When Chinese Was a State Secret.

Joel at Far Outliers posts an excerpt from God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan D. Spence (W. W. Norton, 1996):

In the 1810s and 1820s, when the East India Company was at its peak of power, there were a dozen or more young men from England studying Chinese in the Canton factories. They translated Chinese novels and plays, and even the Chinese legal code, so they could assess the equity of the government’s rules more carefully. Though the local officials on occasion imprisoned Chinese for teaching their own language to foreigners, and even executed one, and Chinese teachers often had to shelter privately in their pupils’ lodgings, the East India Company representatives fought back. By tenacity, they won the right to submit commercial documents in Chinese translation, rather than in English, and to hire Chinese teachers, for study of classical texts as well as Cantonese colloquial dialect. And though the company directors never won official acknowledgment of their right to hire Chinese wood-carvers, they went ahead anyway and block printed an Anglo-Chinese dictionary using Chinese characters; in addition, they managed to accumulate a substantial library of four thousand books, many of them in Chinese, which they housed in their splendidly appointed hong, with the company’s senior physician doubling as the librarian.

With the termination by the British government in 1834 of the company’s monopoly of China trade, these glory days were over. Most of the language students and experts were reassigned to other countries; their finest teacher, Robert Morrison, died the same year; and the great library was scattered. Only three young men, who had been classified on the company’s roster as “proficient” enough to receive an annual student’s allowance, are left in Canton by 1836, and their main role is to be caretakers of the company’s former buildings and oversee their closing down. Nor are there any established bookshops to be found in the foreigners’ restricted zone of residence, for specific laws forbid the sale of Chinese books to foreigners, and even make it a crime to show them one of China’s local histories or regional gazettes. Those who wish to search out books must walk some distance to the west, where two bookshops on a side street (a street with gates locked and barred at night) will break the law to the extent of selling novels, romances, and “marvellous stories” to the foreigners, and sometimes arrange for purchases of other titles from the larger stores within the city.

There’s no end to the political uses and travails of language.

Comments

  1. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Those who wish to search out books must walk some distance to the west, where two bookshops on a side street (a street with gates locked and barred at night) will break the law to the extent of selling novels, romances, and “marvellous stories” to the foreigners, and sometimes arrange for purchases of other titles from the larger stores within the city.

    There was an attempt on Pinochet’s life in 1986, in the exact place where we had been that day, but fortunately it occurred after we had gone home, so we weren’t affected by the closing of the road. Anyway, one of the first things the dictatorship did was to ban the sale of all the news magazines that were hostile to it, of which there were about six.

    What on earth does this have to do with the sale of forbidden books in China? you’re asking.

    Well, the next day I was due to return to England, and at the airport the only news magazines on sale were the bland ones that considered Pinochet a great guy. Have you got anything more interesting, my wife’s cousin asked. Oh yes, the man at the counter said, I’ve got all of them, and he produced all six from under the counter, which my wife’s cousin bought.

    Later, in the plane, a Brazilian lady asked me what steps had been taken to clamp down after the assassination attempt. I said that they had banned sales of all the magazines hostile to the regime. She was amazed that such magazines even existed, as none of them had during military rule in Brazil. I think it was like that in Argentina and Uruguay as well.

  2. > She was amazed that such magazines even existed, as none of them had during military rule in Brazil.

    What about O Pasquim, Opinião and the like? It is true that most of them were heavily persecuted and closed down in the later stages of the dictatorship (not to mention those closed immediately upon the military coup, like Última Hora, Correio da Manhã, and of course anything with “worker” in the title, the entire leftist press). But that’s exactly the same as the situation described—publications critical of the government, sold under wraps by sympathetic or brave newsstand owners, and eventually targeted by more severe restriction.

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    What about O Pasquim, Opinião and the like?

    I’m just repeating what this lady told me. I have no independent information about it.

    Chile is the only country under a dictatorship that I’ve much experience of, though I was very briefly in Argentina in 1978.

    In 1978 I don’t think there were any opposition magazines in Chile apart from Mensaje. It was extremely highbrow, and I imagine it was tolerated both because it was published by the Jesuits and because only a tiny proportion of people would want to read it. (During the whole period of the dictatorship it was only banned a couple of times.) In July 1978 it had a detailed article about the torture of Sheila Cassidy, a British doctor who had made the mistake of treating an injured person that the regime considered a terrorist. At that time I knew almost no Spanish, but I didn’t need to know much Spanish to understand terms like “tortura eléctrica” and “vagina”.

    Later on I came to know the editor of Mensaje quite well, as he left the Jesuits and married a different cousin of my wife’s.

  4. J.W. Brewer says:

    I should keep up with Far Outliers more consistently than I do. This adjoining post is awesome in a perhaps LH-friendly way: https://faroutliers.wordpress.com/2019/01/17/speaking-latin-in-sichuan/

  5. Sir Reginald Fleming Johnston (tutor to Puyi, the last emperor of China) learned Chinese in a school operated by the British Colonial Service. He described it as a large house where one dined at one’s leisure on excellent food and wine, and when one was ready, one would meet with one’s Chinese instructor. (Apparently the student:teacher ratio was 1:1.) This was around 1899. This agreeable regimen seems to have worked quite well in his case, as he not only became a fluent speaker, but very well versed in Chinese literature.

    On his death in 1935 he left a library of some 16,000 Chinese books to the University of London.

  6. When I tried posting boxes of books out of China a couple of years ago, the post office told me to reline the boxes with something other than newspapers, since it was illegal to send Chinese newspapers abroad.

  7. Apparently the student:teacher ratio was 1:1

    That’s pretty much how the European aristocracy learned languages in 19th century.

    You want to learn French, hire French tutor who’ll be next to you almost 24/7. Need German, hire German tutor. And so on.

    No wonder they were all polyglots.

  8. I’ve started Markevich’s Марина из Алого Рога [Marina from Aly Rog] and the eponymous Marina, a young woman in some sort of dependent position at a count’s country estate, is trying to catalog some books in English and complaining that they hadn’t let her have an English tutor when she asked for one (she pronounces the titles as if they were French and realizes it’s not right).

  9. Even those who didn’t have money for permanent, live-in tutor could afford some pretty good personal tutoring.

    Remember reading how one famous Russian (forgot his name, some politician) learned English – he paid for Miss Jones’ English lessons and she taught him English three times a week for three months. The study consisted of reading a thick Dickens novel while Miss Jones corrected his pronunciation, explained new words and helped figure out sentences.

    After they finished that seven hundred pages novel in three months, she pronounced him fluent in English.

    And he apparently was because immediately afterwards he went to England and had no trouble communicating with natives.

  10. That sounds like the way the narrator of The Last Samurai learned Greek.

  11. SFReader: That’s pretty much how the European aristocracy learned languages in 19th century

    Reginald Fleming Johnston was hardly an aristocrat. I think his family background would be better described as middle-class. In any case he was talented and ambitious enough to get along well with the British Colonial Service. He did have an Oxbridge education which would have been helpful in getting him into that situation.

    Most people in his situation, when they got leave, used it to go back to England to visit their family. But he was somewhat estranged from his family, so instead he toured around different parts of China and neighbouring countries. I think in modern terms one might consider him to be a bit obsessive. But maybe even today our best scholars are a bit obsessive.

    Reginald Fleming Johnston was a person of his time, so perhaps we might find ways to criticize him now. But he accomplished a lot in his own time.

    BTW, the information about RFJ on Wikipedia and similar resources seems to be rather limited. I recommend this ABC podcast for more information. (Yeah, yeah, people on the other site don’t like podcasts. Did you know you can speed up the playback?)
    https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/archived/hindsight/the-last-tutor/3116808

  12. What “other site”?

  13. I suppose he means on other thread – MCWHORTER ON INITIAL SO.

    Podcasts were savagely thrashed as being too slow by fast people from 20th century

  14. their finest teacher, Robert Morrison, died the same year; and the great library was scattered. Only three young men … are left in Canton by 1836, and their main role is to be caretakers…

    I hate the current idiotic style choice for making history really real and, like, vivid by putting bits of it into the present tense. It’s inflicted on the young a lot and so it may last some time.

  15. John Cowan says:

    The historical present has been around for a long time, especially in summarizing a narrative. Use of it in novels became popular around 1970, though I am sure outliers can be found (that WP article quotes David Copperfield using it to narrate a particularly vivid memory). It also says French uses it consistently in reporting history, whether current or not.

  16. Thanks for the link. Dickens’s use of historic present in David Copperfield is a flashback. That’s fine in a novel or a film. One minute you’re in a spacesuit, floating and the next you’re being guillotined during the French Rev. and all in the present tense, no problem. What I object to is self-consciously reworking history texts to make them more “interesting” because history, as we know, is inherently boring.

  17. J.W. Brewer says:

    You can find plenty of use of the historical present in English translations of the New Testament back to the King James Version and earlier, tracking its use in the underlying Greek (where its use may or may not have had the same overtones). It’s ubiquitous in Mark’s gospel and common in John’s; much rarer in Matthew’s and Luke’s, showing a diversity of choices of rhetorical/stylistic strategy among authors writing about the same subject. (Different folks obviously may have different opinions as to whether the NT is “fiction,” but maybe all that matters for present purposes is the gospels present themselves as non-fiction historical/biographical narrative.)

  18. David Eddyshaw says:

    After they finished that seven hundred pages novel in three months, she pronounced him fluent in English.

    It’s pretty much how my grandfather learnt German; he arrived at university as a postgrad in Germany basically not knowing any, and was asked by his tutor what his favourite book was. This was “Pickwick Papers”; my taid was packed off to read it in German translation, which succeeded well enough that his German was later pronounced by native speakers to be “too perfect” (whatever that meant. Too Dickensian?) We’ve still got the book somewhere (in splendid Fraktur.)

  19. ktschwarz says:

    historical present … French uses it consistently

    The newer art museums in France that I visited last year had wall texts in French and English. The English was good, but they often used the present for historical narratives where I would expect the past.

    Is this actually a current style choice? I’ve seen it around the web, but assumed it came from L2 speakers.

  20. In the early 1980s in Shanghai I stumbled across a bookshop which had a large foreign language section, mostly 19th and early 20th century works which I assume came from old private libraries from the pre-war concessions plus a lot of Russian books from the 1950s. It was wonderful and dirt cheap so I bought as much as I could carry.

    The odd thing was that the staff very aggressively stopped me venturing into the Chinese language section. I don’t read Chinese but was simply curious to look around as it was a beautiful old bookshop which looked like it had somehow survived there for decades. I tried English, French, German and Russian but none of the staff understood and my basic Chinese didn’t get me anywhere so had no idea why I couldn’t walk a few feet to the left until an elderly Chinese man browsing nearby turned and told me in perfect French that it was forbidden for foreigners to buy Chinese books. He wouldn’t explain further and wouldn’t engage in conversation. I didn’t return to Shanghai for 20 years and never found the place again.

  21. Wow, what a great story — as a lover of bookstores (and Russian books), I’m jealous!

  22. David Marjanović says:

    The historical present has been around for a long time, especially in summarizing a narrative.

    The really weird thing is the historical infinitive in Latin.

    (Present infinitive, not perfect infinitive, I should add.)

  23. January First-of-May says:

    his German was later pronounced by native speakers to be “too perfect” (whatever that meant. Too Dickensian?)

    Too Hochdeutsch would be my guess, but I’m not entirely sure either.

  24. It was so utterly bizarre I remember it as if it were yesterday. The staff were not at all like Soviet shop staff. They all appeared to be book-lovers and were interacting with customers in a friendly manner but as soon as I stepped over an imaginary line they immediately transmogrified into Red Guards. Shouting at me and pushing me back. They clearly weren’t kindly informing me that I would find no foreign language books in the other parts of the shop. As soon as I was back on the correct sign of the line they were all immediately demur book-shop staff again.

    I was very tempted to play hokey-cokey with the line but was afraid I’d be thrown out without my prized finds.

  25. David Marjanović says:

    “Too perfect” German is most likely very literary.

  26. I gather China was still pretty paranoid in the early 1980s and I daresay you can thank Mao for it. I first went to China in the late 1980s, and while the old system was still quite apparent (for example, foreigners still had to use Foreign Exchange Certificates), it must have loosened up quite a bit by then.

    The ban on exporting newspapers, which I assume is still in force, must date back to that era — after all, China watchers during the Cultural Revolution were mainly based in Hong Kong and read political events from Chinese newspapers — but it seems pretty silly when so many Chinese newspapers are now online. But perhaps there are also unwritten rules about what can be put online…

  27. From what I hear their internal censorship (regarding secret and confidential content, not outright subversive) is not very consistent – there are so many newspapers and publishers all over China that they all can’t be censored effectively, there is always someone somewhere publishing stuff which is actually a state secret, but somehow the directive just didn’t reach there yet.

    There was this book about persecution of Mongols in Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution (so called the New Inner Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party case) published in 1990s. The author was not a dissident, but rather a party propagandist who was given a task to criticize Kang Sheng clique’s excesses in Inner Mongolia.

    And he did just that, but he rather overdid his case, describing in graphic detail what to any reader outside of China looked like a policy of deliberate genocide of the entire adult ethnic Mongolian population in Inner Mongolia.

    In a few years someone in Beijing realized what they have published and what great gift it would be for China’s enemies abroad, so the book was hastily withdrawn from bookshops and libraries and, I assume, all copies were destroyed.

    But they were too late – the book got out of China and now is available on the Internet (in Chinese).

    Google Kang Sheng And The False Case of “The New Inner Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party”

  28. John Cowan says:

    “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” —John Gilmore (1993)

  29. Yeah, no. There is a great deal of information that I know was once available on the Internet, but which can no longer be found because some powerful party wanted to see it disappear. Moreover, there is also plenty more stuff that still exists on the Internet, but it requires significant skill to locate it.

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