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Peer Reviewed

British Travel Writing from China

Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas

Elizabeth H. Chang, ed. British Travel Writing from China, 1798-1901. 5 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2010. 1550 pp. $795/£450.

Rev. by Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas
This set augments two multi-volume selections of travel writing predominately by British authors brought out by the same publisher, each of which includes Far East volumes with extracts from the better known narratives from China.@ The present collection offers a broad and diverse selection of mostly lesser-known texts intended to represent the shifting perspectives of British travelers in China over the course of the nineteenth century. Each volume covers a significant period determined by the changing political relationship between the two empires. There are brief but helpful historical introductions to each volume as well as to each text, along with notes identifying names and references and an index for all the volumes. Most of the works have been abridged but with an eye to presenting sustained narratives rather than a miscellany of highlights. A strength of this edition is the diversity exhibited under the general rubric of travel writing: there are diplomatic, exploratory, and missionary accounts; captivity narratives; two guidebooks to Beijing; a natural history of the geology and flora of Hong Kong; a hunting narrative plus a practical guide for hunters; and a diary of a summer spent on a Chinese farm.
These texts cover the high period of British involvement in China from the Macartney Embassy in 1793, England’s first major diplomatic mission to Beijing, to the mid-1890s just prior to the events that culminated in the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 (the dates in the title refer to publication rather than composition dates). At mid-century the two so-called Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) decisively altered relations as China was first compelled to open a handful of ports to trade and to cede Hong Kong island to Britain, then to open further ports and allow foreigners to travel throughout China for both trade and missionary purposes. These treaties directly affected travel possibilities for Westerners in China, who previously had been limited under strict conditions to business in Canton (Guangzhou), as far away from Beijing as possible. Thus the first volume (1798-1824), plus a further text by James Dinwiddie published in edited form 75 years after its composition, are mostly directly related to the Macartney Embassy and its follow-up mission lead by Lord Amherst in 1816, with the second volume (1841-1863) jumping a couple decades to John Lee Scott’s captivity narrative during the first Opium War. The later volumes therefore reflect both the increased output and diversity of British writings on China in the latter half of the century.
China failed to inspire British writers to anything that might qualify as a travel classic, or that can compare with works from other parts of the globe, such as the Middle East (Charles Doughty, Richard Burton) or Africa (Mango Park). One notices a striking absence of the exotic, in the sense of imagining China as offering a positive alternative to or escape from the humdrum of the West. Virtually the only aestheticizing moments are inspired by landscape, as one might expect given the chinoiserie influence on English gardening, although on closer inspection pagodas, temples and walled cities usually prove disappointing. Although from a literary perspective, the writings collected here only occasionally rise above the ordinary, there is much that makes for fascinating reading. The strength of British observers, apparently, was detailed description, even when they could not understand what they were seeing.
One of the most intriguing as well as the longest of the selections is a journal record of the Amherst mission by one of its principle players, Sir George Thomas Staunton. Both the Macartney and Amherst missions foundered on the refusal to perform the required ceremony of kowtowing in the presence of the Chinese Emperor, which the English recognized as tantamount to accepting their tributary status to the Emperor—the only foreign relationship Imperial China understood. Staunton, who was largely responsible for the unbending refusal to enact the kowtow, gives a fascinatingly detailed account of the unsuccessful negotiations, the mission’s abrupt dismissal from the capital and the long inland trip back to Canton via the Grand Canal and rivers. Acutely conscious of the slightest nuances of protocol and behavior, on the part of both the Chinese and his fellow Englishmen, in many respects Staunton manifests the difficulties of these on the whole rather disheartening accounts of cultural interaction. If few of these writers are in a position or personally inclined to be as acutely sensitive, even paranoid, as Staunton with regard to the semiotics of social behavior, most will invariably reiterate his basic judgments of the Chinese: their ingrained deceitfulness, closely related to their materialism and spiritual shallowness. Nevertheless, Staunton’s record is particularly valuable and a fine example of rationalist prose: lucid, carefully balanced, and qualified sentences informed by one of England’s few China experts of the time, both in terms of his fluency in the language and his experience as chief of the East India Company factory in Canton. Staunton earnestly attempts to see the complexities of a highly overdetermined encounter; however, there is simply too much beyond his purview, and what is inexplicable gets translated into suspicion and conspiracy, which not surprisingly is mirrored and reciprocated by the Chinese.
The first question that has to be asked of travel writers is their knowledge of the local language, a point that then as now they often fudge. Most of the authors here do not have anything approaching fluency in Mandarin or the regional dialects, even when they have spent some years in China. Perhaps the most positive and humane depiction of the Chinese appears in the delightfully readable Old Highways in China (1884) by the missionary Isabelle Williamson, who foregrounds her comfort in the language and therefore her ability to recreate familiar, intimate encounters with Chinese—a rarity in these texts generally. The missionaries were a major flash point within China, as well as controversial back home, so their accounts are often efforts at self-justification of their cause as well as recruiting propaganda. Given their motivations for coming to and writing about China, the half dozen narratives by missionaries evidence a greater effort to recognize the common humanity of the Chinese, as well as the obligation to try to learn their language. Almost formulaically their accounts include descriptions of the briefest encounters that demonstrate the latent desire and need for the Christian message, whose immediate effectiveness is literally read in the faces of their Chinese listeners. This wishful thinking is often counterbalanced by the melancholy observation of the millions of “heathens” without any chance (so far) for even such brief brushes with the Word.
Once the treaties opened China up, the Yangtze became the main highway for Westerners who wished to penetrate into the interior of China, whether for trade, religion or sightseeing. Half a dozen selections describe travel along this river connecting Shanghai with the major inland cities in the western province of Sichuan, in between which are the magnificent and hazardous Three Gorges and their fantastic landscape. Downstream the expatriate endeavor to turn the foreign into a replica of the homeland extended to an indulgence in game hunting described in swaggering style by W.S. Percival in The Land of the Dragon (1889)—lively reading despite the smugness of the author-protagonist. The codification of such sporting forays is evident in H.T. Wade’s With Boat and Gun (1895), a composite text by various authors that instructs the reader on all aspects of hunting along the Yangtze, including “what to do in case of trouble with the natives.” In the opposite direction, there are three accounts of exploratory expeditions in the remote mountainous frontiers of western China (western Sichuan and Yunnan), which include ethnographic observations on the non-Han tribes that still populate these spectacular and quasi-inaccessible regions.
The editor commendably takes a flexible view of travel writing, which allows for a broad range of intriguing texts, including a handful that can in no sense be taken as travelogues. However, such generic elasticity threatens to prompt questions as to what these narratives have in common other than being by authors who had actually been in China, particularly since intrinsic literary value clearly is not a primary criteria of selection. And why limit the selection to British authors? The editor unconvincingly suggests that given Britain’s predominate position in China among Western nations, the accounts of British travelers held a privileged position in representing China to the West, but on internal evidence alone this is hardly persuasive as numerous American, German, and particularly French accounts were all being published and read, often in English. The centripetal effort to rope these texts within a plausible sense of “travel writing” is particularly evident in the abridgments, which tend to select and highlight those sections that describe literal traveling. The obvious problem is that this can distort the larger motivation or arguments of the original texts, which the editor repeatedly indicates are presented here for their historical significance.
For example, Thomas W. Blakiston’s Five Months on the Yangtze (1862) is a carefully observed and witty account of a journey up the river deep into Sichuan in an unsuccessful attempt to follow the Yangtze into Tibet. While by no means a journey of pioneering exploration, Blakiston’s careful noting of geological and topographical features mixed with practical advice and lively accounts of his ventures ashore became an authoritative description of a route innumerable Western travelers would repeat and recount, especially the dramatic trip through the Three Gorges. However, left out of this extract is another key concern of Blakiston’s volume as indicated in the subtitle: firsthand accounts of the rebellions he encountered on his trip. Numerous such internal rebellions racked China throughout the 19th century—Blakiston mentions four major outbreaks concurrently taking place in different regions—which had more to do with the weakness and ultimate collapse of the Qing dynasty than Western aggression and technical superiority. The Taipings represented the greatest threat: for over a decade (1853-1864) they controlled a large area of south central China including much of the Yangtze valley and came close to toppling the Qing government. This civil war was waged with extreme brutality on both sides and is estimated to have cost at least 20 million lives—comparable to the worst wars of the 20th century. Clearly wishing to influence public opinion back home, Blakiston reprints in two chapters the journalistic reports by his friend, the consular officer R. J. Forrest, describing Nanjing and environs under the Taipings, stating that Forrest’s descriptions and his political assessment tally with his own observations. While several of the other selections in these volumes mention the devastation of this and other rebellions, evident even decades later, there is nothing to compare with the bleak descriptions Blakiston offers as a reminder of the internal complications impacting on the Qing government’s inability to counter Western encroachments, as well as on the omnipresent physical evidence of imperial decay remarked on by virtually all travelers. Blakiston is also one of the few to caution his readers about making generalizations or judgments on China based on their necessarily limited and highly mediated information. While one understands the pragmatic need to truncate Blakiston’s and other texts, it nevertheless raises questions about how to read the result.
Another unfortunate loss is the complete absence of maps and illustrations, apparently due to production costs despite the hefty price tag. The lack of maps means that only readers with a strong familiarity with Chinese geography will be able to maintain a reasonably accurate orientation in following the travels, which is challenging under the best of circumstances given the numerous romanizations of Chinese place names used in the various texts, none of which is likely to be found on modern maps. The editor makes a half-hearted effort to confront this problem, but even the index has examples of major cities under different spellings that are not cross-referenced. Given that a major interest of these texts, then and now, is their visualization of China, the deletion of the illustrations that accompanied most of these volumes is particularly unfortunate. In some cases, the engravings were based on sketches done on the spot, others used Chinese prints, while later volumes often included photographs, sometimes by the author. The original layout of a number of these texts was quite elaborate, which this reprint edition makes little effort to reproduce accurately. In some respects, this publication seems trapped in an antiquated, if still pervasive, mode of production. The majority of these texts in their original formats are available online (presumably the rest will soon follow), but remain orphaned and in need of imaginative scholarly intervention to allow for a range of contextualizations.
While drawing various historical relations and acknowledging the multiplicity of different authors’ motivations, Chang persistently evokes a generic tradition of travel writing within which the authors are consciously writing and that determines their reception. Yet, as many of these texts demonstrate, travel writing tends to be a loose container into which the author may toss anything of interest, often by other hands, without necessarily worrying how neatly it fits into the narrative structure. Chang’s general introduction concludes: “Each narrative encodes in some form the arc of development of the genre as a whole as it moves from ignorance to experience. This both establishes the boundaries of what nineteenth-century travel writing from China can be, but it also does something more. It makes plain the epistemological grounds which structure the British encounter with China in its broadest terms.” Actually, non-fictional travel writing, while guaranteeing a succession of experiences does not guarantee “experience” in the sense intended above, and for the most part the examples gathered here discouragingly indicate how little these writers learned or could be expected to learn from their travels. Aside from the accumulation of descriptive facts of various sorts, the impression is that most often British observers already know as much as they care to about China other than details of commercial potential, scientific fact-finding (these two are usually closely connected), missionary conversion, and (usually disappointed) sightseeing. Perhaps this inability to really engage with the foreign is what is meant by “the epistemological grounds which structure the British encounter with China.” But travel writing (however defined) has rarely been so much about engaging with the foreign as the translation of an unreadable culture into the familiar, that is, a readable one.
Although the residual romantic myth or trope of self-developing experience and growth undoubtedly explains much of travel writing’s appeal, it is questionable whether such assumptions, consciously or not, are the starting point we want to take in reading such texts as these. Surely the prime impetus for this publication is post-colonial studies and the outing of further fodder for the insatiable academic appetite for textual colonization. But how legible are these texts presented in this manner? The assumption within the growing cottage industry of British travel writing appears to be that armed with contemporary critical tools we can negotiate the echo chamber of British discourses on China and safely identify their ideological (epistomological) blindnesses. One might wonder whether this merely perpetuates the myopia of our own contemporary version of the myth of progress so endemic to the current Western textualizing of the foreign. What is particularly striking is the lack of Chinese voices in either the primary texts or the editorial apparatus, or even the awareness that such perspectives need to be brought to bear.
Perhaps the most unusual text included is My Diary in a Chinese Farm (1898) by Alicia Little, a successful novelist who spent two decades in China and became well known as a sympathetic explainer of China. As the title indicates, this small book presents a seemingly unpolished account of a summer spent in the hills to escape the oppressive heat of Chongqing on the opposite side of the Yangtze: detailing life at the farm, interactions with the locals, short excursions into the surrounding countryside. One night there is a break-in and robbery, and when it is reported the Littles unwittingly set in motion the local judicial apparatus, which characteristically involves torture and the extraction of a false confession that implicates the farm owner’s son. Eventually, the true culprits are identified, and the last paragraph of the diary describes the visit of the son, now a “wretched looking … disfigured creature,” with his parents to celebrate and thank the Littles for his release. The remaining few sentences tie up a few loose ends and then finish with the hope that this description of homely Chinese life might help readers realize “that great Division of the Human Race, called Chinese, consists not only of China-men but of real men and women, with simple wants and wishes not after all so unlike our own.” Little’s sincerity can hardly be doubted, as her subsequent books and actions testify, but it is unclear how aware she is of the multiple ironies of her need to conclude this dispiriting narrative with such an upbeat flourish. However, these unresolved narrative tensions, which are evident throughout the day-to-day details as well, might serve as a cautionary example of the difficulties latent in trying to read the various texts in these volumes. The authors’ explanatory frameworks are hardly adequate to manage their accounts of the foreign, and more than likely this will not be resolved, only echoed, by the contemporary academic reader.
Jeffrey Twitchell-Waas is currently living in Malta after many years as lecturer and administrator mostly in China and Singapore. He edits the Z-site (, a scholarly companion to the works of the poet Louis Zukofsky, and intermittently translates from contemporary Chinese poetry.