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Representing "Great England" to Qing China in the Age of Free Trade Imperialism: The Circulation of a Tract by Charles Marjoribanks on the China Coast

Ting Man Tsao, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY

The publication and distribution of religious and educational tracts in "foreign and pagan lands" was a global enterprise during the nineteenth century. The religious circles and the general public in Britain and the United States saw printed materials, written in different languages and even dialects, as a powerful tool to accomplish the Civilizing Mission not only by spreading the Word of God but also by introducing “Western” civilization to the colonized and yet-to-be colonized peoples around the world. Religious periodicals such as the Missionary Register regularly covered the activities of British and American tract societies, issuing glad tidings about Bible translation, fund raising, new publications, the numbers of tracts printed and distributed, and novel ways of circulation. What exuded from these reports was an unquestioned confidence in the power of print in reaching out to large numbers of “natives” efficiently.

British traders and missionaries also wrote and published enthusiastic reports about the use of the press on the China coast, particularly during the early nineteenth century. Such reports, however, can only be appreciated in the historical context of Anglo-Chinese relations. Before the conclusion of the Opium War in 1842, all foreigners, forbidden from setting foot on Chinese soil, were physically confined within a small designated area by the Canton River, called the Factories or Hongs. Operating within the Canton Trading System, private traders were subject to the Qing government’s prohibitive restrictions and the British East India Company’s British-China trade monopoly, the latter of which did not terminate until 1834. Protestant missionaries found their activities even more constricted in China, for proselytizing was illegal. They were therefore forced to do most of their work in overseas Chinese communities. As for direct commercial, religious, and social contact with the masses of people living in the vast areas north of Canton, no European man could claim he had any—not even the most enterprising merchants and missionaries, the most lawless opium traffickers on the southern coast of China.
It was against this backdrop of a potentially boundless but hopelessly inaccessible China that the commercial and religious communities hailed the press as the best, if not the sole, tool that a limited, a very limited, number of European missionaries could use to reach out to large sections of the Chinese populace. Robert Morrison and Charles Gutzlaff, both renowned for their Chinese proficiency, were the most enthusiastic missionaries using print to promote “Christianity, Morals, and Useful Knowledge” in the Celestial Empire. Financially supported by British missionary and tract societies, the East India Company, and influential patrons, Morrison established the first overseas station for the China mission in Malacca (Melaka), called the Anglo-Chinese College, which boasted among other resources a Chinese press. Morrison could not overemphasize the importance of print in the “aggressive preaching of the Gospel”:
To a reading people the press is, to say the least, as efficient a method of conveying Christian knowledge as the system of oral lecture. And in many parts of the world it is more easily employed. A few living teachers aided by the press can convey knowledge as widely as many times the number of living teachers without it. (qtd. in Broomhall 178)
Through the College, Morrison poured out thousands of copies of books and tracts including installments of the Chinese Bible translated by him, and engaged several missionaries and Chinese converts to distribute them. The most aggressive, and the most well-known, of these messengers of God was Gutzlaff, who ventured into the forbidden ports of China and other Asian nations with a shipload of books and tracts (Broomhall 194-95). Morrison gladly reported to his patrons that Gutzlaff “found at the different ports where he touched on the coast of China, as high up as the eastern end of the great wall, a knowledge of the Christian books and tracts which had been printed and issued from Malacca”(R. Morrison, “To the Tract Society” 460). “The press,” Morrison observed, “ is now looked to by many to effect great change here [in China]” (R. Morrison, “To Thomas Fisher.” 488).