Volume 11, No. 3 
July 2007

  David Smith

  Front Page  
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Index 1997-2007

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  From the Editor
Thank You!
by Gabe Bokor

  Translator Profiles
Entering the Profession through the Back Door
by Márcio Badra

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
Educating the Customers, Redux: Time
by Brett Jocelyn Epstein
The Importance of Effective Communication in the Translation Business
by Judy A. Abrahams

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
Translation procedures, strategies and methods
by Mahmoud Ordudary
A Cognitive Approach for Translating Metaphors
by Ali R. Al-Hasnawi, Ph.D.

  Language and Communication
Haiducii Story
by M. L. Seren-Rosso
Translating Kinship Terms to Malay
by Radiah Yusoff

  Literary Translation
Caveat Translator—Let the Translator Beware
by William L. Cunningham
Transformation of Literary Imagery in Translation—Sallust's Personage of Catiline in Bulgarian Translation Context
by Yoana Sirakova

  Book Review
The Greatest Invention that Was Never Invented
by Zsuzsanna Ardó

From Zeros to Heroes: The Role of the Translator during the Late Qing Dynasty
by David Smith

  Translators' Tools
Specialized Corpora for Translators: A Quantitative Method to Determine Representativeness
by Gloria Corpas Pastor, Ph.D. and Miriam Seghiri, Ph.D.
Translators’ Emporium

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

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  Translation Journal


From Zeros to Heroes:

The Role of the Translator during the Late Qing Dynasty

by David Smith


In this paper, I will attempt to show how translators in China went from being almost non-existent during the 18th and early 19th centuries, to being leaders in society by the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1912.

n this paper, I will attempt to show that the reasons for this transformation were a complex mix of foreign aggression, internal disorder, and a genuine need for new ideas. I will also show that the translator played a key role in introducing new ideas to and from the Chinese community and discuss how the translators themselves often led attempts at reform by choosing their translations to meet their social goals.

The Lack of Translators in Late Qing Period

Contact between China and the Arab world had existed for some time before the Qing dynasty. As Zhong (2003:online) points out: "Works such as those of Al-Tusi Nasir Al-Din (1201-74), which included both original works, and works translated from Greek into Arabic, were translated into Chinese during the Yuan and Ming dynasties." Works translated during this period included works such as Plato's Logic, and Ptolemy's Almagest.

In 1552, St. Francis Xavier was probably the first Jesuit to attempt the journey from Europe to China specifically to spread Christianity. Missionaries who were sent to China were chosen for having knowledge which was highly regarded by the Chinese, and thus were able to obtain positions of great power. From these positions the Jesuits began working with Chinese scholars to translate western knowledge into Chinese. As Zhong (2003:online) points out, translated works included Christophorus Clavius' Geometrica Practica and Trigonometrica.

In order to be accepted by Chinese society, the Jesuits would wear Chinese clothes, Tang (1991:online) points out that Matteo Ricci (a leading Jesuit) would often refer to himself as a "Western Confucianist." The Jesuits would also speak Chinese and largely observe Confucian customs and traditions. This situation continued through from the Ming Dynasty into the early Qing when in 1692 Emperor Kangzi made a decree translated by Neill (1964 cited Halsall 1997) as: "The Europeans are very quiet ... Therefore let no one henceforth offer them any opposition."

Li (1969 cited Halsall 1997) notes that in 1715 Pope Clement XI, concerned about what some considered to be the distortion of Christianity, decreed "...worship of Confucius... is not allowed among Catholic converts." The following debate led to the decree of Kangxi Emperor in 1721 translated by Li (1969 cited Halsall 1997): "Westerners are petty indeed...From now on; westerners should not be allowed to preach in China."

China thus expelled the Jesuits and began a period of isolation, during which previous connections with the West seem to have been largely forgotten. This meant that translation was no longer required and virtually ceased to occur. The situation remained such until the 19th century, when Western powers started moving into China, keen to make a profit and continue their imperial expansions. I should note that sources such as Youngren (1997), suggest that China was also closed to foreigners during the earlier mid-16th century period. This seems to contradict writers such as Ma (1999) and myself.

According to Ma (1999:page 509), the only translation from Western languages into Chinese undertaken in this period seems to be a translation of a smallpox guide. The guide was written in English by Alexander Pearson and translated by George Thomas Staunton into Chinese in 1817. Staunton was a military physician for the East India Company when he first visited China in 1792; he practiced medicine in Guangzhou and by 1808 he learned Chinese, when he became a translator for the East India Company.

The Forced Opening of the Qing

As merchandise such as Chinese tea was exported from China and became more popular, Britain found itself buying more and more Chinese goods. This created a massive trade surplus. In order to reverse the surplus and make a profit, the British East India Company began selling opium to the Chinese.

This benefited the British economy enormously but at a high cost to the health of the Chinese. In 1839 Lin Zexu (林则徐) was appointed as China's drug czar. A major part of his responsibility was to handle the influx of opium. He wrote a letter to queen Victoria, which pointed out that "I have heard that the smoking of opium is strictly forbidden in your country...even less should you let the harm be passed onto other countries." (Bary and Lufrano 2001)

The letter, however, contained expressions which were probably considered offensive by certain Britons, such as the constant use of the term "barbarian" to describe the British and terms such as the following edited extract from Bary and Lufrano (2001): "The fact is wicked barbarians beguile the Chinese people into a death trap...let you, o king, check your wicked and sift out your vicious people before they come to China...Show further the sincerity of your politeness and submissiveness."

No reply was given to the letter, and in August 1839 Britain seized Hong Kong and the Opium War began. O'Brien [ca. 2000] notes:

Apparently Lin decided against mailing the letter to London and, in the absence of any British ambassador who might have delivered it personally, he opted to have it published in Canton, expecting that a returning ship's captain would manage to get it its contents to the authorities in London. This did not happen, however.

The war ended in 1842 with a decisive victory for the British, and China was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking. This is now seen as the first of the "unequal treaties." These were signed by China after defeats to the various European (or Japanese and American) powers. Each treaty ceded territory, required China to repay the foreign nation's war costs, and gave special rights to foreigners of certain nationalities.

According to Ma (1999:pages 510-512)1:

In January 1840, Lin purchased an American trade ship "The Chesaprake" (吉赛皮克号. He transformed the ship into a war vessel, and started to develop a modernized Chinese navy. This required the importation of foreign-language materials, especially those relating to seamanship. Lin gathered a team of four translators including: Liang Jinde (梁进德 (who lived in America from the age of ten and was the first Chinese Christian missionary), and Ya Meng (亚孟),who was born in Bengal.

Actually, Lin's process of acquiring outside knowledge had started slightly earlier—in 1836 Lin sent aides to meet American Jesuit P. Parker (伯驾). Among other things, Parker gave them a globe. Lin was also given a copy of Hugh Murray's Cyclopaedia of Geography which was then translated into Chinese by Liang Jinde, combined with other similar works, polished by Lin himself, and finally published as 四州志 , translated into English by He (1997) as "A Record of Four Continents." Ma (1998:page 513) suggests that this was the first occasion where modern China systematically learned about the history and geography of the Western world.

Record of Four Continents was followed by a number of functional works translated specifically with the desire to understand the West and strengthen the Chinese army and navy.

The Return of the Jesuits (based on Ma 1999 pg. 517-550)

After the expulsion of foreigners, the Jesuits had tended to base themselves among Chinese communities outside of mainland China—In particular in places such as Singapore and Macau. Ling (online) notes that: "[the Jesuits] set out to build a "wall of light" around China, waiting for China's doors to open." Translations of classical Chinese works such as Confucius' The Analects into English were performed in 1809.

After China's loss in the opium war and signing of the Treaty of Nanjing—which allowed full access to China for foreigners in five major coastal cities—the Jesuits began to return to the mainland. In 1844 The Chinese and American Holy Class Book Establishment (花华圣经书房) moved from Macau to Ningbo. The London Missionary Society Press (墨海书馆) was established in Shanghai in 1843. These two became extremely important over the subsequent years.

A number of Jesuits joined the London Missionary Society Press: such as Joseph Edkins (艾约瑟), and Alexander Wiley(伟烈亚力). As mentioned in the previous section, these people often worked together with local Chinese to produce translations. As China was continually attacked by the European powers, and faced massive internal unrest, the need for more rapid learning of the western world became apparent.

The Early Translators (Based on O'Connor and Roberton (2003), and Ma (1999:page 527-531))

Chinese translator and mathematician Li Shanlan (李善兰) worked with Wiley to produce a translation of Elements of Algebra by Augustus de Morgan translated as Daishuxue 代数学 in 1859. This was the first Chinese book to deal with notational algebra. Elements of Analytical Geometry and of Differential and Integral Calculus by Elias Loomis was translated by the same pair as Daiweiji Shiji 代微积拾级 in 1850. Li also worked with Edkins to produce a translation of An Elementary Treatise on Mechanics by William Whewell. I should mention that it is a slight to Li Shanlan to refer to him simply as a translator; rather he was a first-rate mathematician—Connor and Robertson (2003) call him "the greatest Chinese mathematician of the 19th century." He himself wrote a number of extremely important mathematical papers such as dUoji Bilei 垛积比类(Summing Finite Series). A sign of his academic diversity, Li also produced a translation of John Lindley's Elements of Botany (translated as zHiwuxue Jichu植物学基础)

Other Jesuits worked to produce Chinese interpretations of Western medicine. One such example was Xiyi Lueshuo 西医略说 (A Brief Discussion on Western Medicine) 2 written by Benjamin Hobsen (合信) published in 1857. This was not strictly speaking a translation, since it was written specifically for Chinese readers.

By the late 1850's and 1860's there was a movement away from translation of strictly naval and technical documents towards more theoretical sciences; from engineering towards theoretical mechanics; from seamanship towards geometry. We also saw how new disciplines such as botany and Western medicine were translated during this period.

The Influx of Foreign Ideas

As China continued facing western invasions and internal rebellions, a faction within the government known as the Yangwu (洋务) adopted the idea of "learning from the West." This meant using Western science and technology. Predictably, as the faction gained power, there was a huge improvement in the status of the translator and an increase in the number of translations.

Fuzhou Shipyard School (船政学堂) was an institution established in 1866 by the Yangwu faction. As Zhang (2002) points out, its main purpose was to produce military ships and steam engines. After studying for around five years, one of the students from this school, Yan Fu (严复), was sent to England to study. During his stay he seems to have become convinced that to help China, merely learning the Western sciences and engineering would not be enough. He felt that there was a need for many of the other disciplines of the West such as law, economics, politics, and education.

Thus, when Yan Fu returned to China, he translated works such as the following, taken from a list provided by Wright (2001:online):

  • Evolution and Ethics by Thomas H. Huxley as Tianyanlun 天演论 (On evolution) in 1898;
  • The Study of Sociology by Herbert Spencer as Qunxue yiyan 群学遗言in 1902;
  • The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith as Yuanfu 原富 (On wealth) in 1902;
  • On Liberty by John Stuart Mill as Qunji quanjie lun群己劝解论 (On the boundary between the rights of the society and the rights of the individual) in 1903.

Wright (2001:online) notes that, Yan is admired as much for his Chinese prose style as for his skill as the greatest contemporary interpreter of Western thought. Zhong (2003:online) adds that he also established the most well known of Chinese translation theories. His work has been the subject of numerous studies such as that by Chan (2004).

We can thus see that during the late 1800's the emphasis on translation turned from theoretical sciences towards applied sciences and humanities. There was an increasing feeling that adopting Western technology "on top of" existing social structures would not work. In particular, when Japan defeated China in 1895, an increasing number of Chinese thinkers felt the need for major reform.

Translators as Reformers

Worden et al. (1998:online) describe the 100 days of reform as follows: In the 103 days from June 11 to September 21, 1898, the Qing emperor, Guangxu (1875-1908), ordered a series of reforms aimed at making sweeping social and institutional changes. This effort reflected the thinking of a group of progressive scholar-reformers, who had impressed on the court the urgency of making innovations for the nation's survival. Influenced by the Japanese success with modernization, the reformers declared that China needed more than "self-strengthening" and that innovation must be accompanied by institutional and ideological change.

Refering to Yan Fu, He (1998:page 476) states: "did not join the direct political activities of the Reform movement, yet ideologically he made the most remarkable contribution to that movement." After the movement was crushed, Yan Fu rose to prominence again. He (1998:page 482) points out: "When Yuan Shikai was plotting to assume the throne of the emperor, Yan Fu became one of the six members of the Society for Planning the Peace, an organization manipulated by Yuan in preparation for his ascendancy to the royal throne."

The Literary Revolution

Mitter (2004:page 26) points out that: A novel published in 1830, Li Ruizhen's Flowers in the Mirror, deals with the lives of upper-class Chinese, one of whom, Duo the Helmsman, firmly states "The fact of the matter is that our China must be regarded as the root of all other countries."

Several years and numerous military defeats later, a new kind of literature began to emerge. As the Chinese people became increasingly aware of the outside world, a thirst developed for foreign stories. Translated literature became a powerhouse industry—by the late Qing there were over 500 translated books in circulation.

Lin Shu (林纾) is considered the first exclusively literary translator into Chinese. This is highly ironic since he did not speak any foreign languages; he would ask an interpreter to explain the text and translate passage by passage. Over his life he translated more than 150 works, starting with his translation of La dame aux camellias.

According to Zhong (2003:online): "Literary translation during the late Qing dynasty broke the Manchu's 'closed-door policy,' and brought to the Chinese people the lives, customs, ideology and social lives of western countries." The introduction of Western ideology and democratic progress had an impact on the intellectuals and social reformers of China. Literary translation also caused the diversification of literary creation forms of China and facilitated the reform of the traditional Chinese novel genre, with each chapter headed by a couplet giving the gist of its contents. The popularity of novels during the late Qing dynasty was closely related to the introduction of western novels.


One would expect to see a strong correlation between the respect given to a particular culture and the amount of works which are translated out of that culture. For regions which are highly regarded, a large number of translated works would be expected. In the late Qing period, we have a situation which goes from one extreme to another.

In 1835 there were virtually no translators working into Chinese from English (or any language), and only a very small number of Jesuits working the other way (nearly all of whom were based outside China).

In the early 1840's the first wave of translations dealt entirely with issues relating to seamanship and warfare. However, even after losing the Opium War, many members of the Chinese court failed to accept the need for reform. Thus, China lost subsequent battles to most of the European (and Japanese and American) powers. Many Jesuits were happy to work with the Chinese to strengthen the country and helped to translate documents as they were required (although as Ma (1999:517-526) points out, sometimes a creationist slant was added).

Through the 1860's we saw a slight shift away from translation of pure engineering towards more abstract sciences, and in the 1880's towards humanities and soft sciences. Perhaps predictably, as the amount of translations grew, so did the requirements and awareness of the translation process. Thus, Yan Fu laid down his theory of translation in 1898, while the first major translation bureaux were established 10 years later.

By the end of the Qing in 1911, translators had become virtually essential to the running of the empire. Thus, we can see how over just 60 years translators had gone from playing a very marginal role, to being major leaders in society—from zeroes to heroes.


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The Imperial College Msc Translation course can be found at: http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/humanities/mscintranslation.


Many thanks to Sonia Cutler and Nicky Harman for their contributions