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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

Could the distribution of printed matter really help “a few living teachers” to cause “great change” among the “reading people” in China? A look at one of the most publicized tracts circulated by Gutzlaff, a “Brief Account of the English Character,” may suggest some answer. Written by Charles Marjoribanks, President of the East India Company’s Select Committee in Canton, this tract was, unlike most others Gutzlaff took to China, secular in nature. Compared with other top Company “servants” heading the China Factory, Marjoribanks was unconventional, departing from the “submissive” China policy of the Company, which avoided, as much as possible, any actions that might upset the Qing government in order to maintain the status quo, namely its domination over the British China trade in general and the increasingly lucrative opium trade in particular. After several clashes with the Qing authorities during his presidency, Marjoribanks observes in the headnote of his tract that the Qing officers had greatly influenced “[t]he public mind in China” with “Low Placards traducing the foreign character,” and that when these officials found that “they have no longer the power of misrepresentation in their own hand” they might be “induced hereafter to abstain from proceedings so injurious to our character and interests.”
It was to produce “some counteracting influence,” to correctly represent “[t]he object and endeavour of the English in China,” that Marjoribanks penned the tract in English in 1831 “with the view of circulating it through China” (Ship Amherst 4). Supportive of the Anglo-Chinese College both officially and personally, he asked Morrison to translate the pamphlet into classical Chinese and print hundreds of copies at Malacca (R. Morrison “To Charles Marjoribanks” 448; London Missionary Society 20). He engaged Gutzlaff and Hugh Hamilton Lindsay, an ambitious East India Company supercargo, to make a secret voyage to China’s coastal waters—the first of its kind at the time—so as to “ascertain how far the northern ports of the Chinese empire may be gradually opened to British commerce, which would be most eligible, and to what extent the disposition of the natives and the local government would be favourable to it” (Ship Amherst 3). Marjoribanks instructed the two adventurers to load a ship with English products for sale as well as cases of his tract for distribution. In the following year, however, when Gutzlaff and Lindsay were ready to set sail, Marjoribanks had to leave office (and Canton) for unexpected health reasons. His successor, John Davis, immediately steered the Company’s Canton Factory back to its conservative China policy and ordered Lindsay to deliver up all copies of Marjoribanks’s pamphlet and refrain from circulating them in China, because “the dispersion of [such a paper] by Europeans themselves on the coast” was impolitic and improper (Ship Amherst 5). Gutzlaff, who was not directly under Davis’s command, did not listen; nor did the overzealous Lindsay. As a result, five hundred copies of Marjoribanks’s tract as well as cases of other printed materials written by Gutzlaff were smuggled into China (Ship Amherst 4).
Marjoribanks’s tract, whose original English manuscript is transcribed below, provides a rare glimpse into the “character” of “free-born” Englishmen in China, informed by the ambivalence of early Victorian “imperialism of free trade.” Subject to the Qing government’s “ill treatment” as “ a barbarian,” Marjoribanks naturally devotes large sections of his tract to articulating a powerful England as an empire of seas, of which its countrymen are proud, and for which the Chinese, despite their own immense empire, should show due respect. The English, as the author proudly states, traverse the high seas “in safety and with facility” to trade with China, and have “valuable possessions,” “large territories,” “numerous islands” and “prosperous settlements” spread all over the world. Nevertheless, an empire of free trade cannot be represented by an awe-inspiring rhetoric of imperial might alone; it also needs to make gestures of goodwill because free trade depends, at least theoretically, on a high degree of mutual trust and reciprocity between the parties involved. Therefore, Marjoribanks mingles his language of national prowess with—albeit unconvincingly—assurances that England possesses “so great an Empire” that its government “has no Thirst for Conquest,” and that “[t]he object and endeavour of the English in China, have always been to carry on a pacific and amicable intercourse.”
Tellingly, Marjoribanks couches his complaints about the Canton Trading System in terms of Qing paternalism, criticized by Europeans as “tyrannical.” He speaks respectfully of “[t]he benevolent disposition of the Great Emperor of China,” which “has induced him to state his desire to treat remote foreigners, with indulgence, and consideration,” and attributes all the “oppressions” and “exactions” suffered by the foreign traders solely to “subordinate officers of his Government.” Marjoribanks’s adoption of the Chinese voice, however, is on a mimicry level. A proud Englishman, the author cannot help criticizing Sinocentrism severely: “Ignorant men have sometimes foolishly taught, that all that is good is centred in China, but that the rest of the Earth is worthless. How vain and childish is the man who reasons thus.” Always mindful of their “national name or honour,” the English are “very jealous of insult, and ever ready to avenge oppression and injustice,” warns Marjoribanks.
An ambivalent expression of national power and goodwill, respect and admonition, the tract nonetheless helped Gutzlaff and Lindsay narrate, for the first time in English bibliography of China, an “interactive” or “reciprocal” relationship with the Chinese people, showing to the reading publics that the “natives” were indeed “friendly” to European strangers and “favourable” to British commerce. Distributing copies of the pamphlet among “curious” crowds gathering around them, the European travelers regarded the “enthusiastic” acceptance of the paper as a token of the Chinese people’s “friendliness.” In his extremely popular Journal of Three Voyages along the Coast of China, Gutzlaff writes about an encounter at Chin-hae (Qinghai), “Highly delighted with the hospitable reception we experienced, we attributed it to the influence which the perusal of our little tract had had upon the natives. Crowds of people were collected at the beach to give us a kind farewell, whilst mandarins of all ranks vied with each other in their expressions of friendship” (190).