“The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire” by Henrietta Harrison

The reception of Lord Macartney by the Qianlong, Watercolor, William Alexander, 1786 (British Museum) The reception of Lord Macartney by the Qianlong, Watercolor, William Alexander, 1786 (British Museum)

Given the likely plight of the many interpreters left to the tender mercies of the Taliban in the recent Afghan conflict, this book is timely, because it highlights the fact that historically interpreters have taken risks or been exposed to dangers not of their own making. They’re not just anonymous or culturally liminal figures hovering in the background and performing the necessary task of conveying the sense of conversations between different nationalities. Indeed, it would seem that the better interpreters are at their job, the more each side becomes suspicious. What might they be hiding? Are they adding their own nuances, agenda or biases to what they’re transmitting? Can interpreters ever accurately convey what was said? How can they (or should they) “soften” language which might seem offensive yet still convey what was said? As Henrietta Harrison, a professor of Modern Chinese Studies at Oxford, tells us, it “was not just a question of finding someone with the necessary linguistic skills. What mattered was trust.” Unfortunately, “their abilities to empathize with the other side, and, quite literally, speak their language, meant that their loyalties could never be entirely clear.”

In this fascinating and sympathetic book, Harrison tells the stories of Li Zibiao (1761-1828), the Christian interpreter for the well-known embassy of Lord Macartney to the Emperor Qianlong in 1793, and George Thomas Staunton (1781-1859), who as a boy had accompanied his father George Leonard on that embassy and would later return to China to make his career. Readers and scholars can finally come to an understanding of what this intercultural exchange meant for both sides, not just to the English but to the Chinese, thanks to Harrison’s exhaustive research and her extensive use of Chinese as well as English source-material. It’s also a personal account; we learn what happened to the two men after the embassy had gone home and how their lives were never to be the same again. Li, in particular, did not have an easy time of it (apart from being considered for a bishopric in his later years), and it’s good to have his story sympathetically told here. Surprisingly enough, though, in a letter written the year after Macartney’s mission was over, the resilient Li is quoted as saying from hiding, “Never now it is past have I regretted undertaking something that not even the most stupid person would have done if he had understood the danger.” Staunton, now Sir George, running for Parliament in 1834 (he won), was ridiculed by opponents for “bowing unopposed through the county like a Chinese Mandarin,” but never gave up his interest in the country.

What these two men did, knowingly or unknowingly, during the course of discharging their duties as interpreters was to literally set a course for future relations between the two empires.

 The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire, Henrietta Harrison (Princeton, November 2022)
The Perils of Interpreting: The Extraordinary Lives of Two Translators between Qing China and the British Empire, Henrietta Harrison (Princeton, November 2021)

Harrison focuses firmly on the lives and careers of the two men, using them to reinterpret an extremely important moment in the meeting of two cultures, moving beyond the usual historical analysis of relations between China and Great Britain. Language and its translation are a crucial part of this process; they made exchanges possible in a world where multilingualism was even much less common than it is now. Few Englishmen spoke Chinese, and fewer Chinese spoke English, but here we read about a Chinese man who had been to Europe, become a Catholic priest and learned Latin, and an Englishman who had learned Chinese while living and working in China for the East India Company and whom, as a boy, had attracted the favorable attention of emperor Qianlong. What these two men did, knowingly or unknowingly, during the course of discharging their duties as interpreters was to literally set a course for future relations between the two empires, and, to some extent, they had an influence on the way these relations came to be viewed in our own times. The problem was that they were not listened to at the time, and the Chinese missed an opportunity to gain reliable knowledge about the West. As Harrison puts it, by the beginning of the 19th century “China faced a rich, technologically advanced, and structurally expansionist Britain,” and because of the centralized control of information, the people in power often remained ignorant of the wider world of British imperialist designs.

One of the questions which naturally arises is how much the two sides knew of one another during the early days of contact in the eighteenth century. A number of past historians have painted the Chinese in general and the Qing dynasty in particular as being woefully ill-informed about the outside world, especially Europe, and not being very interested in finding out anything much, either. We are told by various writers on the subject that an embassy from any non-Chinese country meant that its government was paying tribute to the Chinese emperor, the “Son of Heaven”, because it made no sense otherwise for foreigners to be seeking audiences with the emperor. Regarding foreigners as barbarians, so the story went, the Chinese placed themselves in the middle, with all others revolving around them in orbit. Harrison argues that if there was ignorance on the part of the Chinese, it was self-imposed because the people who moved between the two cultures were repressed either by powerful interests or officials and even ordinary people. As far as interpreters were concerned, “interpreting was crucial to diplomacy because translation between two languages as different as Chinese and English can never be a simple or transparent process.” The Chinese were right to suspect the British, as they were continually threatening the Portuguese territory of Macau, even landing troops there in 1808 in response to a perceived danger from Napoleon’s actions in Portugal and the decamping of the Portuguese monarchy to Brazil. Likely unaware of the reasons for the British aggression, the Chinese naturally perceived it as a threat to their overlordship in Macau. After an appeal to the Chinese authorities for military help, the Portuguese remained in charge of Macau, however, and there was no French invasion; the British soldiers simply packed up and left.

Harrison presents Staunton and Li as sympathetic figures, but also sometimes as unwitting authors of their own subsequent difficulties.

Harrison tells us in great detail how the interpreters interacted with Chinese court, painstakingly picking their way through its labyrinthine idiosyncrasies and somehow managing to keep both sides communicating while preserving some amount of decorum, avoiding misunderstandings and assuaging personal differences. They had to deal directly with two Qing emperors in face-to-face audiences, Qianlong (reigned 1736-1796) and Jiaqing (reigned 1796-1820). The former was a forceful, intelligent man of eighty-three who had been on the throne for many years when he received Macartney’s embassy, but the latter was very hostile to Christians in general (he assumed they were all Catholics) and suspicious of Staunton in particular, which would have an impact on the next embassy, that of Lord Amherst in 1816, for which Staunton, now a baronet, served as interpreter. Jiaqing wrote that Staunton, whom he, as Crown Prince, would have met in 1793, could speak Chinese, had been “crafty even in his childhood” and that “there has long been a fear that he will make trouble.” Jiaqing’s father, however, had been intrigued by the twelve-year old English boy who could speak some Chinese, and had shown him favors that he did not extend to Macartney’s embassy in general, which he eventually sent packing with few tangible results and no concessions.

In addition to audiences with emperors, the interpreters had to deal every day with officials. Harrison describes how the interpreters were treated by Heshen, the corrupt chief minister and the two so-called “tax experts”, Zheng Rui and Qiao Renjie, who were present because the Chinese assumed correctly that Macartney’s mission was primarily about trade. These people and many others come to life as individuals in Harrison’s account, the fruit of her extensive research in Chinese sources. It was Zheng Rui, for example, who was in charge of protocol, and with whom Macartney would have to sort out what was involved in kowtowing (kneeling and touching one’s forehead to the ground) to the emperor.

Above all, Harrison presents Staunton and Li as sympathetic figures, but also sometimes as unwitting authors of their own subsequent difficulties. Li, for example, acted not just as interpreter, but often as a mediator; when Heshen approved his appointment as interpreter, he was told it was “for the sake of minimising controversy”, and that the Chinese thought “the interpreter’s task was to mediate as well as translate.” Staunton, in his later work with Lord Amherst, “made the Chinese sound like Europeans.” Mediating must have been one of the most difficult tasks, especially when it came to the vexed question of the kowtow; Li had to try and make sure neither side was offended, and given the prickly feelings of Macartney’s delegation, he did his job supremely well, although the mission as a whole ended in failure. In the end, as far as the kowtows were concerned, neither Macartney nor Amherst actually executed them; instead, they bowed nine times before the emperor, which appears to have satisfied everyone.

Attacking the experts, it’s clear, did not begin in our century with anti-vaxxers.

Harrison makes sure that we know something (beyond their names) about the Chinese officials with whom the English dealt, their personalities and their place in Qianlong’s court circle—she offers readers real-life people, which raises this book above any suspicions that it might be dry or overly-academic. This enables us to see in more detail the interaction of the two cultures as well as the two governments. Above all, its language as much as actions which serves to reveal who we are; translators and interpreters can make so much difference in the way this turns out, but so can the people on the receiving end of their skills.

A substantial portion of Harrison’s book deals with what happened to the interpreters after they had finished working with the embassies, as her book is, in part, a dual biography. In the case of Li Zibao, he was harassed so much that he eventually ended up in hiding; other Chinese who had become familiar with the West were often silenced, especially when relations between the two countries eventually soured in the 19th century. Staunton, for his part, had to leave his job in Canton and return to England, where he found himself “excluded and mocked in ways that played on his links with China.” Attacking the experts, it’s clear, did not begin in our century with anti-vaxxers. Staunton, of course, resurfaced as an actual interpreter with the Amherst mission and enjoyed a successful political career as well as gaining a knighthood and making his fortune in the Canton trade. However, in spite of his evident sympathy with and understanding of China, he voted in favor of the First Opium War in 1839, in which the lucrative drug trade was opened up to the British, in spite of its having been forbidden by Emperor Daoguang and his government. Staunton believed it was a matter of honor for England.

In 1852, Staunton lost his seat in Parliament and failed to get another one; he was derided as being out of touch with modern times. Li, on the other hand, continued his work as a priest, and went on to “a successful missionary career based on his gift for friendship, the depth of his religious practice, and his continuing ability to operate between Chinese and European culture.” Thanks to successful fundraising, Li was able to found a missionary school in remote Qixian; from there he kept in touch with his European friends and colleagues, and seems to have been especially friendly with Lord Macartney, and in 1804 he was finally reunited with his family after a sojourn in a remote part of the country, but the pleasure he got from this was ruined by the sexual peccadilloes of his Chinese traveling-companion and fellow-priest. In 1813, the emperor, concerned with a rebellion, cracked down on Christianity, and in 1816 Li fled his post, remaining more or less in hiding until 1820, when Jiaqing died and Daoguang, who “took no interest” in Christianity, as Li put it, became emperor.

Li and Staunton were not “secondary” at all; they were the people through whom the interchanges filtered.

Harrison’s book serves to realign the history of the period by looking not at the principle men involved in the negotiations, but at so-called “secondary” actors. But Li and Staunton were not “secondary” at all; they were the people through whom the interchanges filtered, and they were the ones who sought to promote intercultural understanding and respect. The lives and careers of Li and Saunton mirrored each other, and what they had done as interpreters shaped their lives to the end.

Both men wanted to achieve a balance of advantage between the two sides, and Harrison’s book shows how well they succeeded. That matters later culminated in the Opium Wars was hardly their fault.


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.