Daily Archives: 17 January 2019

When Chinese Was a State Secret

From God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan, by Jonathan D. Spence (W. W. Norton, 1996), Kindle Loc. 240f.

Language might seem a problem, since in all of Canton and the foreign hongs there is no Chinese who can read or write in English or other European languages, and only a few Westerners who know enough Chinese to write with even partial elegance. This has not always been the case. 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.

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Speaking Latin in Sichuan

From River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze (P.S.), by Peter Hessler (HarperCollins, 2010), Kindle p. 330:

We met Father Li and chatted in his sitting room. Politely he spoke to my father, with me serving as the translator, and I mentioned that the priest still used Latin during weekday Masses.

“Tell him that I used to be an altar boy for Latin Mass,” my father said. Father Li nodded and said that nobody else in Fuling still understood the language. I asked my father if he still remembered the traditional service, and he nodded.

“In nomine Patris,” he said, “et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen.”

“Introibo ad altare Dei,” responded the priest. “I will go in to the altar of God.”

“Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam,” my father said. “To God, Who giveth joy to my youth.”

For a few minutes they went through the beginning of the service. I had been translating for nearly a week, and now it was strange to sit silent, listening and not understanding a word between these two men that I knew so well. The priest’s Latin was tinged with Sichuanese; my father spoke with an American accent. Theirs was a rote, formal dialogue in a rusty old language, but it was clear that something about the conversation changed the way the two men saw each other. After they were finished, Father Li kept forgetting himself, addressing my father directly in Sichuanese, as if he would understand. But as we left he used Latin once more. “Dominus vobiscum,” he said. “The Lord be with you.”

“Et cum spiritu tuo,” my father said.

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