• On the Interpreters Whose Words Directed Chinese and British History

    Henrietta Harrison on a Key Episode in Diplomatic History


    From This Year’s Cundill History Prize Shortlisted Title The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire by Henrietta Harrison.


    Early one morning in the late summer of 1793, George Macartney Earl of Lissanoure, Britain’s first ambassador to China, dressed in the robes of the Order of the Bath with ostrich plumes nodding over his head, knelt before the Qianlong emperor, and held up in both hands above his head a gold box set with diamonds containing a letter from George III. Qianlong was the descendant of Manchu warriors who had conquered China in the seventeenth century. He spoke Chinese and Manchu and was proud of the fact that he could speak enough Mongol, Tibetan, and Uyghur to receive envoys from those areas without the need for an interpreter, but on this occasion an interpreter was essential.

    Macartney, who had made a grand tour of Europe in his youth, spoke in Italian. His words were expressed in Chinese by a younger man kneeling behind him, who had given his name as Plum and was dressed in a British uniform and a powdered wig but was in fact Li Zibiao a Catholic from China’s far northwest. Li had been educated in Naples and he spoke Chinese simply, rather than in the formal language of the court, but with deep respect for the emperor and a certain attractive sincerity that was characteristic to him. When he turned to Macartney he conveyed the emperor’s remarks in elegant formal Italian. The emperor listened to a brief speech, asked a few polite questions, and presented Macartney with a jade sceptre.

    When Macartney withdrew, his place was taken by his deputy George Leonard Staunton, a Jesuit-educated Protestant Irishman who was an enthusiast for the scientific discoveries of the age, a follower of Rousseau, a slave owner, a supporter of the recent French Revolution, and Macartney’s long-standing friend, secretary, and henchman. The great project of Staunton’s life was the education of his son, twelve-year-old George Thomas, who now knelt beside him. Li still interpreted, this time into Latin, but George Thomas could understand both sides of the brief conversation: his father had been speaking in Latin to him since he was three, and since his first meeting with Li the previous year George Thomas had also been studying Chinese. When the emperor asked if any of the British could speak Chinese, his chief minister Heshen, who had met Staunton earlier and had a gift for knowing what might amuse the elderly emperor, told him that the boy could speak a little and called him forward. George Thomas was shy, but when the emperor took a yellow silk purse that was hanging at his waist as a gift, he managed to get out a few words of thanks in Chinese.

    This is one of the most famous moments in the history of China’s encounter with the West.

    From beside the throne three of the most powerful men in the land looked on: the prince who would soon come to the throne as the Jiaqing emperor, Fukang’an, the emperor’s favourite general who had recently returned from a successful campaign against the Gurkhas in Tibet, as well as Heshen, who controlled the empire’s finances. There was also Songyun, a Mongol who had originally trained as a Manchu-Mongol interpreter and had just arrived back from the northern frontier where he had been renegotiating the Second Commercial Treaty of Khiakta with the Russians. After the audience and the banquet that followed, Qianlong ordered Fukang’an, Heshen, and Songyun to give Macartney a tour of the gardens, and while Macartney found Heshen evasive and Fukang’an arrogant, he had served in Russia himself and enjoyed Songyun’s enthusiastic questions about Russian politics and government.

    This is one of the most famous moments in the history of China’s encounter with the West, and the Qianlong emperor in history, as in life, has always dominated the scene. He was in his eighties at this time, simply dressed in dark robes, sitting cross-legged on his throne, but he had been the autocratic ruler of a vast empire for nearly fifty years. Even Heshen and Fukang’an knelt down when they spoke to him, and he liked to be complimented on the fact that his was one of the most glorious reigns in Chinese history: with rapid population growth after the century of warfare that had surrounded the fall of the previous dynasty, agriculture and trade were flourishing, the Qing empire had reached its greatest size with the completion of the campaigns against the Mongols and Zunghars in the northwest, and the arts and scholarship were flourishing under his patronage. Far away on the south coast of China, Europeans had been drawn in by their desire for China’s manufactures: fine silk and porcelain that could still not be replicated in Europe. More recently the trade with the British had boomed as Europeans and Americans acquired a taste for tea, a crop grown only in China.

    After the audience Qianlong decisively refused the British requests for a resident ambassador in Beijing and an island off the coast as a trading base. Soon people in Europe were saying that he had done so out of anger that Macartney had merely knelt on one knee, rather than bowing his head to the ground nine times in the full court ritual of the kowtow. Ever since, Qianlong has been blamed for the failure of the embassy: as the Son of Heaven, who claimed to be ruler of the civilised world and knew nothing of rising British power, he had failed to realise that Macartney was anything more than an envoy sent by a distant king to bring him tribute.

    However, if we turn our gaze away from Qianlong and look instead at the other people who were present, the embassy is transformed. This is a book about the interpreters: Li Zibiao, who interpreted for Lord Macartney, and little George Thomas Staunton, who got a lot of the credit because his father wrote the official English account of the embassy. They are fascinating figures because they were impressive linguists who became extremely knowledgeable and well informed about the other’s cultures and also came to have a real affection for them. Both first travelled in childhood and as a result came to understand the other’s culture with a particular fluency. This was intensified because they were isolated from their natural peer group during crucial periods: Li because he was much younger than the other Chinese students at his Catholic seminary in Naples, and Staunton because when he was sent to work in the East India Company’s establishment in Canton the young Englishmen there resented the appointment of someone from outside their social circle. This isolation encouraged both Li and Staunton to form unusually strong cross-cultural friendships as teenagers and young adults, which then shaped the way they saw the world later in life. Both were often homesick, and neither ever thought of himself as other than a foreigner in the other’s continent, but after they returned home they were not quite like other people there either.

    The stories of Li in his powdered wig and little George Thomas Staunton kneeling before the emperor show us how the encounter between China and Britain was not a clash of civilisations coming into contact for the first time but the result of the increasing global interconnections of the early modern world. The trade in tea that brought the British to China had its origins in the voyages of sixteenth-century Portuguese and Dutch mariners trading spices from Southeast Asia to Europe. In many places this trade had expanded into territorial rule, with the Dutch controlling much of Java and, for a while, a fort on Taiwan, while the Portuguese had trading outposts in Goa, Malacca, and also Macao on the south China coast. The Portuguese had also brought with them the first Catholic missionaries, whose successors were still working as artists, technicians, and astronomers at the Qing court. For nearly two centuries missionaries had been scattered across China: Li Zibiao was descended from a family of early Christian converts and had travelled to Europe through the global institutions of the Catholic Church.

    Meanwhile Britain had built up settler colonies in the Americas but lost a large part in the wars of the American Revolution. By the time of the embassy the focus of British expansion had shifted to India, where small trading posts were being transformed into a colonial empire. George Leonard Staunton and Macartney had first met on the island of Grenada in the Caribbean, where Macartney was the newly appointed governor. When Grenada was captured by the French, Macartney found a new position as governor of Madras on the east coast of India, with Staunton as his aide. However, Madras was under constant threat from the expansive military power of Mysore; Macartney and Staunton returned home convinced that the new British Empire in India might fall as the first empire in the Americas had done. Now they had arrived in China on an embassy motivated by the British government’s desire to expand the China trade to support and fund expansion in India.


    the perils of interpreting

    Excerpted from The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire by Henrietta Harrison, published by Princeton University Press.

    Henrietta Harrison
    Henrietta Harrison
    Henrietta Harrison is professor of modern Chinese studies at the University of Oxford and the Stanley Ho Tutorial Fellow in Chinese History at Pembroke College. Her books include The Man Awakened from Dreams and The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village. She lives in Oxford, England.

    More Story
    I Walk Between the Raindrops by T.C. Boyle, Read by a Full Cast Every Monday through Friday, AudioFile’s editors recommend the best in audiobook listening. We keep our daily episodes...
  • Become a Lit Hub Supporting Member: Because Books Matter

    For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.