suspected crimes – from sharp dealing to opium smuggling – of their British clients were at risk of prosecution themselves. Helping foreigners offend custom or break the law could be lucrative, or it could result in gruesome death. The boldness of Macartney’s intrusion and the danger of angering the emperor must have made interpreting for him particularly nerve-wracking. By diplomatic convention, Macartney wanted his own interpreter, not one provided by the Qing court, but he found nobody in Britain who knew any Chinese. His friend and secretary George Leonard Staunton had heard of four Chinese Jesuits in Naples who wanted a ride home, so he arranged for them to join the Macartney entourage. Harrison provides a biography of the most important of them, Li Zibiao, from his childhood in rugged north-western China to Naples and then Beijing. Li was most comfortable translating formal Chinese into Latin, but with Macartney he spoke Italian, the one vernacular the two men had in common.

When the expedition reached Macao, three of the Chinese Jesuits departed. Li travelled with the group to Beijing, and then on to the imperial retreat at Chengde, where they eventually had their audience with the emperor. To signal his relationship to Macartney, Li got into a powdered wig and leg hose to interpret, risking what he knew would be the suspicion of the Qing court. Translations of the letters from the Qianlong emperor to George III, and perhaps part of the letter from George to the Qianlong emperor, must have been largely Li’s work. As Harrison shows, it was Li who added a request to legalise Christianity into Macartney’s petition to the emperor (which caused Macartney some befuddlement when the emperor rejected it). And it was Li who inserted the reference to a mythical ‘Tributary Country Department’ into the translated edict, inspiring two centuries of daydreams about a ‘tributary system’. When Macartney departed, Li left for the Chinese countryside. He eventually settled in Shanxi province and built a tiny chapel that survives today. Because proselytising was forbidden by the Qing government, Li lived in anxiety and seclusion until his death in 1838, the year before the Opium War started. In internal exile, Li was living the patent life of the interpreter: denaturalised in his native culture, never assimilated by another.

Harrison’s​ recovery of Li Zibiao is complemented by her revisiting of the better-known linguist of the expedition, George Thomas Staunton, who was reported to be gifted with languages. His father took him on the expedition to China with the idea that he would, aged eleven, learn enough Chinese aboard ship to act as Macartney’s interpreter. He learned enough to impress the emperor, who gave him a small purse from his own belt, much to the amazement and resentment of the court officials gathered round. But it didn’t make him competent to interpret for a diplomatic mission, and Li (whose own Chinese was derided by Qing officials for its roughness) handled those matters. Staunton wrote several notes for his father by way of informal communications with court officials, but the recipients said they could never quite make out the meaning. After returning to England, he continued to study Chinese (with the help of a hired Chinese companion), and after a stint at Cambridge returned to Guangzhou as an East India Company clerk. He worked steadily on his own translation of the Qing legal code (a subject of repeated outrage from British merchants and officials), which today is a text known to all specialists in Qing history.

In 1816, Staunton was in China again as an interpreter (this time a passable one), working together with the Bible translator Robert Morrison for the mission of William Amherst. (Staunton and Morrison represent, for Harrison, embodiments of two different theoretical models of translation: on the one hand the exegetical Morrison, whose word-for-word approach produced stilted and sometimes impenetrable passages; on the other, Staunton’s liberal rewriting of phrases and sentences to convey nuance, tone, fluency and character.) The Qing empire was now under the rule of the Jiaqing emperor, and many things had changed – including attitudes towards coastal islands. Britain had continued to increase the amount of opium it brought to China every year, and was steadily more aggressive in Macao, landing troops on the island in 1808. Recognising that the British saw prostration as a significant issue, the new Qing regime asserted itself by insisting that the ritual be fully performed. The Amherst embassy encountered one bureaucratic roadblock after another, were denied any imperial contact, and were finally escorted to Guangzhou to reboard their ships.

Staunton had grown from boy translator into a man suspended between Chinese and English, between China and Britain. While with the Amherst mission he had exasperated Qing officials by refusing to take a side on any issue (including whether or not Macartney had performed the guest ritual); the emperor eventually wrote a contemptuous comment about it on one of the reports. During two stints in Parliament, Staunton made himself known primarily as a man of no discernible conviction – inscrutable as the Chinese were presumed to be and mocked as a sort of Chinese changeling standing on the margins of British society. The only thing distinctively his own was his outlandish bobbing bow when greeted, which made him an object of ridicule and too easily recalled the Macartney kerfuffle of half a century earlier. He leaned to one side just once (and even then, with extravagant equivocation), in April 1840, when he voted in Parliament to make war on the Qing empire for its methods of prohibiting the import of opium. The failed delegation of 1793 now became the fuse that had ignited the Opium War.

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Vol. 44 No. 17 · 8 September 2022

Joseph Banks may have had a hand in almost every expedition and scientific enterprise in the late 18th century, but he did not, as Pamela Crossley writes, accompany George Macartney on his embassy to Peking in 1793 (LRB, 18 August). Banks did help Sir George Staunton assemble his official account of the mission, published in 1797, but from the safety of London, where he was running the Royal Society and accumulating honours.

Ian Ferguson

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