Intellectual history

The Image of the British State in the Macartney Mission to Qing China

By Gongchen Yang

After the British commutation of the tea tax in 1784, the British purchased £1.3 million worth of tea in Canton in 1786 and paid for nearly half of this in silver bullion rather than other export goods (p. 272). At the same time, the British manufacturers created a vast array of new British goods (mainly textiles) that needed an export market. The trade deficit created by the Sino-British tea trade and the potential of the Chinese market drove British policymakers and merchants to send an official embassy to China to improve the restricted trading environment.

Earl George Macartney led an embassy to visit Qianlong Emperor in 1793 at his summer resort of Jehol (Rehe, now Chengde) to celebrate his 80th birthday. For the Qing side, the mandarin welcoming what is called ‘the Macartney embassy’ was Heshen (p. 288-290), the favorite Minister of the Qianlong Emperor. This was the first official encounter between Qing China and the British Empire. From the early Qing, many European missionaries served at the Qing court, offering their services in astronomy, mathematics, geography, and the arts. This think piece offers a ‘British-Sino diplomatic’ perspective on the further separation between China and the West after the Great Divergence, and it highlights the role of British and Chinese officials, Macartney and Heshen.

In the context of the Chinese tribute system, the wrong choice of gifts and Chinese officials’ filtering of information made the Mission’s attempts to demonstrate Britain’s technological superiority to the Qing court and to reverse its stereotypes fail. Eventually, the Qing court reinforced the original impression that the British were cunning and greedy for profit. The Mission brought back to the British Empire an image of the Qing Empire as “Gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside,” which significantly changed the British Empire’s perception of the Qing Empire.

The defeat of the American War of Independence at the end of the 18th century led the British Empire to pivot to Asia (p. 4, 6-7). As a commercial state, merchants were the most active and wealthy part of society and capital was of great concern to the government. At the same time, the British East India Company’s war with the Mysore Company (French ally) in South India also had dire prospects, war and territorial expansion nearly bankrupted the company. The British government sent an embassy to expand Sino-British trade to preserve EIC rule in India.

The victory in the Sino-Nepalese campaign of 1792 had given the Qing Dynasty remarkable military confidence. This campaign was the last of Qianlong’s Ten Great Campaigns (shiquan wugong 十全武功), which brought Gorkha (now Nepal) into the China-centered tribute system. The tribute system inherited from previous dynasties presumed the Middle Kingdom’s moral, material, and cultural superiority over other nations and required those who wished to deal or trade with China to come as supplicants to the emperor. Because the Qing court also tended to view maritime trade and traders as peripheral to its strategic and economic interests and as part of this manageable sphere, the European nations who came to trade at China’s ports were handled within this same tributary framework (p. 27-28).

Macartney had set high stakes for this Mission’s success. Among the European nations that traded with China, Macartney believed that “in consequence of irregularities committed by former Englishmen at Canton (like Lady Hughes Affair), Englishmen were considered as the worst among Europeans.” Therefore, believing that “the various important objects of the Embassy could be obtained through the good will of the Chinese,” Macartney ordered the Embassy to “impress the Chinese with new, more just, and more favorable ideas of Englishmen by a conduct particularly regular and circumspect” (p. 231).

Changing the Chinese ideas of the British became the key to the Mission’s success. Still, Macartney disagreed with the others about how to impress the most crucial person, the Qianlong Emperor. During the preparation phase of the Mission, the leading British manufacturers, like Matthew Boulton, wished to present products representing British industry as gifts to the Qianlong court. As a member of the Birmingham Lunar Society, Boulton conveyed the values of the Enlightenment and wanted to send buttons, buckles, plated wares, and other products that would make life more comfortable and of interest to Chinese consumers to China. In his letter to Macartney, King George III also demonstrated his desire to ‘communicate the arts and comforts of life to those parts of the world where it appeared they had been wanting.’ However, Macartney, a former diplomat to Russia, believed that ‘Asian courts would only be impressed by elaborate display, spectacle and pomp.’ Despite the aspirations of the manufacturers and the king, Macartney sent two coaches decorated in imperial yellow, an elaborate planetarium, and several luxury gifts (the introduction of gift, see p. 243-246).

Maxine Berg argued that Macartney’s Mission failed because the Embassy failed to express and convey the image of ‘useful knowledge’ to the Chinese ruling elite. And this probably stems from Macartney’s lack of knowledge of Chinese culture. Macartney was learning about China from works written by the early Catholic missionaries a hundred years earlier: knowledge of China’s recent court politics, which was crucial for diplomacy, was entirely absent (p. 69).

A few months before the embassy’s arrival, in June 1793 British and Chinese merchants in Canton submitted the official letters and translations of the embassy to the Beijing court in advance. The content of the translations is opaque and carefully avoids any clear statement of the embassy’s objectives, the main purpose of which seems to have been to bring birthday wishes to the emperor (p. 90). Once the embassy arrived in Chinese waters, officials conveyed a simple but misleading message to the Beijing court: Britain was showing deference to China by offering tribute to celebrate the emperor’s birthday. But Qianlong was not blind to these British visitors, he watched the Mission’s every move and had his favorite courtier Heshen, receive it.

The embassy arrived at Jehol in September 1793, but the supremacy of Chinese imperial power restricted Macartney’s communication with the Emperor. Apart from the Emperor’s birthday and a few necessary ceremonies, Macartney had no access to Qianlong. However, the exhibition of technology prepared by Macartney, who did not know the tribute system, angered Qianlong even before it was shown to him. Before arriving at Jehol, Macartney requested that four British artisans be sent to the royal palace to install the large planetarium, which would take a month. However, Qianlong believed that Chinese artisans could complete the installation and refused Macartney. After that, Macartney still stressed that this was a job only British artisans could do, leading Qianlong to believe that the British liked to show off. After they failed to impress the Emperor, the courtiers led by Heshen were the Mission’s last hope.

I argue that Macartney used close personal relationships to gain important political positions (p. 28-30), whereas Heshen’s promotion was more based on personal ability. With excellent language skills (Manchu, Mandarin, Mongolian, and Tibetan) and financial management skills, Heshen spent four years entering the Grand Council (junjichu 军機处), which is the chief policy-making body of the Qing court, at the age of 27, with members’ averaging age around 60. In 1786, at the age of 37, he was awarded the highest position in the Qing bureaucracy system and built a powerful political group under the emperor’s patronage. Investigating Heshen’s career path shows that the secret of his success was to please the Emperor, who could decide his fate. His interests were tied to Qianlong and his benefit. When Qianlong liked poetry, he then studied poetry so he could co-compose poems with Qianlong. When Qianlong liked calligraphy, he imitated Qianlong’s handwriting and could write on his behalf.

It was Heshen’s code of conduct to ‘side with the emperor,’ so he could not display too much interest in British technology. But Heshen’s pragmatism led him to display an ambivalent attitude towards British technology. On December 3, 1793, Macartney wished to show Heshen the latest European technology for hot air balloon ascension. Frustratingly, Heshen “not only discourage this experiment, but also the printed accounts of British empire that they prepared for Chinese courtier.” However, when suffering from hernia and rheumatism, the embassy’s doctor Gillan was sent to treat Heshen with western medicine (p. 321). Thus, had British technology been of visible benefit to him and his emperor, Heshen would have taken the initiative to learn about it and try it out.

Interestingly, Macartney’s inappropriate choice of British gifts may have been right for the future expansion of the British Empire in China, as transformative British technology could have been ‘stolen’ by China. For instance, Macartney decided not to take a steam engine, the emblematic technology of the Industrial Revolution. It may have impressed the Qianlong court. But it also risked being ‘stolen’ by Chinese artisans, who were talented in arts and crafts and had advanced technology. According to Mr. Barrow of the embassy, two Chinese artisans could “separated two magnificent glass lusters piece by piece and put them again together in a short time without difficulty and mistake, the whole consisting of thousand pieces, though they had never seen anything of the kind before” (vol.2, p. 98). Secondly, Qianlong intended to have Chinese artisans learn British technology. For the large planetarium, Qianlong sent two Chinese artisans to learn the skills of installation and repair (vol.19, p. 157). At this moment, Qing China lost the possibility of learning some transformative industrial and military technology.

Macartney had six demands: granting British merchants access to the Chinese market through Chusan (now Zhoushan), Ningpo (now Ningbo), and Tientsin (now Tianjin); to warehouse their goods in Pekin (now Beijing); owning a secure island for their unsold goods in Chusan and Canton; abolish trade duties between Macao and Canton; and prohibit all duties on English merchants over the Emperor’s diploma (see Canton System). For Embassy’s commercial demands, Heshen avoided discussing them with Macartney as much as possible and concealed these ‘excessive’ demands from the Emperor to avoid angering him. For many in the imperial court, these demands insulted the emperor’s dignity and, more practically, the empire’s stability.

While European missionaries stayed and served at the court in Beijing at the cost of not leaving China until they died, British Empire wanted to set up a permanent embassy compound in Beijing and to have some territory to live in. Macartney’s first meeting and commercial negotiations with Heshen took place a week before the Emperor’s birthday. It was not until after his birthday that the Emperor learned of the Mission’s commercial requirements through Heshen. Macartney could do nothing about Heshen’s evasion, saying, “I could not help admiring the address with which the Minister parried all my attempts to speak to him on business this day, and how artfully he evaded every opportunity that offered for any particular conversation with me, endeavoring to engage our attention solely by the objects around us.”

Other possible ways of impressing the Chinese were military exhibitions, but the information filtering by lower-ranking officials prevented the impact of military exhibitions from reaching the emperor. Macartney’s warship, the Lion, was the height of contemporary military technology (p. 73), but Chinese official reports stated that the Lion was simply a tribute ship. No one dared to truthfully report how the warship was a military threat or its advanced technology. Yet according to Macartney’s observations, “these mandarins had never seen a ship of the Lion’s construction, bulk, or loftiness. They were at a loss how to ascend her fides; but chairs were quickly fastened to tackles, by which they were lifted up, while they felt a mixture of dread and admiration at this safe, rapid, but apparently perilous, conveyance.” (p. 240). Poor translation skills meant no fruitful conversation about the Lion and naval warfare occurred. 

The Mission left Beijing on October 7, 1793. Qianlong sent several senior officials to accompany the Mission and report on all its movements. At the same time, Qianlong ordered the officials in Canton and Macau to prevent the British merchants from monopolizing trade and conspiring with foreign traders. Eventually, Macartney’s efforts to “impress the Chinese with new, more just, and more favorable ideas of Englishmen” failed, and the Qing court reinforced the original idea that the British were cunning and greedy for profit. In Macartney’s view, Qing China was not as strong economically, militarily, or technologically as it should have been. The Qing Empire was, in fact, “Gold and jade on the outside, rot and decay on the inside.”

Gongchen Yang is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Warwick. His doctoral research focues on the corruption of the Canton customs in Qing China. His general interests include corruption, Chinese maritime customs, and Sino-British interactions.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Lord Macartney’s Embassy to China 1793. Creative Commons.

Intellectual history

Lu Xun (1881–1936) and Uchiyama Kanzō (1885–1959)

By guest contributor Joshua Fogel

Several years ago, I was invited to give a paper at a workshop organized by graduate students at University of California, Berkeley. The topic was friendship in East Asia—with no specified time period or country or discipline. I have worked in the field of the cultural relations between Chinese and Japanese for several decades now, and I have long been intrigued by the friendship between the two men given in my title—the former China’s best-known writer of the twentieth century and the latter the Japanese owner of a bookstore in Shanghai, who lived in China for thirty years. I knew something of their ties, but this invitation gave me an opportunity to plunge into it head-first. The workshop did not produce a volume of proceedings, but I continued with my paper and came up with a short book published earlier this year (2019) by the Association for Asian Studies in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Lu Xun

Lu Xun was one of the best-educated men of his era, a thoroughgoing iconoclast in many realms and, at the same time, a man deeply attached to many of his own cultural traditions. He managed to alienate almost all of the political types who came into contact with him—Communist or Nationalist—because he simply couldn’t abide empty slogans and did not suffer fools, and he was a virtual magnet for young writers and artists, and of course journalists. He was an open Japanophile (culturally, not politically) at a time when that was anything but politically correct, and mercilessly critical of countless aspects of Chinese behavior. The Communists have adopted him (posthumously, of course), although in the 1930s they attacked him pitilessly; since his death (when he no longer had the capacity to affect his image), he has become an icon in China and the center of a publishing cottage industry, with journals, and schools, and parks, and museums named after him. In fact, for the longest time, he was for Western Sinology the only twentieth-century Chinese writer worthy of more than one book. I never dreamed that I might add to that section of the library.

Uchiyama Kanzō

Meanwhile, across the Yellow Sea, Uchiyama dropped out of school at age twelve, held a number of menial dead-end jobs, and then found God, converted to Christianity, and became a traveling salesman in the Lower Yangzi region on the Chinese Mainland. Somehow, he acquired sufficient Chinese to do this and then with his wife opened a bookstore in Shanghai in the late 1910s. The store grew and grew until it held the largest collection of Japanese books in the city. This was a time when thousands of Chinese who had earlier studied in Japan and returned home were now trying to keep abreast of the world, and doing so via Japanese publications and translations was the means of choice. They flocked to Uchiyama’s bookstore and made it a success.

Lu Xun showed up several days after moving to Shanghai in 1927, and the two men—despite their entirely different backgrounds—hit it off immediately and became the closest of friends. As the political world of Shanghai was closing in on Lu Xun—there were several attempts on his life—Uchiyama repeatedly found safe houses for him and his family to relocate to, including the second story of his own store. He also handled all of Lu Xun’s mail and royalties through the bookstore—which also meant that Lu Xun’s address would not be public knowledge. When Lu Xun tried to popularize Chinese woodcuts, a project which became extremely important to him, on several occasions Uchiyama found space in the city for exhibitions and even imported his brother from Tokyo to teach the craft to Chinese students. Woodcuts were an ancient Chinese art (or craft), but the technique had largely been forgotten in the country.

Under normal circumstances, Lu Xun would appear every day at the Uchiyama Bookstore and spend hours “holding court” with younger writers and journalists, smoking non-stop—in fact, there was a special rattan chair that Uchiyama placed in the bookstore which everyone knew was reserved for Lu Xun. Tea and sweets were always in served by the Uchiyamas, especially in wintertime.

Lu Xun (left) and his acolytes

His daily presence rendered the bookstore a kind of latter-day salon, and his followers constituted a who’s who of Chinese culture.

My book follows the friendship between these two men, how they helped each other, and what each may have gained from the other’s friendship. Friendship is a difficult concept about which to generalize—being culturally, temporally, and personally bound in so many ways. Nonetheless, Uchiyama provided Lu Xun with a safe space in his bookstore where he could meet and converse with dozens and dozens of Chinese and Japanese poets, novelists, screenwriters, publishers, artists of all stripes, and many others, a space relatively free of fractious political world outside. And, he could smoke (in the bookstore!) to his heart’s content.  It was Lu Xun’s happiest place, other than his home, to spend time over the last decade of his life. Uchiyama, of course, looked up to Lu Xun, as did almost everyone in the cultural world of Shanghai. He also arranged an assortment of meetings between Lu Xun and Japanese publishing houses—and even with visiting dignitaries, such as George Bernard Shaw.

Lu Xun’s chain-smoking caught up with him in 1936, while Uchiyama lived another twenty-plus years before suddenly succumbing to a heart attack while on a visit to China. He is buried in the international cemetery in Beijing. Writing this book over the past few years has thrown into relief just how hard it can be for people with totally different backgrounds, nationalities, religions, and politics to remain friends. If anything, it was probably harder in Shanghai in the late 1920s and 1930s, as total war was soon to engulf the region; one year after Lu Xun’s death, the Japanese military launched an attack on Shanghai. That same year, on the anniversary of his death, Mao Zedong (then hiding in the caves of far-off Yan’an) wrote a eulogy for the man he dubbed a “sage” (shengren). I’m sure Lu Xun is still turning in his grave.

Joshua Fogel holds a Canada Research Chair in history at York University, and is the author of numerous books, most recently A Friend in Deed: Lu Xun, Uchiyama Kanzō, and the Intellectual World of Shanghai on the Eve of War (Ann Arbor: Association for Asian Studies, 2019).

What We're Reading

What We’re Reading: September, Part 2


While generally accustomed to questions more politically utilitarian than philosophical, my recent studies have led to a new forest of questions which I am having all too much fun exploring.  These questions surround the concept of leadership. In a world with so many challenges to face, what does it mean to be a capable leader? Which qualities are understood to be the most beneficial in a leadership position?  Which behaviors might be observed to indicate the degree to which these qualities are present in an individual?

In this exploration of qualities and behaviors indicating an aptitude for leadership, Shih-ying Yang and Robert J. Sternberg’s co-authored article, “Conceptions of Intelligence in Ancient Chinese Philosophy(Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology 17, no. 2 [1997])  has been a fascinating and highly informative read.  Drawing from a cultural tradition in which intelligence is immensely valued as a sign of leadership potential, Yang and Sternberg detail the concept of intelligence as described by ancient Confucian scholars, and as a separate group, ancient scholars of the Daoist tradition.  After a lengthy analysis of philosophical texts, the co-authors reflect on the influences of these two distinct understandings of intelligence on the modern Chinese education system and leadership culture.

With textual roots and analysis strong enough to attract Sinologists and a writing style which renders the material accessible to those more generally interested in the intellectual history of intellect itself, “Conceptions of Intelligence in Ancient Chinese Philosophy” is a work offering insights on questions of political, philosophical, and historical natures.  


Frantz Fanon, Alienation and Freedom (Bloomsbury, 2018).

Previously unpublished writings by Frantz Fanon have been gathered in English in a new volume edited by Jean Khalfa and Robert J.C. Young (translated by Steven Corcoran). Alienation and Freedom contains much literary and psychiatric work, which, when read alongside Fanon’s canonical texts on colonialism, revolution, and Blackness, should offer a new portrait of the man as well as of the oeuvre which has been so critical for thinking through what it means to be oppressed and what it might mean to be free. I’m looking forward to working through this volume in tandem with a seminar on Capital, as part of a methodological deep-dive on writing about twentieth century anti-imperialism as I move into the prospectus phase of my degree.

Reading Theory, by the Canadian writer Dionne Brand, will be a continuation of this year’s happy regimen of first-person narratives by women, and should arrive in time for me to finish Ottessa Mossfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation. In Theory, an unnamed narrator labors on a dissertation that is supposed to be monumental, while being interrupted by the transformative messiness of encounters with other people:

In retrospect, I loved Selah for reasons anyone can understand. First, she loved herself more than she loved me. And this led me to think that I would get some respite from the world, and at the same time receive the little affections I required to complete my life’s work: my dissertation.

I haven’t read it yet, so I can’t say much more than that, but I suspect that September is a good time to turn to books about writing, scholarship, and academic work that allow us not to take this whole enterprise too seriously, all the while underscoring the immense seriousness of even that attempt. Last year at this time I was spending a lot of time with Selin, the undergraduate narrator of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, and I think Brand’s narrator will also be good company.


At a workshop and in recent articles, I’ve encountered philosophers and intellectual historians grappling with the work of Bernard Williams to understand what we’re doing when we write the “genealogy” of ideas, and why such history matters to the way we think about those ideas. I’ve been interested in the philosophical underpinnings of such stories of the origins and development of ideas for some time, so after reading the philosopher Amia Srinivasan talk about Williams’ thoughts on the topic, I decided to read for myself.

Bernard Williams

Bernard Williams (1929–2003) was a British philosopher who garnered a reputation for refreshingly elegant prose and an attention to the history of ethical ideas that is uncommon to the tradition of analytic philosophy from which he came. In his essay “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline,” Williams challenges philosophers (and by extension intellectual historians) who build normative claims through concepts to recognize that “in many cases the content of our concepts is a contingent historical phenomenon.” Even though our concepts gain their meaning through history, they often don’t feel like it. Our commitment to the natural equality of people, for instance, seems itself natural and beyond the scope of debate, even though we know that there was a time when no one subscribed to it. Even since people began to subscribe to it they’ve meant very different things by “equality” and “persons.” This orients research toward the explanatory question of why some ideas seem natural, and what conditions perpetuate them.

Dana Goldstein, The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (Penguin Random House, 2014).

Williams points the way toward the natural assumptions that stay with us as phenomena in need of explaining, and we can take him further to question the sources of the perennial problems that arise when those assumptions diverge. This is the kind of framework in which Dana Goldstein, a reporter at the New York Times, approaches her subject in The Teacher Wars: A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession (2014). In this compelling and accessible history of the teaching profession in the United States, Goldstein illustrates the continuities in debates, separated by centuries, about the professionalism of educators, democratic control of schools and equality of students’ education. She links arguments among nineteenth-century education reformers and early feminists about the professionalization of a teaching field associated with women’s work with contemporary debates about Teach for America and the meaning of a “professional” teaching force. Goldstein doesn’t just remind us that debates that seem new actually aren’t, but also leads the reader to think about whether these disagreements emerge from a recent history of feminization, unionization or integration, or from some deeper national commitment to democratic relations in all institutions. 

Think Piece

Mai-mai Sze and the I Ching

by contributing editor Erin McGuirl

“What is the I Ching?” was the title of Eliot Weinberger’s recent review of two new translations of the I Ching. It’s an excellent question, and in his review he expertly summarizes the history of the text, from its mysterious origins in the seventeenth century BCE through its introduction to European audiences in the eighteenth century, continuing into the height of the book’s popularity in the West in the mid-twentieth century. As he summarizes, the I Ching meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people, particularly in the West. Hegel thought it was a load of nonsense, Leibniz “enthusiastically found the universality of his binary system in the solid and broken lines,” and English sinologists like James Legge, Herbert Giles (both of whom translated the book) and Arthur Waley (who didn’t) were skeptical of its value as a philosophical text. In the 1950s and ’60s, artists, writers, and musicians, from Philip K. Dick to Bob Dylan to Merce Cunningham, found inspiration in the enigmatic poems they read in the Legge and Wilhelm translations. In the ’60s and early ’70s especially, the book appears all over the popular press. A search for “I Ching” or “Book of Changes” in a historical newspaper database turns up a trove of reviews of translations, interviews with artists and cultural figures, and editorials that mention the book in a variety of ways.

One can get lost in references to the I Ching in the popular press (truth be told, my research for this piece was so entertaining that it threatened to derail my writing completely). But I set out to find out what the I Ching meant to Mai-mai Sze. As JHIBlog readers well know, Sze is an enigmatic and fascinating woman whose dogged pursuit of knowledge across a wide range of subjects comes to life in the penciled notes she left in the vast collection that she bequeathed to the New York Society Library. One of very few traces of her scholarly life survives in William McGuire’s archive: a note at the bottom of a letter she sent him in 1979—thanking him for a copy of Iulian Shchutskii’s Researches on the I Ching—identifies her as a Bollingen author and “scholar of the I Ching” (Sze to William McGuire, 27 Sept. 1979. Box 47 Folder 9, William McGuire Papers, Library of Congress).

The index to her Tao of Painting—a translation of the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, or Jieziyuan Huazhuan—lists thirteen references to the I Ching, and one is an extended passage covering several pages. In this section, forming a major part of her introduction to the text, Sze references the Legge translations in her footnotes. This is a bit odd, as the Wilhelm translation was available by 1950, in the midst of her work on the project.

Wilhelm, Richard & Baynes, Cary F. (translator). The I Ching, or Book of Changes. New York: Pantheon Books, 1950. Volume 1. Copy in the New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.
Wilhelm, Richard & Baynes, Cary F. (translator). The I Ching, or Book of Changes. New York: Pantheon Books, 1950. Volume 1. Copy in the New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.

Although she does include an in-depth discussion of the I Ching and its relationship to Chinese painting in the introduction to the Tao of Painting (Bollingen, 1956), Sze seems to have turned to the I Ching in earnest quite late. A note on the title page of her copy of the two-volume set of the Baynes-Wilhelm I Ching directed me to her copy of the one-volume edition (which wasn’t published until 1968) for “notes + Chin. text.” Over a decade after the publication of the Tao of Painting, Sze studied the I Ching as closely as she studied other classics of Chinese philosophy (such as Laoze, the Confucian Analects, and the works of Mencius). I’m sad to report that her copy of the one volume Baynes-Wilhelm translation is now lost, leaving a gaping hole in the record of her interaction with this book. However, she did leave notes in the other translations that she owned, as well as in her copies of secondary sources on the I Ching in English. They reveal a bit about what she was up to.

Sze’s most heavily annotated copy of the I Ching is one of only a few English translations with the text printed alongside the original Chinese. (She also owned an edited and annotated beginner’s edition entirely in Chinese, but this contains none of her characteristic penciled notes.) The Text of the Yi king (and its appendixes) Chinese original with English translation by Z.D. Sung, published in 1935 in Shanghai, contains typical Sze marginalia and inserts. Some characters are circled, and in the English text below she makes notes in English for alternate translations. On the inserted sheet of paper, she’s drawn out characters in question and jotted down a Wade-Giles pronunciation guide, with some further explorations of a possible English translation below.

Annotations and inserts in Mai-mai Sze’s copy of the Z.D. Sung translation of the I Ching. New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.
Annotations and inserts in Mai-mai Sze’s copy of the Z.D. Sung translation of the I Ching. New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.

As David Hinton points out in the introduction to his new translation, the “texture of open possibility suffuses every dimension of the I Ching” because of the “wide-open grammar” of classical Chinese. The meanings of the characters are never precise. Verbs don’t indicate time with tense, and no punctuation was used, making it extremely difficult to extract a convincingly accurate English phrase from a cryptic string of graphs. To show how this works in practice, Hinton’s illustration looks much like one of Mai-mai’s annotations:

Hinton, David. I Ching: The Book of Change. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015, xvi.
Hinton, David. I Ching: The Book of Change. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015, xvi.

The original Chinese appears above English words whose meanings aren’t always closely related. This suggests that Sze was aware not only of the many possibilities for an English translation of a Chinese word, but also of the vast open territory to be covered by the translator in rendering the English into the Chinese. Her inclusion of phonetic transcriptions of the Chinese characters also indicates that she was clued into the importance of the sound of the original, which often rhymed.

The Sung translation of the text was described in the excellent 2002 annotated bibliography of the I Ching as a “convenient arrangement of the Legge translation,” as opposed to a totally new interpretation of the text in English. Sze referenced the Legge translation throughout the Tao of Painting, and kept up with new translations and secondary sources about the I Ching as they came out. Her collection includes copies of the Blofeld translation (Allen & Unwin, 1965), the previously mentioned two-volume Baynes-Wilhelm translation, and three studies of the book published by the Bollingen foundation by Richard Wilhelm, Hellmut Wilhelm, and the Russian scholar Iulian Shchutskii. All of them show the telltale signs of Sze’s intense engagement: TLS reviews are taped to the front covers, and the texts contain annotations in English and Chinese, with cross-references from one book to another.

Based on the surviving record, it seems clear that Sze’s most intense scholarly engagement with the text took place during the 1960s and 1970s; this period and the interaction were defined primarily by her engagement with the text in the original Chinese, as well as in English translations and studies published by the Bollingen Foundation. While the Bollingen angle is certainly worth investigating (particularly from a Jungian point of view), I’d rather close this piece by turning again to Hinton’s introduction and especially his discussion of how to read the I Ching. “As a poetic/philosophical text,” he writes, “it can be read like any other text, from beginning to end. However, even in this conventional reading, the book frustrates expectations of coherence. It is made up of fragmentary utterances, mysterious enough in and of themselves. And these fragments often feel quite disparate in nature: poetry alternates with philosophy, bare image with storytelling, social and political with private and spiritual, plainspoken and earnest with satire and humor” (xvii). As I’ve written previously on this blog, Mai-mai Sze’s interests were as wide ranging and complex as the I Ching that Hinton describes. Her library reveals her explorations of poetry and philosophy, visual art and literature, politics and social life, and spirituality, and I believe she saw all of these things at work in the I Ching.

With so many ellipses in the story of Sze’s life, it’s almost certain that there’s a more to this story than what I’ve been able to describe here. Like the I Ching, there’s always room for new interpretations when it comes to Mai-mai Sze. I hope these posts will inspire a new investigation.

Think Piece

The Walnut Rubbing Chinese Gentleman: Ernst Cordes’ Travelogue to Beijing, 1937

by guest contributor I-Yi Hsieh

Boarding on the Siberia train, in the mid-1930s, the German Sinologist Ernst Cordes traveled across the Manchurian-Russia border to the cities of Harbin, then Manchukuo’s “New Capital” (formerly Changchun), and Mukden (Shenyang). Cordes went south through the border at the Manchuria Station to Harbin and finally set foot in Beijing, the final stop of his trip to China. In his travelogue The Youngest Empire: Sleeping, Awakening Manchukuo (Das jüngste Kaiserreich. Schlafendes, wachendes Mandschukuo), Cordes drew a picture of what he saw as the sophisticated, big, serious nation of China in the 1930s. Dissatisfied with the xenophobia and colonial mentality toward the Far East among his fellow Europeans at that time, Cordes considered his travelogue as an opportunity to showcase the color of China, its landscape and the city people’s everyday life in its vicissitudes. For the most part, his travelogue reads like a classic perspective painting contemplating the horizon from afar, giving you a penetrating look into the panorama. Yet from time to time, Cordes’s lens zoomed into something, taking up a curious, sometimes rosy, and tender tone. Arriving in Beijing in the summer, Cordes described one city evening that emerged out of the heat exhaustion and busting out with vivid hues of color:

It was in such a hot summer evening, close to nine o’clock, as the air started to cool down. The sun was like a big bloody fireball dropping against the West Mountain. I was just strolling around the Beipin city wall. The view one sees from there is unique, nothing like this can be found anywhere else in the world. The cityscape [of Beipin] is of a straight and simple grid, setting up a background of balance and harmony. Accompanied [the cityscape] are the colors of dark green, the golden yellow, and the blue of glazed glass roof. It is a grandiose, beautiful picture that renders [the view] an unforgettable scene. The scenario even condenses into a dreamy milieu of this old capital of China, giving out an even deeper [feeling of the city].

Interestingly, this piece of Cordes’ writing on the time he spent in Beijing was later excerpted and translated by Ling Shaung into Chinese and published in a local Beijing magazine, the Monthly Journal (Yue Bao), in 1937 under the title of ‘The Walnut Rubbing Chinese’ (PDF: 揉核桃的中國人 月報1937第一卷第一期). Translating this piece into English, I was fascinated by the journal centering it upon Cordes’ detailed description of his encounter with a Beijing gentleman who carried himself in a noble manner with a pair of walnuts on his palm. Cordes writes:

I took a close look at the man’s toy when he was not paying attention. They are two very smooth walnuts. The ample color [of the walnuts] looked so deep, almost turning into red. With his slow swirling rhythm his fingers play, he seemed to touch and caress [the walnuts] with love. The surface of the walnuts’ shell was uneven and with cracks, therefore the rubbing of the two walnuts created a slight sound – as if the grinding sound of food with teeth.

Curious about this rubbing and swirling of walnuts, Cordes struck up a conversation with the Chinese man. After exchanging courteous words, Cordes mustered his courage and asked, “Sir, what’s the thing that you are playing with on your hand?” Pulling his hands out from behind his back, the Chinese man showed him the two walnuts he’d been treasuring for years. Speaking to Cordes, he explained:

These are normal walnuts. They are no different from the normal walnuts that we eat. Just that they have smoother shell. These two [that I have here] happened to be very old walnuts. They had been played since my great grandfather was alive. The habit [of playing walnuts] is an ancient custom. I can’t tell you how ancient it is. But it must have existed for more than a thousand years. You probably have read about this kind of walnut in old Chinese books. The older they are, the more valuable they become. But they have to be kept perfect, avoiding being damaged. In order to achieve this goal, we have to hold on to the walnuts everyday, to touch and play with them. This would render the scent on our body onto the walnuts, in order to bath them with it. They eventually would be filled with our lives. As the time goes by, they [walnuts] would become the part of us naturally. We would never want to part with them. For this purpose, it’s the most difficult thing to purchase a real old pair of walnuts. You know that we Chinese people are superstitious. If you lost or damaged such a walnut, you took it as a bad omen. Those old walnuts displayed in the antique shops are not real ones. They are counterfeits, produced to cheat foreign tourists. Of course, if you are lucky, sometimes you can buy a real pair of walnuts. Yet that would cost you a great fortune! They are as expensive as jewelries.

Photo courtesy of author ©
Photo courtesy of author ©

Mesmerized by this eloquent speech, Cordes urged the gentleman to further explain this walnut-rubbing hobby. “My friend,” the Chinese man replied, “if one has never played with this kind of thing, it’s hard to understand the wonder and mystery of it. This thing carries the function of cultivating your soul.” With this manifesto, the Chinese gentleman elaborate on the ways in which one’s mind and body can be satiated with serenity through such a form of self-cultivation. Cordes recorded this conversation faithfully as it continued:

“Yes, it can function as cultivating your soul.” He repeated the phrase, while pointed his forehead as if there exists the secret of soul. “ The slow motion, the rhythm of rubbing walnuts makes one’s spirit feel relaxed and comfortable. When I feel exhausted, unhappy, and the worrisome ideas catch up with me, depriving me the rest I need, I’d always pick up this pair of walnuts. Look, I rub them in this way: tender, smoothly, slowly, with complete focuses poured onto the two walnuts. Therefore I throw out any mundane problems above the sky. When you rub the walnuts for many hours, you’d feel a slight stinging sensation on your palm. Following that, the stinging sensation would climb up to your shoulder, and finally you’d feel as if your brain is given a massage by a woman with her tender hands. This would make all your worries go away. Both your mind and body would be bathed in a limitless feeling of relief. You would feel the comforting sensation of relaxation as if you just took a hot bath. Oh this thing of walnuts is a real magic of massaging your soul ….”

The mixing of the stinging sensation of numbing pain, created by one’s rubbing of the pointy shell of walnuts, and the relaxing feeling arising afterwards centers the Chinese gentleman’s illustration on the gestalt of such an urban hobby. In the 1930s, Beijing found itself in a political void as the Republican government moved its capital to the southern city of Nanking in 1928—ending Beijing’s more than six hundred and fifty years of being designated as the country’s capital. Various forms of urban hobbies began to emerge and prosper in the period, alongside the folklore marketplace mushrooming in the city. Before the Communist government reassigned Beijing as the capital of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Beijing enjoyed a unique historical time when its urban identity seized its chance to fully emerge, filling people’s everyday live with teahouse theaters, folklore story-telling, street performances, and those devoted personal, intimate hobbies such as the cultivation of walnuts. Outside of the serene city walls, it also proved a time of great historical turmoil for China.

Reading Cordes’ words printed in Chinese, on a yellowish newspaper page in the Spring of 2013, I was fascinated by this man, his sojourn across borders from Europe to Beijing, but mostly on his acute caption of the poetics wrapped up in a trivial urban hobby deeply embedded in the city milieu at that time. If the archive is to tell us something richer and subtler alongside the day-in and day-out scholar labor we spend facing rubrics of documents plucked from a microfilm in a basement reading room, it is only possible through discovering the unexpected wonder such as Cordes’ travelogue gently folded in the archive. Is the cultivation of the walnuts a personal escape from the serial of wars and political upheavals stuffing China in the early twentieth century? Perhaps especially so as it reflects upon Cordes’ own endeavor to escape the Europe simmering in turmoil in the 1930s into a China filled with colorful hues? I sit inside of an office building on this November day of 2015, looking at the smog-infused grey sky of Shanghai outside of my window and my pair of walnuts lying on my table, wondering.

I-Yi Hsieh is a teaching fellow of Global Perspectives on Society at NYU-Shanghai. Her research sheds light on the intersection of urban material culture, UNESCO’s world heritage program, and the rise of folklore markets in Beijing. She maintains an page.

Think Piece

Breadcrumbs in the Library

by guest contributor Erin McGuirl

In the spring of 1989, Mai-mai Sze (1909-1992) and her partner Irene Sharaff (1910-1993) were looking for a home for their library. The collection is strong in East Asian religion, philosophy, and scientific history and well-stocked with classics in translation, English literature, books on art, and western philosophy from ancient to modern. After rejections from Wellesley College, Sze’s alma mater, and Yale, where the School of Drama Library had taken a portion of Irene’s drawings and designs, the couple looked elsewhere. Through a connection at the Cosmopolitan Club, the books came to the New York Society Library, a subscription library founded in 1754 and the oldest library of any kind in New York City. All biases aside (I’m the Special Collections Librarian there), it’s a good fit. Founded as a secular alternative to the Anglican King’s College Library, the Society Library has always operated outside of the academy or perhaps as an autodidact’s alternative toit. As the scholarly character of their heavily annotated library suggests, the Sharaff/Sze Collection is a living record of two creative, educated women who maintained an intense and active engagement in scholarly culture throughout their lives. Today, their books show how these two artist-intellectuals engaged with literary and scholastic culture in New York City in the twentieth century, and carried on a long established tradition of engaged reading that extends far beyond the library.

Irene Sharaff is not nearly so present in the collection as Mai-mai Sze. Best remembered for her translation of the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting (Bollingen Foundation, 1956), Sze never established a career as a scholar or translator, but she read like one. Her annotations in books like Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China (the subject of my follow-up post) are full of cross-references and translations, and she often wrote her own indexes. In addition to her notes, Sze’s books preserve a biblio-geographical breadcrumb trail connected to a global community of intellectual readers.

Mai-mai Sze’s copy of John Donne: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose.  London: The Nonesuch Press, 1932.  Clipping laid in at rear cover.  Smith, A. J. "A John Donne Poem in Holograph." Times Literary Supplement [London, England] 7 Jan. 1972: 19. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.
Mai-mai Sze’s copy of John Donne: Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. London: The Nonesuch Press, 1932.
Clippings from the Times Literary Supplement also turn up inside the front and rear covers of more than 50 books in the collection, as do reviews from the Manchester Weekly Guardian, The New Statesman, The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The Saturday Review. Sze relied on the TLS in particular as an intellectually rigorous literary weekly covering a wide range of disciplines to connect her with a global community of informed readers with dedicated interests as far-reaching as her own. The collection itself is extremely broad in scope and may appear haphazard, but the clippings show that the books were carefully chosen. Mai-mai snipped and dated TLS reviews for books on Chinese medicine, for an annotated edition of George Malcolm Young’s Portrait of an Age, novels by Iris Murdoch and religious philosophy by Frithjof Schuon. She also clipped and saved reviews on topics of interest, like the poetry of John Donne, that were printed long after she had bought a book. The book itself is thus an index of sorts for her exploration of a given topic, showing that she kept up with scholarship in these areas throughout her lifetime.

Clipping laid in at rear cover. Smith, A. J. "A John Donne Poem in Holograph." Times Literary Supplement [London, England] 7 Jan. 1972: 19. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.
Clipping laid in at rear cover. Smith, A. J. “A John Donne Poem in Holograph.” Times Literary Supplement [London, England] 7 Jan. 1972: 19. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.
And what’s more, Sze’s annotations show how the TLS guided her active and intense reading. In a 1964 review of W.A.C.H. Dobson’s Mencius: A New Translation Arranged and Annotated for the General Reader, I.A. Richards wrote, To enjoy Mr. Dobson’s version fully we need to have Legge’s (or Courvreur’s) open on the table too to help us in recognizing its felicities and theirs. And also the Chinese characters, if only to hold constantly before us the contrast between a succinct and resonant utterance and the relatively relaxed ramble of vocables that readable English sentences employ. Sze read and annotated Dobson’s Mencius not only with Legge’s translation in hand, but also with his translations of the Confucius’s Great Learning (referenced as T.H. “Ta Hsueh”) and The Doctrine of the Mean (referenced as C.Y. for “Chung yung”). Following Richards’s advice to the letter, she also transcribed the original Chinese.

Mencius.  Mencius: a new translation arranged and annotated for the general reader.  London: Oxford University Press, 1963, with annotations by Mai-mai Sze.  Sharaff/Sze Collection, New York Society Library
Mencius. Mencius: a new translation arranged and annotated for the general reader. London: Oxford University Press, 1963, with annotations by Mai-mai Sze. Sharaff/Sze Collection, New York Society Library

Mencius. Mencius: a new translation arranged and annotated for the general reader. London: Oxford University Press, 1963, with annotations by Mai-mai Sze. Sharaff/Sze Collection, New York Society Library

Booksellers’s labels also connected Sze with an international community of scholarly-minded readers in more direct and personal ways. In New York, she visited the Holliday Bookshop, Gotham Book Mart, The Paragon Book Gallery, Books & Co., Orientalia, and Museum Books. In Europe, we find her at Heffer’s in Cambridge, Blackwell’s and Parker’s in Oxford, W. & G. Foyle and the Times Book Club in London, and Galignani’s in Paris. Shops like these catered to educated readers, many of whom were also active members of academic, literary, dramatic, and artistic circles. The Gotham Book Mart and Books & Co. are particularly well known for the social, literary-artistic scenes they fostered, and the others pop up (like Sze herself) in the memoirs of New York writers and artists who worked, shopped, and socialized there.

Booklabels in the Sharaff/Sze Collection, New York Society Library
Booklabels in the Sharaff/Sze Collection, New York Society Library

Few of Sze’s letters survive, and the best are in bookshop archives. In the 1950s, she corresponded with bookseller and sometime literary critic Terence Holliday. The muted-gray label of the Holliday Bookshop appears more often than any other in the Sharaff/Sze Collection. The 49th Street bookstore was founded in 1920 by Terence and Elsa Holliday, and specialized in English imports. The Hollidays drafted a memoir of the life at the shop (printed in The Book Collector, volume 61, issues 3-4), and they wrote that they decided to “stick strictly to the selling of books. There were to be no side lines, no gifts, no tea serving, no authors’ parties. And we would never have a shop on the street level.” This was a shop for readers who wanted their booksellers to know how to find out of print and specialized publications. It was for people who read a lot, who read reviews, who called the shop and placed orders for themselves and for their friends. This letter from Theodore Bernstein to Mai-mai (c. 1944) shows that he called the bookshop to have three titles on Shakespeare by John Dover Wilson sent to her as a Christmas gift.

Theodore Bernstein to Mai-mai Sze, 15 Dec. 1944?  Sharaff/Sze Collection File, Institutional Archives, New York Society Library (click for larger view)
Theodore Bernstein to Mai-mai Sze, 15 Dec. 1944? Sharaff/Sze Collection File, Institutional Archives, New York Society Library (click for larger view)

Sze wrote Mr. Holliday in 1943, when she lived just 12 blocks from the shop on 37th street to thank him for yet another gift. Eleven years later she wrote again to set a date for an informal “seminar,” saying that she would bring her copy of “Karlgren’s book on the Chinese language,” which is annotated and part of the Sharaff/Sze Collection today.

Mai-mai Sze to Terrence Holliday, 2 June 1952.  Holliday Bookshop Collection, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College (click for larger view)
Mai-mai Sze to Terrence Holliday, 2 June 1952. Holliday Bookshop Collection, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College (click for larger view)

Mai-mai Sze to Terrence Holliday, 2 June 1952.  Holliday Bookshop Collection, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College.
Mai-mai Sze to Terrence Holliday, 2 June 1952. Holliday Bookshop Collection, Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College (click for larger view)

Collections like Mai-mai Sze’s vividly show us just how actively cosmopolitan intellectuals developed their minds, in both public and private spheres. In many ways, her reading extends the kind of knowledge-gathering we see in early moderns like the Winthrops, a familial network of readers who relentlessly cultivated their minds across continents and generations. In Mai-mai Sze’s library we see how the tireless reader thoughtfully picking her own path through the vast territory of human knowledge—on a global scale, from the distant past to the present—traversed the twentieth century.

Erin McGuirl is the Special Collections Librarian at the New York Society Library. You can see Mai-mai Sze’s annotated books there at Readers Make Their Mark: Annotated Books (through to August 15, 2015).