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


The reasons are not obvious why the British would go so far as to use international legal instruments to ban a Chinese word, especially considering everything else with which they were concerned. What was really at stake behind the legal prohibition? Article 51 was devoted to what would appear to be a trifling matter of language use, but a linguistic detail is never a trifle. The ban has since rooted out the written character yi from the Chinese language so completely that no Chinese speaker uses the word or knows how to use it in speech or writing. Moreover, the ban has helped legitimize the view that the Chinese were xenophobic and hostile to foreigners. Is there any hint of truth to the widespread belief that people in China are any more hostile to foreigners than people in other nations?

One question to ask would be if the word yi meant “barbarian” before the arrival of the British? Chinese historical sources suggest that a number of terms such as xiyang 西洋 (western ocean), xiren 西人(westerners), xiyang ren 西洋人 (men of the western ocean), and yiren 夷人(foreigner) had been used interchangeably whenever the Europeans were mentioned in the Ming and Qing dynasties. Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit missionary, was called a xiyang ren, as were other Jesuit missionaries in China who were known as xiyang ren or yiren.

In the early eighteenth century, yi began to take on new meanings. At that time the Qing court introduced a series of foreign trade policies, which involved mainly the appointing of thirteen Hongs as the sole Chinese trading counterpart to foreign traders in Canton. As a result of that policy, the characters yi and yang began to acquire a functional distinction caused by the need to differentiate between foreign traders and native Hong traders in foreign goods. The Qing administration invariably referred to the merchants of foreign countries as yi shang 夷商(foreign merchants) and to local Hong merchants as yang shang 洋商, or local Chinese “marine merchants” working in China (they were also known as guan shang 官商, “official merchants”). These acted as intermediaries between the foreign trade communities and the Qing government. Interestingly, the word yang shang also reflects back on the contemporaneous usage of “Chinaman” in eighteenth-century English, because “Chinaman” then referred to a Jewish dealer of porcelain in London or to a manufacturer of porcelain!

How did the translation of yi change from “foreigner” to “barbarian” in the nineteenth century? As late as 1831, the Company continued its longtime practice by rendering yi shang as “foreign merchant” as the need to translate imperial edicts arose. This understanding was endorsed by the Scottish missionary Robert Morrison who was the first protestant missionary to arrive in China in 1807. Morrison devoted the best years of his life to translating the Bible into Chinese and completing the first English Dictionary of the Chinese Language (1815–20). In this dictionary, he glossed e jin (yiren) 夷人 as “foreigner” and noted that the phrase was a respectable term for “foreigner” with the same sort of connotations as the word yuen jin (yuan ren) or “a distant man; one from remote parts.”

How did yiren change from “foreigner” to “barbarian” in the subsequent British translations of Chinese documents? Was Morrison seduced by the lure of potential rank and profit, blinded by nationalism, or did he somehow convince himself that yi had always really meant “barbarian”? Perhaps we will never know for sure. What we do know is that the century-old distinction between yi shang and yang shang survived through the troubled years of Sino-British military conflicts in 1834–42. After the implementation of the ban on the character yi through the Treaty of Tianjin in 1858, however, the character yang began to refer simply to all things foreign. Because yi and yi shang had been taken out of circulation, yang shang was forced to undergo a “semantic migration” to signify “foreign merchants.” In short, yang shang now acted as a substitute for the banished term yi shang. Once that came to pass, the earlier etymological associations with the native marine merchants dropped out of usage and were all but erased from historical memory by the turn of the twentieth century.


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