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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

Crucial as Marjoribanks’s pamphlet was in helping Gutzlaff and Lindsay narrate a “reciprocal” relationship with the Chinese, the second remark in the imperial correspondence suggests that print could not always supplant, as Morrison wished, oral lecture as an efficient method to “convey knowledge” to great numbers of people. The Yangs, according to Wei’s memorial, were “completely illiterate” and therefore ignorant about “what book it was” that they were given (Wei 111). Given the facts that the areas that Gutzlaff and Lindsay passed were mainly fishing villages by the coast, and that the literacy rate there was very low, the tract, most likely, fell into the hands of illiterate fishermen and laborers, who probably valued it only as something that was normally beyond their means, something that they had not yet possessed. This may help explain why “the fame of [the pamphlet on England] spread like wildfire” among the coastal people, who flocked to the European strangers and “entreated for a copy” (Ship Amherst 51).
If, however, Marjoribanks’s pamphlet had indeed reached the Chinese intelligentsia, the “reading people” as Marjoribanks and Morrison had wished, could it then serve as a “friendly” but awe-inspiring introduction to the “English character”? Informed by the Qing court’s etiquette and politics, imperial correspondence can hardly answer the question fully. According to my extensive though not exhaustive research thus far, provincial gazetteers, which represent more local, less official points of view, unfortunately do not contain any reference to the tract—except for brief accounts of the “barbarians’” incursion into the Wu Song River (Ying and Yu 818). As the extant and perhaps the only contemporary written response to Marjoribanks’s tract on the part of Qing China, documents in the imperial archive are therefore worth discussing.
As these historical records reveal, bound by a long tradition of “closed-door” policy, the Qing officials and Emperor Daoguang, who had perused the tract, were not impressed by its delineations of England’s “enterprise” and “magnitude”; they did not even bother to mention, let alone discuss, any of its “facts” about this nation. Nor did they appreciate the tract’s expressions of “friendship” and “respect” deliberately couched in the Qing style. Educated in the literary tradition that emphasized decorum, they instead thought that the pamphlet was—despite Morrison’s years of classical Chinese study—“sometimes faulty in style” and “often unidiomatic in diction and syntax” (Funi 112). It was thus considered a “Western book of absurdity.” In addition, the tract’s mixture of “barbarian” unorthodoxy and “the inland [Chinese] style” looked very suspicious to the Qing government, pointing to the possibility that there might be a larger illicit cooperation between the foreigners and some “treacherous [local] people” trying to profit by offering the former material assistance (Wei 111, [Daoguang] 250). Although Wei reassured the throne that the Yangs had done nothing worse than “failing to discard or destroy the barbarian book immediately when it was given them,” Emperor Daoguang was not appeased (Wei 111). He chastised Wei for allowing his subordinates to do a less than thorough investigation into the circulation of the “barbarian book.” “If the fisherman’s family were completely illiterate,” questioned Daoguang, “why were they given the barbarian book in the first place?” (250).
A “Brief Account of the English Character” is a rare historical document providing revealing insights into the intersections of imperialism, print culture, and cross-cultural representation and contact between “Great England” and Qing China during the early nineteenth century. To fully understand the historical implications of the document, one must situate it (and its translation) between the histories, cultures, languages, and archives of the two evolving empires. This intercultural reading thus challenges Victorian and colonial discourse studies scholars to further rethink the already-shifting linguistic and geographical boundaries of their scholarship. For it is somewhere along and beyond these disciplinary borders, somewhere between the hubs of empire and its peripheries “out there” (such as the northern coast of China in the 1830s), somewhere between English and other languages, that one can go beyond seeing European imperialisms merely as internally incoherent, ambivalent discourses to trace and historicize as much the reach as the limits of imperial power and representation. As this contextual introduction may show, such historical investigation relies heavily on transnational and translingual archival research, which in turn calls into question the overemphasis on the European literary canon in colonial discourse analysis (cf. Young 408-09).
Morrison’s Chinese translation of the tract titled , preserved in microfilm and recently reprinted in a Qing archival collection, is accessible to researchers ([Marjoribanks], Da Yingguo; [Marjoribanks], “Da Yingguo”). However, Marjoribanks’s English original, not meant for publication, was never located, let alone tapped, by scholars. My recent search has unearthed a hand-written copy of Marjoribanks’s manuscript in the East India Company’s China Factory Records deposited in the British Library ([Marjoribanks], “Brief Account”). The document consists of a headnote and ten body paragraphs, totaling 1,516 words. A sentence-by-sentence comparison reveals that Morrison’s translation manages to be faithful to this original paper. What follows is the transcribed text of Marjoribanks’s manuscript2 (original upper and lower cases and punctuation marks are preserved even when they appear idiosyncratic by modern usage).