Editor's Choice

Don't know where to start? The China: Culture and Society team pick highlights from the collection.

Chinese language items
Georgina Phipps

DS703 .Z173 no. 11China: Culture and Society contains many pamphlets which provide a contemporary Western perspective on China as it was in the late Qing, and casts light, whether judgemental or detached, on her people and history, and the position and influence in China of foreigners. Personally, I found that the most interesting and honest insights into the question of what changes were wrought by the foreign infiltration were to be gained obliquely, through examining the resource’s fascinating collection of material on the Chinese language, including language learning aids, vocabulary lists, lectures on language history, and literature in Pidgin English.

Pidgin English, explains the introduction to Pidgin English Sing-Song, “is that dialect of our language which is extensively used in the seaport towns of China as a means of communication between English or Americans and the natives.” English became the lingua franca of foreign trade in the southern Chinese ports when the British came to dominate that trade in the eighteenth century. In order to conduct transactions, one must be able to communicate. As most Chinese and English involved in these early encounters found the idea of learning each other’s languages mutually distasteful and difficult, ‘Pidgin English’, a fusion which was Chinese “as to structure and sound, with English words” rapidly developed in the coastal cities. It existed initially for the purpose of facilitating trade; indeed, the very word ‘pidgin’ is derived from the Cantonese pronunciation of ‘business’. Over the course of the nineteenth century however, as the foreign influence extended up the coast and reached inland, so Pidgin English followed the foreigners to Shanghai and along the whole seaboard and in some areas became a common tongue between Chinese speakers of different dialects. By the turn of the twentieth century, the language was so standardised as to enable the production of literature in Pidgin, such as Pidgin-English Rhymes and the Pidgin English Sing-Song. While the former is pure entertainment and accompanies lively verses with humorous, colourful illustrations, the latter is more explicitly a serious study of Pidgin and an aid to learners of the dialect. The verses are furnished with footnotes and end notes, and a good Pidgin vocabulary providing a useful overview of the language is appended. As an amalgam of English and Chinese, on flicking through the vocabulary many words can be easily identified as direct derivatives from one or the other language. Thus from Mandarin we have ‘nar’ for where (nǎr in modern Pinyin), ‘how’ for good (hǎo in Pinyin) and ‘hoong’ for red (hóng). From English we have ‘wantchee’ (to want), ‘tinkee’ (to think) and ‘look-see’ (to look). Some of the apparently more obscure variations result from the difficulty of pronouncing certain English sounds, such as ‘d’ and ‘r’, which are usually pronounced as ‘t’ and ‘l’ in Pidgin. Words are also borrowed from other languages, such as Portuguese (‘godown’ for warehouse) and Hindi (‘chit’ for paper, ‘bund’ for quay), which are reminders of the other foreign presences in China, and of the power of language to migrate within the British Empire. Pidgin is thus the highly visible (or, rather, audible) product of China’s meeting with another culture; yet the language of that invading culture was not left unaffected by this meeting, for a number of Pidgin expressions, such as ‘chop-chop’, ‘savvy’, and ‘no can do’, were absorbed back into British English, and are still recognisable today.

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While Pidgin English Sing-Song is an example of instruction in Pidgin English, the resource also contains a plethora of pamphlets which aim to help new arrivals and long-term residents in China get by in Mandarin. These include First Lessons in Chinese, a well-structured book for complete beginners which from teaching its readers simple words like ‘this’ and ‘person’ progresses by its end to such complicated constructions as “Because Jesus, the saviour, thus bore such bitterness, we cannot but love him”; and Elementary Lessons in Chinese, designed to be studied by missionaries on their voyage to China, which provides a jumbled vocabulary list before presenting its readers with complex translation exercises. As the Christian overtones of both examples illustrate, no instructional pamphlet is without an angle, just as no foreigner was in China without a reason.

DS703 .Z105 no. 3The primary motivation for the foreign presence remained, throughout the nineteenth century, to be trade, and Chinese language learning aids were geared towards assisting British and American merchants in conducting this. Consequently, the very first lessons in Progressive Lessons in the Chinese Spoken Language provide words for ‘silk’, ‘boat’, ‘cotton cloth’ and ‘tea in leaf’, and the pamphlet has thematic sections on boating, money, measures, trade, silver mines, and imported foreign manufactures, and an index of key import and export wares. One of the first chapters in Herbert Giles’ Chinese without a Teacher is for ‘The Merchant’ and provides translations of such phrases as ‘Ask the compradore to come’, ‘Can’t let you have it for less’, and ‘Is there any opium?’. Herbert Giles was a noted Sinologist, co-creator of the Wade-Giles system, the standard method for Romanising Chinese until the creation of Pinyin in the 1950s. Chinese without a Teacher, however, is intended for the casual user rather than the academic or, in Giles’ words, for “The ladies and […] members of the mercantile, sea-faring, and sporting communities of China”; in other words, for people resident in China who have no desire or compulsion to learn Chinese, but would find a few phrases useful for such purposes as shopping, dealing with servants and playing sports, subject areas which provide a clue as to the lifestyle led by the foreign communities. Progressive Lessons even includes sections on tiger and elephant hunting.

In providing what is effectively a list of what it is important to be able to say, the content and focus of these pamphlets provides a good indication of the sorts of activities foreigners typically engaged in when in China, and of the occasions and purposes for which they might be required to have some knowledge of Chinese. Yet it is not only the subject but the tone of the phrases which merits attention, for this tells us much about how foreigners regarded their status in relation to the native population. In Chinese without a Teacher, most of the sentences are imperatives, implying tourists and foreign employers would be expected to boss the native populous about with curt commands: ‘Come!’; ‘Make haste!’, ‘Boy! Hire two boats’; ‘Don’t leave the house’; ‘Don’t tell lies’. The general tone is rude and derogatory; rebukes, criticisms and threats of punishment also appear: ‘Why are you so idle?’; ‘I must fine him a dollar’; ‘I must give you a thrashing’. Therefore, although China was never colonised, the relationship of white master to subservient native was still anticipated, whereas a conversation of equality between Chinese and foreigners was not.

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Tellingly, one of the few language learning aids to offer instruction on polite discourse, the Hand-book on Etiquette in Chinese Official Intercourse, does so by producing examples of dialogue between Chinese, rather than between Chinese and foreigners. The dialogue is for such occasions as official business meetings and formal banquets, is rendered in English and Chinese, and demonstrates the convoluted formality of polite conversation, and the difficulties in translating Chinese into a natural-sounding English: ‘Your leaving at present causes a feeling in me of not wishing to be separated from you’ says the guest in one conversation, and remarks in another, ‘Your appearance is very flourishing and portly and shows that this is owing to your good fortune.’ ‘You are far too complimentary’ replies the host, ‘I am really of no account’.

DS703 .Z181 no. 3The Handbook on Etiquette is also an example of an attempt to teach Chinese through Chinese customs, much as The Fortunate Union uses Chinese literature as a vehicle for language learning for serious students of Mandarin. For not every foreign visitor to China was content with learning a few throwaway phrases to boss the cook about or purchase curios, and a number of pamphlets in the resource attest to the serious efforts of many to study Chinese writing. Several items, such as The Chinese Radicals, seek to teach written Chinese through introducing the strokes and radicals, the basic components of Chinese characters. There is no trick to learning to write Chinese, it is an arduous process of memorising thousands of individual characters. Recognising the vastness of this task to a foreign learner, some of the pamphlets adopt imaginative approaches to aiding learning. Radical Rhymes applies the mnemonic method of memorising radicals through odes with related pictures. In principle, memorising one simple sentence, such as ‘A hat for one old man will do’ will prompt learners to recall a rhyming ode and that ode’s related strokes.

Among the most dedicated foreign students of Chinese languages were missionaries, as demonstrated by such pamphlets as Grammatical studies in the colloquial language of northern China especially designed for the use of missionaries. Missionaries recognised that to persuade and convert they needed to converse. Christian missionaries counted among the foremost scholars of the Chinese language in the nineteenth century. Several undertook university posts and worked as translators. Robert Morrison, the first Protestant missionary to China, translated the Bible into Chinese, and the fruits of missionary translation labours are in evidence in this resource, for example in the parallel Mandarin and English language The gospel according to Saint Matthew and The Lord's Prayer.

That Christianity should be preached and Christian education provided in Chinese did not go undisputed. Beyond on-going linguistic debates on how best to translate the Bible and certain words, in particular God (see for instance DS703 .Z119 no. 2 and DS703 .Z223 no. 20), into Chinese, there occurred also a deeper discussion on whether teaching the Word of God in English would in the long term be more effective, or whether exposing the Chinese youth to English would encourage them to turn their backs on Christianity and move into business. In the end, both sides prevailed; Christian texts were circulated in Chinese, but mission schools also tutored their students in foreign languages. The Gospel Primer is an example of an educational text which sought to teach English alongside Christianity; prayers and lessons on God given in Chinese and English are accompanied by vocab lists, and the whole is preceded by a page of the Roman alphabet and Arabic numerals. Other items within the resource apparently designed for English language learners include Graduated reading, comprising a circle of knowledge and Teaching from pictures for young and old.

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Arguably, the existence of such English-language learning aids is symbolic of the profound changes that occurred in Chinese society between the 18th and early 20th centuries – the period this resource covers. Stimulated by the spread and popularity among lower classes of Pidgin English and the growing awareness that interaction with foreigners was unavoidable, mastering foreign languages gradually became more prestigious among the educated and essential among merchants. Foreign language schools and mission schools spread throughout the nineteenth century, and in the reforms of the last Qing years, Western subjects and languages were introduced into the school syllabuses. This was a long way from the situation as it was during the first years of contact between foreign and Chinese traders in Guangzhou, when locals were forbidden from teaching foreigners their language, and were strongly discouraged from becoming proficient in foreign tongues themselves.


'The sullen industry of the Mongal': The Chinese in California and anti-Chinese sentiment
Nick Jackson

From about 90,000 in 1850, the population of California swelled to 380,000 in 1860 and 860,000 by 1880, an increase caused at first by the famous Gold Rush and subsequently by the growth in other economic opportunities, such as domestic service, agricultural work and, particularly, railway-building, that the settlement of the mining areas set in motion. Along with arrivals from the eastern states and new immigrants from Europe came fortune-hunters from China, about 300,000 of whom sailed to San Francisco in the three decades after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada mountains in January 1848. Their arrival heralded simultaneously a new ethnic group for the American melting pot and a period of strong and concerted resistance from many white Americans to the presence of this new group amongst them.

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China: Culture and Society is particularly rich in literature relating to the California Chinese. As befits an issue that produced strong emotions and a chronic low level of violence – with occasional high levels of violence, up to and including massacres – these pamphlets cover all spectra of opinion, ranging from measured (and not so measured) government reports on the issue of the Chinese and their employment to anti-Chinese polemics and appeals and memorials from representatives of the men and women themselves. But one theme common to a great many of the pamphlets about the Chinese issue, regardless of their position, is that of nature: appeals to what is natural – natural law, natural justice, the nature of particular races and societies – occur again and again on all sides, being cited at least as often as purely material, and on the face of it more germane, concerns about jobs, wages and living standards.

It is true that economic issues were often aired, and often with piercing clarity. In 1868 the Mechanics’ State Council of California communicated to the state legislature its opposition to continued Chinese immigration, on the grounds that Chinese workers were willing to work for ‘starvation prices’ and that thousands of white workers, who were not, were unable to find employment as a consequence. It is equally true that the literature which is most accepting of the Chinese tends to stem from quarters which would be affected the least by their presence. The Chamber of Commerce of New York voiced its opposition in 1879 to restricting Chinese immigration by statute:

‘[A]fter a while, when the [tract of mining] land was worked out, and the [white] men could not make more than $2 or $3 a day, they left, and then the Chinese came in. They were prudent, economical, and raised vegetables. They improved the land where these people would have done nothing. It is not right to say they took work away from the others, because the others would not have done it.’

The Chamber also blamed agitation against the Chinese on other immigrant groups; though unnamed, these are presumably the followers of the Irish-born Denis Kearney, who established the Workingmen’s Party of California in 1877 under the slogan ‘The Chinese must go!’ Not all the wealthy took the Chamber’s stance, however; Henry Cabot Lodge, a Congressman from Massachusetts and scion of two upper-class Boston families, made the same point as the Mechanics’ Council in a speech in 1891, opposing further immigration of all unskilled or illiterate people, whether from China or Europe, on the straightforward economic ground that the wages, and hence living standards, of American workers were thereby reduced by the incomers’ willingness to work for less.

Yet an equally common topic throughout these pamphlets is that of what Chinese and Americans are intrinsically like, rather than what the material effects of the immigration of one group might be on the other. In 1853, in the wake of legislative attempts to exclude certain foreigners from the state’s mines, California’s State Assembly placed the issue before its Committee on Miners and Mining Interests. After pointing out that one bill under its consideration, as worded, would prevent a white, ‘Caucasian’ American (as ‘a person of Asiatic descent’) from working the mines, the Committee addressed a second bill which permitted American miners to oust from their diggings foreigners who ‘from their color, nature and education can never become citizens of the United States’. ‘What nature and what education unfit a man for American citizenship?’ the Committee wondered rhetorically. Assuming, it seems from the general climate, that these measures were intended to apply to the Chinese, the Committee dismissed any need for such legislation by setting out the superior nature of ‘Caucasian’ civilisation:

‘Physiologists tell us that whenever two races meet on the same soil, the weaker is bound to succumb and give way before the stronger. The superior energy of the Caucasian will always conquer the sullen industry of the Mongal [sic], and the latter can never, either in the struggle of commerce or of arms, compete successfully with the former. […] Instead of discouraging immigration of the Chinese, it would better become us to encourage the important trade which is the result of their coming hither.’

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These sentiments were not shared by the authors of a minority report appended to the same document, who held the view that the presence of Chinese workers in California could only have a detrimental effect on their white counterparts. Capita could be, andl was, denounced for paying the Chinese less and so condemning white workers to be ‘immolated on the altar of money’; but the deleterious effects of the Chinese presence were not merely economic:

‘[W]e cannot raise these hirelings to our equality, but we must sink to their level: the dignity of honest toil has gone, the bold open front of the hardy laborer relying upon a sinewy arm and a courageous heart, necessity has changed to the cowering bondsman, his faculties deadened for want of mental culture [… .] They [the Chinese] are a class that must ever exist among us an inferior.’

By nature, Americans were fundamentally better than the Chinese, but the Chinese could only have a damaging effect on Americans by living amongst them.

This dual conception of white racial nature, both elevated and effete, dominant and vulnerable, seems to have been widespread at the time, leading often to a good deal of confusion amongst writers on the Chinese issue. A paper read at the Social Science Association of America in 1877 maintains that Americans, due to their superior civilisation’s recognition of ‘common justice’, must offer citizenship to Chinese immigrants who had settled in the United States, since the alternative is a return to a caste society resembling that before the Civil War; however, since ‘ethnologists declare that a brain capacity of less than 85 inches is unfit for free government’ and that the Chinese can anyway comprehend government only in terms of despotism, such an extension would inevitably lead to racial ruin. Though the Chinese labourer is a mere ‘animal machine’, his presence will overwhelm and dispossess the American people.

This rather curious reasoning is echoed by the authors of an 1869 pamphlet written to encourage immigration – white immigration – to California. The Civil War, we learn, was fought to establish once and for all in the United States that all men are equal under the law. But the Chinese are unable, as a people, to embrace this idea, whatever impression of such an embrace they might prove capable of giving:

DS703 .Z171 no. 1A people incapable of desiring liberty for its own sake, or whose history for ages proves that its natural condition is that of submission to despotism, political, social, mental and religious, may be taught parrot-like the forms of free government, but can never be expected to comprehend their spirit, nor to maintain them successfully against the unceasing efforts of demagogues and despots.

In order to maintain a free society in the United States, that society must be reserved for people who are up to the task of being free.

There were, it seems, those among the Chinese immigrants who thought in a similar fashion, though for reasons of conviction or expediency it is perhaps impossible to be sure. In 1892, as the ‘Geary Act’ renewed a previous ten-year ban on further Chinese immigration and imposed a requirement that all Chinese in the United States, uniquely, carry a residency permit, the Chinese Equal Rights League issued an appeal ‘to the People of the United States for Equality of Manhood’. Describing themselves as ‘the leading English-speaking Chinese of the Eastern States’, they met in New York and entreated ‘the people of this great Republic to deliver their fellow countrymen from this outrageous persecution, pointing out in addition that in paying tax but being permanently denied citizenship the Chinese were being subjected to taxation without representation – one of the popularly cited roots of the American Revolution. Yet it was only the new requirement to carry a pass to which the Equal Rights League objected, not the existing ban on further immigration: though claiming ‘a common manhood with all other nationalities’, the writers state, in almost throwaway fashion, that ‘We do not want any more Chinese here any more than you do. The scarcer the Chinese here the better would be our conditions among you’.

Efforts, by Chinese and American alike, to prevent the passage of anti-Chinese legislation were doomed to failure. The cause of restricting Chinese immigration was too popular and its prominent supporters too powerful; Chinese would effectively be barred from settling in the United States from 1882 until, prompted by the US and China’s common war with Japan, an immigration quota for China (albeit of only 105 people a year) was established in 1943. The members of the Anti-Chinese Convention of 1870 may have asserted that Chinese immigrants came to the US for the same reason that Europeans did – ‘because cheap labor in their own country has driven them from it’ – but that did not mean that they considered the Chinese similar to themselves, or their presence fair to themselves. ‘Woman’s Rights, and no more Chinese chambermaids’ read one banner displayed at the founding demonstration. These wishes were to stay entwined for many Americans for many decades to come.


The Charles W. Wason Collection: Visual content
Liz Sargut

The pamphlets from the Charles W. Wason Collection are outstanding for their visual content in the form of drawings and photographs, maps, advertisements and cartoons. The wide variety of visual material covers all manner of topics pertaining to Chinese life and customs, not only in China but also among the Chinese community in the United States. Here I discuss some of the key thematic areas covered by the visual resources and highlight some of the striking images that fascinated me as I worked on the project. To view the full list of visual resources please go to the visual resources gallery.

DS703. Z156 no. 2The people of China, their clothes, homes, way of life and leisure pursuits are shown in many photographs and illustrations. Charming photographs include a small group of women and children and two very young and very sweet children. A Chinese wedding parade is shown in the drawing reproduced on the left; Chinese men with pigtails wearing beautiful silk clothes are shown eating rice and drinking tea in a photograph captioned 'A Chinese Breakfast'. Fortune-telling was extremely popular with the Chinese and a lovely photograph shows a fortune-teller, his assistant and a customer. Music was very important to the Chinese and several images are included of Chinese instruments, including harps and drums.

The dress of both high-class and peasant Chinese is shown in various drawings and photographs. One drawing, reproduced below, is of 'A Chinese lady of distinction', accompanied by a child and with a servant holding a parasol above her head to shade her from the sun. Her tiny bound feet are also visible. The Chinese custom of binding women’s feet is a topic which occurs often in the pamphlets. It was something that foreigners could not understand, and indeed abhorred, but which Chinese women knew they had to suffer if they were to appear beautiful and desirable to the opposite sex.

Included also are many drawings and illustrations showing typical street scenes in Chinese cities and villages. A drawing of a street in Hankou vividly depicts the vendors and the hubbub of daily life, as does a drawing of a street scene in Canton. The bustle and noise of the scene can be imagined as the artist has captured a variety of activities – shopkeepers selling their wares, women gossiping in the street and an important personage being carried along in a Chinese carriage.

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Gambling was a favourite pastime of the Chinese and a beautiful photograph included in a missionary report shows a group of Chinese men gathered round a table intently playing a game of chance. Many Chinese games are featured, such as prinola, pò tsz', Chinese dominoes, pát chá and chong ün ch'au. An illustration in Chinese games with dice and dominoes shows the beautifully decorated tallies for this last game.

Many photographs concern the foreign powers who conducted business with the Chinese, showing the diplomatic offices and residences of the British, Americans, French and Germans. One, for example, shows the British Consulate General in Shanghai. The foreign officials who occupied these palatial buildings are also pictured, such as Sir Claude MacDonald, British Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Emperor, General Sir James Hope Grant, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in the Chinese War of 1858-60 and Sir Robert Hart, Director of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs.

Portraits of important Chinese dignitaries are also included. Pictured below is Marquis Tseng, the ambassador of China to Britain and France. Also captured is Li Hong-Chang, commander of the Chinese troops in the provinces bordering Tonkin (Tong-King), in modern Vietnam.

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Religion features strongly in the pamphlets. There is much on Chinese religion and also a great deal on work carried out by foreign missionaries. Illustrations of Chinese gods and idols are included such as the idol Chin Tee with eighteen arms and Kwan Ti, the God of War. Confucianism was one of the main religions practised by the Chinese and many drawings depict Confucian temples. A Side Temple at Lung-Hua is also captured in a photograph and a man worshipping at the tomb of his ancestors is illustrated in A guide to the city and suburbs of Canton by Dr Kerr, re-written and brought up to date.

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Foreign missionaries of the nineteenth century are well represented in the pamphlets. There are illustrations of mission buildings such as those at Shanghai, and photographs of missionaries including J Hudson Taylor who was the founder of the China Inland Mission. Chinese Christians are also recorded as illustrated in The story of a Chinese clergyman which shows a family attached to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel missionary society. Sadly the caption underneath the photograph relates that three of the children were massacred by the Chinese in the Boxer Rising.DS703 .Z120 no. 1


Another predominant topic in the pamphlets is the subject of opium smoking which was carried out extensively by the Chinese and seen as a source of evil by the foreign powers. It was highly addictive and eventually would lead to death. It was decried by the foreign missionaries in particular who tried very hard to stamp out the habit and many of their reports include vivid information on the topic. There are many illustrations showing opium smokers but a series of beautifully coloured scenes showing the downfall of a Chinese family man when he becomes addicted to opium smoking are outstanding (see The Chinese opium-smoker: twelve illustrations showing the ruin which our opium trade with China is bringing upon that country)



As one of the main exports of the country, the planting, production and packing of Chinese tea is featured in many of the pamphlets. An intriguing photograph in The Story of China shows some Chinese workers packing tea into boxes, a task which apparently was carried out by pressing the tea down with their feet. Another major export of China was silk and many images show the mulberry bush, silk worms and the production of silk as in a photograph showing the weighing of raw silk.


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This is only a small selection of the striking visual content in the collection. To view the full list please go the visual resources gallery.