The Perils of Interpreting

The Macartney Mission of 1793 sometimes seems to be one of the most studied diplomatic events in Sino-British history – a failed attempt to open commerce and diplomatic dialogue between George III, who was already mad, and the Qianlong Emperor, who soon would be when he had to deal with British faffing over protocols. Over the years, it has been written up by, among others, its deputy, by its sea captain, by Macartney’s own valet (a fascinating document, recently republished by Frances Wood, and which I hope to review here soon), and, tardily, by Macartney himself, whose own diary of events remained unpublished until 1958, over a century after his death. In recent years, it has also been the subject of a wonderfully detailed approach in diplomatic terms, Eoin McDonnell’s Kowtow, as well as James L. Hevia’s Cherishing Men From Afar, which approaches the whole thing from the point of view of the Chinese.

But all of these are valid and illuminating angles, as is Henrietta Harrison’s The Perils of Interpreting, which retells the story of the Macartney mission from the point of view of the poor men who had to interpret all the wrangles into and out of Chinese. Harrison focusses on Li Zibiao, the Italian-educated Chinese who interpreted for the mission, as well as the twelve-year-old George Thomas Staunton, who accompanied his father on the trip and was driven thereafter into a life of Chinese studies.

Harrison is particularly good at following the money, offering harsh financial explanations for historical phenomena. When it comes to the Macartney mission itself, she provocatively notes that of all the planetariums, muskets and clocks that Macartney tried to impress the Chinese with, he neglected to mention Britain’s most devastating and useful “new technology” – the national debt. It’s this, Harrison argues, that made it possible for the British to construct huge warships in the first place, while the Qing dynasty struggled to pay its bills.

She also places Macartney’s mission firmly in its historical context, noting only the massive amounts of money sloshing around the world in the ever-growing tea trade, but the degree to which Macartney’s own attitude was influenced by his personal experience in the Americas and India. Ousted from his former Caribbean post by the French, he was packed off to run Madras, where he was bogged down in a prolonged conflict with the neighbouring state of Mysore, and only permitted some breathing space when Britain’s acceptance of American independence brought an end to the war with France. India, Harrison writes, was supposed to be the new imperial possession to replace the lost Americas, and Macartney feared that Britain might lose India as it had lost the Thirteen Colonies. He was hence super-keen on establishing trade with China as a means of strengthening India as a British possession.

Occurring a number of times in Macartney’s diary of the mission, “Mr Plumb” the interpreter turns out to actually be Mr Plum (Chinese: Li), or Li Zibiao, a Chinese Christian who had studied at an Italian seminary, and was hence able to render Chinese into Italian or Latin. As the man literally at the ears of the Emperor and Macartney, Li was privy to all sorts of machinations and skulduggery, and indeed added some of his own by trying to work discussion of religious freedom for Chinese Catholics into some of the things he was translating. Harrison provides several chapters about the remarkable life that took Li from the edge of Tibet, to Italy and back to China, noting all the while that the Qing records of the Macartney Mission neglect to even mention that Macartney’s interpreter was Chinese.

Much discussion of the mission tends to revolve instead around the mission’s “other” interpreter, George Staunton, the son and namesake of Macartney’s deputy. The twelve-year-old Staunton picked up enough Chinese on the journey to be able to stutter a few words in response to the Emperor’s attention, and also, in one of the British Empire’s more staggering delegations of responsibility, also put his sophomoric grasp of Chinese writing to use copying out the official diplomatic response to the Emperor. Harrison observes that the bigging up of Staunton in the official record is, at least in part, because it’s his Dad who wrote it, choosing to place his son’s encounter with the Emperor at the centre of the mission report, as one of the few moments of human interest in an otherwise tense and frustrating diplomatic encounter.

But there’s more to it than mere fatherly bragging. Staunton Junior, accepting a gift from the Qianlong emperor, became the centrepiece of the mission’s visual imagery, too. Harrison uses William Alexander’s painting of the Staunton encounter on her cover, noting in passing that it also includes the sole artistic representation of Li Zibiao. However, Harrison also observes that William Alexander didn’t actually accompany the entourage on their trip to meet the Emperor at his summer retreat. Instead, he drew his famous picture based on the description he received from people who actually had been there, and went through several drafts that depicted it in various different ways. Moreover, it seems highly likely that the centring of Staunton, effectively pushing Macartney himself into the background of the sole official depiction of his meeting with the Emperor, cunningly pulls the focus away from Macartney’s own interaction, which had been, and continues to be a matter of diplomatic controversy.

Even before Macartney left for China, there had been speculation about whether he would prostrate himself before the Emperor in the kowtow, (even to the extent of a Gillray cartoon, above, lampooning the idea) and Harrison gets gleefully grubby in the archives pointing out how Chinese and British writings on the fateful meeting offer widely different accounts of it, and that the elder Staunton’s own hand-written journal contains frantic crossings-out as he tries to find the best wording to describe Macartney’s behaviour as diplomatically as possible, none of which survive to the account as printed and published.

That’s not how the Chinese remembered it, and Harrison uncovers a cutting passage of courtly verse that compares the British to “wild deer, untamed and stubborn against the court rituals” and which brags that when push came to shove in the imperial presence, Macartney fell to both his knees.

So not the one knee that Macartney claimed himself, and not the full head-to-the-floor kowtow that the Chinese demanded? Whatever happened, after Macartney’s audience, the relations between the entourages turned increasingly frosty, and the British were bundled out of north China, being told that their time was up, but actually because the patience of the Chinese had run out.

The Macartney Mission was officially a failure, and its leader returned to Britain muttering that China was a rotting hulk, a ship of state doomed to sink or succumb to mutiny. That’s another story, of course. But Harrison stays with the two interpreters, charting their very different fates, as Li ended up as an increasingly unwelcome missionary in Shaanxi, while the younger Staunton nurtured a passionate interest in the Chinese language, and would return to China in his late teens as an employee of the East India Company. There, his years of careful study of Mandarin were confronted by the two-fold menace of Cantonese, as different from Mandarin as English is from Dutch, and by the horrors of Chinese Coastal Pidgin, a trading patois that mangled both Chinese and English into a new creole of its own.

There is more material extant on Staunton than on Li, and Harrison makes the most of her metadata, even including a graph tabulating the increase in his wealth from his bank accounts. Staunton gets to lurk as an interpreter in the corners of several other minor moments in Sino-British history, but suddenly comes to life, quite jaw-droppingly, in an encounter in 1811. With tensions riding high in Canton, the Mongol official Songyun arrives as a trouble-shooter, and demands to know who has written the impeccable Chinese on a British document. It was, of course, Staunton, whom Songyun first encountered a decade earlier, and the two are reacquainted at a banquet that suddenly turns nasty when Songyun, seemingly out of the blue, demands that Staunton drop to his knees and perform the kowtow to him. Staunton refuses so vehemently that a modern reader might even say that he was “triggered”.

Staunton is also on the side-lines in 1811 at a moment that passes without much notice, but which amounts to the culmination of all Macartney’s fears and warnings. Low on silver, and unprepared to listen to Songyun’s pleas for the moral high-ground, the English merchants in Canton voted to accept opium as a security in credit notes. That was sure to help the economy back in British India, but also set the nations on a collision course for the Opium Wars.

Harrison takes her narrative right up to and past the first Opium War, with a melancholy account of the ridicule and indifference with which the British back home treated Staunton’s knowledge of China. She writes of Staunton’s ire at being asked to be a mere interpreter with the later Amherst Embassy, despite the expectations of the Chinese themselves that he would be a leading envoy. Instead, fuming, he is initially asked to be a mere flunky, working for the bastard son of the Earl of Buckinghamshire, appointed to the role because he’s been to India and therefore apparently “knows the East.”

She also quotes from his heartfelt attempts, later in life as a Member of Parliament, to teach braying fellow MPs about the finer nuances of Chinese culture – his futile speech correcting the weasly comments of one MP ring all too true today, in a world in which, in the words of Michael Gove, people had already “had enough of experts” and preferred instead the comforts of ignorance.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Henrietta Harrison’s The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators Between Qing China and the British Empire is published by Princeton University Press.

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