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


Who was handling translation at that time for the British, such that a small turn of phrase could lead to such drastic consequences? The Office of the Chinese Secretary in Canton may provide some clues because all Chinese-language documents were first processed in this office before passing into the hands of the British Plenipotentiary. In its early days, the Office of the Chinese Secretary had served the language needs of the East Indian Company and performed translation jobs for the British business community. After 1834, it was converted into a government institution where official communications and secret intelligence were routinely translated and reported. The Office of the Chinese Secretary was central to the unfolding of the important events relating to the first Opium War and significantly contributed to the changing interpretation of yi.

Between 1834 and 1860, the Office of the Chinese Secretary was the venue where the British government managed most of its diplomatic exchanges with the Qing government. Robert Morrison, his son John Robert Morrison, Robert Thom, Karl Gützlaff, Walter Henry Medhurst, and Thomas Wade all served in this capacity at one point or another. It was during Robert Morrison’s term as the Chinese Secretary that the Chinese equivalent of Lord Napier’s title yimu was rendered as “Barbarian Eye.” Departing from his own intepretation of the character yi as “foreign” in the Dictionary of the Chinese Language, Morrison decided to translate yi in this case as “barbarian.” This tactic appeared to coincide with the confrontational strategy adopted by Lord Napier, Lord Palmerston, and the British empire on the verge of the Opium War.

After Britain had won the Opium War, one of the first items the British brought to the negotiating table was a proposal to ban yi from the official language. The chief interpreter working for the plenipotentiary Sir Henry Pottinger was John Robert Morrison. He helped draft the treaty articles with the assistance of Karl Gützlaff and Robert Thom. But the Qing delegation could not be brought to agree with the British determination of the meaning of the word yi. In the end, the British abandoned the effort of inserting the ban into the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842.

During the second Opium War, Thomas Wade became the Chinese Secretary serving under Lord Elgin. Wade and Horatio Lay represented the British side at the drafting of the Treaty of Tianjin, and Guiliang and Hua Shana were representatives of the Qing court. Owing to the aggressive tactics adopted by Elgin and Wade, the British managed to write the ban on yi into the Treaty of Tianjin this time. Wade himself was soon promoted to the rank of the Counselor of the British legation after the British troops took residence in Beijing in 1860.

After the ban went into effect, Wade regularly checked all official Chinese correspondence for signs of disrespect, whether it was the issue of elevating the Chinese characters (honorary spaces in Chinese typography) for Great Britain to the same level as that for the Qing emperor or of using respectful language toward foreigners in published material. He went to great lengths to protest the Chinese infraction to Prince Gong who headed the office of the newly established foreign affairs ministry.

Backed by Article 51, the British residents in Shanghai organized a broad campaign in 1879 called “The Charges of Discourtesy in Native Papers” for the purpose of censoring all Chinese-language newspapers. The Shenbao, an influential Chinese-language newspaper owned by the British entrepreneur John Major, was not immune from such censorship. The paper came under attack from time to time for not leaving honorary spaces for British dignitaries in its printed news and so on. In a matter of decades, the character yi was virtually eliminated from the public domain of printed articles and books and eventually vanished from the living language.


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