CASE 4:  China and International Law in the 19th Century


Although the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin is unique in its banning of a Chinese character, the political use of language is not limited to this instance but was practiced by the British throughout its colonial enterprises. The English had made it illegal for people in Ireland to speak their own language, punishing the speaking of Gaelic as a serious criminal offense. In India, the British also took issue with the Hindi word that they thought meant “barbarian.” Words are never neutral vehicles of communication, but can become powerful instruments of political power. Translation further complicates the situation because it takes one word to complete the meaning of another, and therefore leaves even more space for manipulation. The act of translation brings with it a certain conception of foreignness, and therefore a certain judgment about what is alien to oneself. It encourages people to reduce strangers to some simple formula, such as racial identity, which often leads to demonization of a foreign population. This, in turn, tends to obfuscate common factors shared by both sides.

In this case, even though the British were inclined to see the issue in terms of some kind of contest between East and West, a kind of “clash of civilizations,” the ethnic politics of the situation was far more complex. It is seldom noticed that the people whom the British were combating were not, in fact, what we normally call “Chinese” people! The Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911 AD) were themselves foreigners in China, empire builders who invaded and occupied China, Tibet, and other parts of East Asia. They had established the Qing Dynasty and ruled China for nearly two centuries before the British engaged them in the Opium War.

The Manchus came from the northwest, a region known as Manchuria. This nomadic people had conquered the Ming Dynasty and imposed its imperial rule on the native population in the seventeenth century. The familiar image of a Chinese male wearing his hair in a curious queue from the old times is not of Chinese origin at all but a foreign import dating back to 1645. The Qing emperor had issued a haircutting command that ordered all Chinese males to shave their foreheads and plait their hair in a tribal queue like the Manchus. Those who obeyed would signal their loyalty to the Qing and those who refused the order were severely punished to the point of losing their heads. The violence of the Manchu conquest gave rise to numerous local resistance movements and acts of Ming loyalism across China.

To dispel mistrust and subversion among the subjugated, the Manchu emperors adopted and promoted the classical Confucian notion of legitimate rulership as the basis of legitimate rule for the Qing Dynasty. The idea was not to turn the Manchu’s into Chinese so much as to render the dangerous image of foreignness irrelevant to matters of political authority. Emperor Yongzheng, for example, stated in one of his eighteenth-century edicts:

To trace the beginnings of our empire to its original place and regard us as the outer yi [foreigners] is merely to draw a territorial line between the Center and the Outer [native and foreign].

The true distinction that a sovereign should honor, he pointed out, was the de, or “good governance,” rather than ethnic identity or the accident of one’s birthplace. The Manchu-Chinese sources of the period thus rendered yi ren (foreigner) or yi shang (foreign merchant) as tulergi gurun i hudai niyalma (outer-country–born person). The Manchu rulers did not like the Chinese term yi being applied to themselves any more than the British did, because they had tried very hard to establish their own legitimacy as the rulers of the Qing Dynasty, not foreigners. The Manchu interpretation of yi and yi shang was one reason why the Factory Records of the British East India Company in Canton routinely translated the character yi as “foreigner” from the early eighteenth century through the early nineteenth century. Unlike the British, however, the successive Qing emperors did not ban the character yi from classical Chinese but harnessed its geopolitical energies to promote their vision of a universal dynasty, one that would include virtuous foreigners as members of this multicultural family to the point of granting them the privilege of being the elite in the family. In the court of Emperor Qianlong, several Jesuit missionaries were promoted to high ranks in recognition of their talent and accomplishment as artists and scientists.


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