Creative Commons License
Victorians Institute Journal Annex content in NINES is protected by a Creative Commons License.
Peer Reviewed

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

Most mandarins whom Gutzlaff and Lindsay encountered in other provinces, however, did not welcome them with “expressions of friendship.” Instead, they took measures to drive the European intruders away, reiterating that foreign commerce was prohibited in ports other than Canton. In those places, Gutzlaff and Lindsay found the distribution of Marjoribanks’s tract even more useful. Not only did it facilitate “friendly” interactions with the common people, but it actually helped accomplish their mission by showing that these “natives”—unlike the “unfriendly” mandarins—were receptive to free trade. For example, in accounting for a prolonged confrontation with the local government in the Fokien (Fujian) province, Lindsay is pleased to state that the local villagers, who embraced Marjoribanks’s pamphlet, dared defy their government and tell him that “our mandarins are rogues, but . . . ‘the people’ are your friends” (Ship Amherst 37). In his official “Report of Proceedings on a Voyage to the Northern Ports of China” (which was later commercially republished), Lindsay even annexes the villagers’ written response to the tract “as a pleasing testimony of the effect produced by the distribution of our books, particularly the Ying-kwo [the one on England], the fame of which has spread greatly” (Ship Amherst 36).
We, the inhabitants of this village, have never yet seen you foreigner, (foreigners, not barbarians.) All people crowd on board your ship to behold you, and a tablet is hung therein, stating that there is a physician for the assistance of mankind: there are also tracts against gambling, and other writings, besides a treatise on your country, with odes and books; all which make manifest your friendly, kind, and virtuous hearts. This is highly praiseworthy; but as our language differs, difficulties will attend our intercourse. The civil and military mandarins of the Fokien province, together with their soldiers and satellites, are unprincipled in their disposition. If you wish to trade here, wait upon his Excellency the Foo-yuen; prostrate yourselves, and ask permission. If he complies, you may then do so; but if he refuses, then go to the districts of Loo and Kang, and there trade; for in that place there is neither a despot nor a master. When you have fully understood this, burn the paper. (Ship Amherst 37)
If Gutzlaff and Lindsay’s description of the power of Marjoribanks’s tract amongst the Chinese people sounds too optimistic to be true, it probably is. Living at a time when laissez faire was the rule of the day, contemporary reviewers of Gutzlaff and Lindsay’s travel accounts, however, were more credulous, applauding their voyage as a breakthrough in proving that, contrary to the received wisdom, the Chinese people—who could be efficiently “befriended” by “[a] few living teachers aided by the press”—were open to European commerce and Christianity. Immensely popular when they were published and reprinted from 1832 to 1834, Gutzlaff and Lindsay’s books created nothing short of a “free-trade mania,” a China craze among the British reading public, giving a death blow to the East India Company’s age-old China-trade monopoly (Tsao, Representing China 50-54; Tsao, “Uneven Distribution”).
The impact of Marjoribanks’s tract on the imperial frontier, the “contact zone” between cultures and powers, was of course a lot more limited, and a lot more complicated, than Gutzlaff and Lindsay, obsessed with the “opening” of China, would lead their reader to believe. Recovered from the Qing imperial archive, the story of the Yangs, who were given the pamphlet, throws into question the celebrated power of the printed page, the “Western” book, in Chinese society. Having been caught “trading [their] fish for [the barbarians’] rice” and “possessing a barbarian book,” the Yangs, a fisherman’s family, were reported in a memorial to the throne by Wei Yuanlang, Viceroy of the Min and Zhe Provinces and Military Governor of Fujian (Wei 111). This memorial and Emperor Daoguang’s corresponding edict contain some revealing information about the circulation and reception of the pamphlet on the “English character” in Qing China.
First, the Yangs claimed that they did not understand the people on board the barbarian ship because of linguistic barriers (Wei 111). This shows that Gutzlaff—despite his well-known fluency in Chinese dialects and despite his deliberate Fujian-sailor look—probably encountered difficulty in orally communicating with the coastal people who spoke dozens of regional, not necessarily mutually intelligible, dialects. Seen in this light, Marjoribanks’s tract, a nonverbal medium, was, in many cases, the one and only means of communication to which Gutzlaff and Lindsay resorted in order to “befriend” the “curious” crowds gathering around them.