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Tag Archives: China

  • The Chinese in Britain by Barclay Price

    A History of Visitors & Settlers

    The Chinese Magicians, Drury Lane, 1854. (Public domain, The Chinese in Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    Among the earliest Chinese to travel to Britain were Chinese Jugglers. Although described as jugglers, their acts also included acrobatics and magic. The first recorded troupe arrived in 1816 and were well received; ‘The Nobility, Gentry and Public in general, are most respectfully informed that The Chinese Jugglers continue to exhibit their wonderful performances every day, and to attract numerous spectators; many of whom do not tire of repeatedly witnessing the astonishing feats of these foreigners.’

    In 1818, the troupe had an unusual booking in London when they performed in the nude at a Royal Academy lecture on the naked figure. ‘Some have been so illiberal as to censure such exhibitions at the Royal Academy, but this extraordinary display of the muscles in forms and uses never before beheld, was a circumstance of the utmost service to Artists; it was a display that might never again appear in Europe; the actions of an African, at the Academy, had surprised them, those of the Indian Jugglers had astonished them, but the present ones surpassed all belief or power of description. The Chinese Jugglers then, performed their positions, and the distortions of their extremities surpassed everything that could have been conceived of them. The room was immensely crowded; the applause at the conclusion was general.’

    In 1853, another troupe included Tuck Guy whose knife-throwing trick was a standout of the show; ‘Placing his daughter, a prepossessing girl of about thirteen years of age, at one end of the stage, and causing her to stand with her back against some soft wood, her hands expanded and her fingers separated, he retires to distance. A parcel of very large knives are produced, he picks them up one after another, and, apparently without taking aim, or occupying any time in preparation, slings them recklessly at the child. With wonder amounting to amazement the spectator perceives that every knife has been aimed in the most accurate manner, and that they have been planted one between each of the girl’s fingers, one on each side of her cheek, and others close around her neck, but that not one has grazed her skin, though all have entered deeply into the wall behind her. This unique and unrivalled specimen of sharp practice—if it may be so termed—was well deserving of the applause which was elicited.’

    James Legge and the three students who attended Duchess of Gordon’s school in Huntly in 1846, engraving by J. Cochran after painting by Henry Room. (Public domain, The Chinese in Britain, Amberley Publishing)

    The Victorians also delighted in exhibitions of human ‘freaks’ and in 1864 James ‘Marquis’ Chisholm, a Scottish musician, was touring in China and noticed Chang Yu Sing. Chang was not a man easy to miss as he was at least 7 foot 8 inches in height and Chisholm saw a money-making opportunity.  He convinced Chang to travel with him to Britain, along with a dwarf, Chung-Mow. Chang the Giant and Chung-Mow were exhibited to great success at The Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly accompanied by Chisholm playing his specially composed The Great Chang Polka. Chang swiftly gained star status. He was invited to meet the Prince and Princess of Wales at Marlborough House and at the request of the royal children, wrote his name in Chinese characters on the wall at a height of ten feet from the ground. He later toured to America and Australia, as well as within Britain, and he settled in Bournemouth, where he and his wife, Kitty, ran a tearoom and an 'Oriental Bazaar' selling Chinese curios.

    The Chinese in Britain offers a fascinating portrayal of these and the many other Chinese travellers to Britain since the first in 1687, including seamen, students, cooks, brides, diplomats, servants, sportsmen, bureaucrats and writers. As China becomes a pre-eminent world power again in the twenty-first century, this book uncovers our long relationship with the country and its people.

    Barclay Price's new book The Chinese in Britain is available for purchase now.

  • How Australia Became British: Empire and the China Trade by Howard T. Fry


    Whereas from its foundation at the beginning of the 17th century the East India Company had been trading in spices from the East Indies and luxury imports from China, in the latter part of the 18th century changes in the pattern of this trade began to become apparent.  Firstly, the Company had always had great difficulty in finding British exports that were of appeal to the Chinese market, and had therefore been compelled to rely on the export of silver wherewith to pay for their oriental imports. As the company became evermore firmly established in India, the so called ‘Country Trade’ specializing in the marine and jungle products of the East Indies and of the Malay archipelago came to play an increasingly important role in financing the Company’s import trade. But the East India Company, having already been through recent wars with the French, firstly the Seven Years War of 1756-63, and then the wars in India in which Clive’s victories had led to the dissolution of the French East India Company, and foreseeing the likely outbreak of another war with France in the near future, began to take precautionary measures

    The government led by the Younger Pitt rightly foresaw in any such Anglo-French war, Britain’s overseas trade would become a major French target. An increasing part of that trade now consisted of the manufactures of Britain’s industrial revolution, and the British government was hoping that it might prove possible to expand that export trade to the Chinese empire. Two trade missions were therefore sent to China to prepare the way, the first was led by Col. Cathcart, whose ship sailed out of London just as the First Fleet, under the command of Capt. Phillip was approaching Botany Bay. Cathcart’s mission was intended to try to persuade the Chinese Emperor to allow the English East India Company to trade with more ports than Canton. However, this first mission never reached China, Col. Cathcart died at sea off the Malayan archipelago. The second mission, led by Lord Macartney, had been prepared with the utmost care to display a wide range of products of the Industrial Revolution, which it was hoped, might appeal to the Chinese market. This mission did reach China, and Macartney did meet the aged Chinese Emperor, but to no avail, since the Emperor assured Macartney that China lacked nothing and every effort was made by the Chinese to depict this mission as just another ‘tribute mission’ from a vassal state to China.  This English approach was in any case wholly unrealistic, since it was supposed that the inhabitants of the Chinese Empire were mainly prosperous rather than a peasant population as was the case. But the outcome was tragic. The only export that the East India Company could find which was in widespread demand in China, and that was a major product of British India, was opium. Hence this became the major export of the company, though not directly, since it was an illegal import in China, but indirectly through the ‘Country Trade’.

    The Macartney embassy had taken place just a decade after the peace of Versailles (1783) which had brought the American War of Independence to an end. In that war, France, Spain and the Dutch Netherlands had all become involved in the war on the side of the rebellious colonies, but they were all bitterly disappointed at the peace terms that they had been obliged to accept. France gained nothing, Spain failed to recover Gibraltar, while the Dutch found that the Austrian Netherlands had seized their rich trade managing British exports to the European continent, while Austria, for the first time in history had become a major maritime power. The Dutch situation has already been dealt with in Chapter Two, but the bitter disappointment of the three powers made Vergennes, the French foreign minister, very hopeful that he might be able to exploit this feeling of deep disillusion among the peoples of these three countries so as to revive the Triple Alliance of the American War.

    In 1784 Vergennes was in fact showing the extraordinary lengths to which he was prepared to go in order to persuade Spain to join such an alliance, when, in negotiations to adjust the Franco-Spanish frontier, he was willing to give up a portion of the French frontier inhabited by the Basques, who had been on friendly terms with the French for four centuries, and whose territory was rich in timber resources of potential value to the French navy.

    The English East India Company viewed these negotiations with apprehension, realizing that if France was able to revive this Triple Alliance, this would render the South China Sea closed to English East Indiamen in time of War. For if such vessels were damaged by enemy action or stormy weather, they would have no friendly or neutral harbour wherein to seek repairs; the east coast being dominated by the Spanish Philippine archipelago, the south coast by the Dutch East Indies Empire, while the west coast was dominated by France, as a result of the French missionary Bishop Pigneau de Behaine’s work in helping Prince Nguyen Anh  regain the throne in Cochin China (modern South Vietnam), where his family had been the traditional rulers until overthrown by the Tay-son rebellion. The northern coast of the South China Sea was part of the Chinese empire, then in a state of political chaos.

    Hence Sir George Young, who had once served in the Company, but was now a senior naval officer, who had clearly been keeping abreast of the Company’s affairs, prepared his scheme of 1785, which envisaged ships entering the Pacific Ocean by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and then making use of Botany Bay as a refreshment stop in a harbour where ships could carry out repairs. From thence ships could sail north and approach Canton from the south or east. There is good reason to believe that the Company was doing this regularly, soon after Young had prepared his plan, which had specifically recommended the Company to make use of it. That this was quickly becoming the Company’s new route to Canton is confirmed by the fact that when Young asked about the safety of his scheme, it was to the captains of East Indiamen that he turned for support, which was quickly given.

    As commander of the First Fleet it was common sense for Captain Arthur Phillip to question these same commanders of East Indiamen as to the positive and negative characteristics of Botany Bay as a potential site for a convict settlement, and from first-hand experience they would have been able to give him a negative opinion, and to point to the vast superiority of Port Jackson (Modern Sydney Harbour). This would explain the extraordinary speed with which Capt. Phillip was able to decide to abandon Botany Bay and to leave for Port Jackson.

    There is one further point. Though I have not yet been able to trace my relevant research notes, my memory tells me that when the cabinet was meeting to make its final decision on the Botany Bay project, Lord Hawkesbury was told that his presence was required. He was Chairman of the committee of the Privy Council for trade and plantations, and he had also taken the Southern Whale Fishery under his care. The call for his presence is very significant re the plans that were being thought out for the future of Botany Bay and Port Jackson, for he and Eden were the Government’s chief advisers on trading policy, and he was also a vital leader of the Southern Whale Fishery.


    Howard T. Fry's book How Australia Became British: Empire and The China Trade is available for purchase now.

  • Mission to China by John Holliday

    It was 8 October 1835, and the American brig Huron, under the command of Captain Thomas Winsor, edged its way between the sand banks along the Yangtze River towards Wusong, the gateway to Shanghai.

    mission-to-china-1 Landing at Woosung, 1835. From the Evangelical Magazine and Missionary Chronicle. (Mission to China, Amberley Publishing)

    The gloomy weather obscured the vessel until it reached the mouth of the Huangpu River where the Chinese who were manning the forts spotted the ship. The Huron’s crew ducked for cover when the Chinese fired from either side of the river. The captain called out, “Don’t worry lads, they’ll do us no harm.” He had recognised the report of the cannon as blank cartridges no louder than most muskets, most likely due to the use of badly mixed powder. The forts themselves were in a bad state of repair, and some of the walls had fallen in, an indication of the weakening economic state of the Qing dynasty. Rather than serving as a warning, the sound of the guns merely heralded the arrival of foreign devils in the forbidden empire.

    A tall, slim man dressed in a long black coat, light trousers and black boots stood with top hat in hand on the poop deck, staring into the mist, willing it to part and give him a glimpse of the land he had waited nineteen years to see. At age thirty-nine, with slightly receding light brown hair and curly side-whiskers, Walter Medhurst looked a fit man, in spite of having spent all those years living in the tropics. The way he stood with fixed stare hinted at his determination to influence, and be influenced by, the country that lay before him.

    Early the next morning, the long boat was launched and four sailors were assigned to take the missionaries into Shanghai. The day was stormy and there was concern about undertaking such a long journey in dark and rainy weather. Medhurst was adamant that they should proceed as soon as possible. He wanted them to reach the city before any opposition could be organised against them.

    The vicinity of Shanghai was marked by a forest of more than a thousand junks that lay off the city. As visibility was poor, the approach of the long boat was not observed until it passed among the junks. Suddenly, an outcry erupted; a foreign boat had arrived and immediately every door and window was crowded and the sides of the junks were lined with spectators. All the onlookers were smiling and none was alarmed or displeased at their sudden appearance.

    mission-to-china-2 View of the Mission Chapel at Batavia. Drawn and engraved by G. Baxter. From China: Its State and Prospects, by W. H. Medhurst, London, John Snow 1838. (Mission to China, Amberley Publishing)

    Medhurst observed the Tianhou temple, the temple of the Queen of Heaven and he directed the sailors to land close by. Having never seen foreigners, the people pressed forward to get a good look at these strange visitors.

    As the two missionaries were collecting their bag of books to commence distributing them, they heard a clattering noise on the granite pavement, which was produced by the thumping of long bamboos. They saw the people give way, right and left, to two officers, who greeted them in a friendly manner and invited them to the nearby temple. Happy to comply, Medhurst ordered a sailor to follow them with a bag of books and they made their way through the immense crowd towards the temple. The officers opened a path before them with their bamboo sticks, crying out, “The visitors are come!”

    At the temple, Walter Medhurst was engaged in a conference with the mandarins, when officers came in and announced the arrival of the Chief Magistrate of Shanghai, who requested to meet the visitor. He was seated in the central hall of the temple attended by a group of officers. As Medhurst approached, he paid the magistrate the usual compliments. Seeing a chair placed opposite, which seemed intended for him, he took a seat accordingly. The magistrate expressed indignation at seeing a barbarian seated before him and the officers around called out, “Rise! Rise!” Medhurst rose as requested, asked why he could not be seated at the conference, and when told that he could not, he bowed and left the room.

    mission-to-china-4 Potrait of Walter Medhurst before he left London in 1816 by W. T. Strutt. Collection of the SOAS Archives. (Mission to China, Amberley Publishing)

    When the mandarins tried to persuade him to return, Medhurst’s response was that while subjects of the empire should be expected to comply with government regulations, a stranger and a guest should be treated with respect. “I come as a friendly stranger and I am invited by you to a public conference. I have committed no offence, nor broken any laws and therefore will not stand as a culprit before any mandarin in the empire,” he said. “But,” Wang stammered, “our Chief Magistrate is the greatest Chinese in Shanghai.” “Well then,” Medhurst replied, “the individual who now addresses you is the greatest Englishman in Shanghai and I do not choose to compromise the honour of my country by submitting to be treated as a barbarian or offender. I have no favour to ask of the magistrate and if he does not wish to see me in the proper manner, then he need not see me at all.”

    The position taken by Walter Medhurst may at first seem single-minded and uncooperative. He was not taking that position without a great deal of consideration about the best way to achieve his goals in the long term. His experience of negotiating with the Chinese went back over nineteen years and had taught him to be wary of acceding too readily to their demands. Every subsequent negotiation with that person or others of his nation would hinge on the first reception.

    As the rain had eased, they returned to the boat where the sailors were busy eating their dinner while thousands eagerly stretched forward to ‘see the lions fed’. One man who had pressed through the crowd began rubbing his eyes and then took a second look, to be certain it was not a dream.

    Their return to the Huron was difficult, but through perseverance, they eventually arrived at the vessel about 9 o’clock at night, wet, cold and tired. They were thankful to have arrived safely and pleased to have distributed over a thousand volumes among nearly a million people. So ended Medhurst’s first visit to the city over which he would have so much influence in following years.


    John Holliday's new book Mission to China: How an Englishman brought the West to the Orient is available for purchase now.

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