Aeneas Anderson and Isabella Bird: Travelers in China

The Emperor Receiving the Embassy, William Anderson (British Library): Sir George Staunton and his son are on the right The Emperor Receiving the Embassy, William Anderson (British Library): Sir George Staunton and his son are on the right

Earnshaw Books, an independent publisher specializing in China matters, has recently issued two books featuring westerners sojourning in China over a period of a century and a half. Frances Wood, a respected scholar of Chinese history, presents the account of Aeneas Anderson, who served as a valet to Lord Macartney when the latter led an embassy to the court of the Qianlong emperor (1792) and Graham Earnshaw introduces a book of photographs taken by Isabella Bird on her travels through China in 1898. Both are available online or in more expensive editions, but it’s good to have them in an accessible print form with readable and informative introductions.

“Few men are admired by their servants,” Montaigne wrote long ago, which somehow evolved into “No man is loved by his valet,” a quote with which all admirers of PG Wodehouse’s Jeeves are most likely familiar, and which perhaps sums up what most of us think in an age which is, sadly, pretty much valet-free. Aeneas Anderson was indeed a valet, and he did share some of the characteristics of the fictional Jeeves: he was a sensible, highly articulate, observant, keenly intelligent and broad-minded man, at least as far as we can tell from his book. We don’t know much about him personally apart from what we learn from the book; Wood tells us that he later became a lieutenant in the newly-formed Second Royal Manx Fencibles (troops usually raised for defensive purposes) and wrote one more book, this time on his experiences serving in the Mediterranean, which Wood says will likely disappoint readers if they are expecting something exciting like his China narrative, although he was in Egypt where he took part in the campaign against the French, and spent some time in Malta.

Aeneas Anderson was no mere valet; he seems to have been more of a general factotum, who not only served Macartney’s personal needs (probably even tending to His Lordship’s attacks of gout and occasional fainting episodes, for example), but also cooked, shopped for provisions and even acted as a chaplain on several occasions when members of the embassy died (four of them, to be exact) and reading the burial service over their coffins.

When he wasn’t working, he was out exploring Chinese towns, acquainting himself with the customs of the land, and even talking to Chinese people whenever he could, interesting himself in everything and everybody. Sometimes he took a black servant-boy with him, which occasioned some interesting conversation with the Chinese, who expressed abhorrence of slavery and on one occasion were treated to a discourse on William Wilberforce by the boy!

No early English account of China says as much, for example, about Chinese eating and culinary habits, gives minutely-detailed accounts of the appearance and training of Chinese soldiers, or describes Chinese houses in such immediate detail. Not much escaped Anderson’s keenly observant eye and pen. Eight other members of the embassy wrote accounts of their experiences, but none matched Anderson’s in detail and liveliness. Lord Macartney’s own notes, which remained unpublished until 1958, added very little to what the others had said, but did make some rather prophetic pronouncements about the direction in which China seemed to be going in 1794. He thought that China was “an old, crazy, first-rate man-of-war, which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers has contrived to keep afloat,” but he wondered how long it would stay afloat before being “dashed to pieces on the shore.” If that happened, he concluded, “she could never be rebuilt on the same bottom.” If Lord Macartney (not exactly a Bertie Wooster, one hastens to add) could come back today, he would certainly be astonished at how his observation eventually turned out.

Not surprisingly, Aeneas Anderson wasn’t really much interested in trade and diplomacy, which was likely beyond his pay grade anyway. In dedicating the book (1795) to Lord Henry Murray, Lieutenant-Governor of the Isle of Man, his commander in the Manx Fencibles (and another gout sufferer), he says that it was “not assisted by any of those factitious decorations which are so generally employed to seduce attention to literary productions,” and in the preface to the first edition he states that “my design is to attempt no more than I am qualified to fulfil,” which was “a faithful account of the British embassy,” and that he “would rather be accused of the dulness [sic] and tautology of truth, than risque [sic] a suspicion that I had sacrificed to a creative imagination.” This might look like the conventional language of a traveling storyteller about to spin a good yarn by pretending he’s not going to, but that’s really not Anderson’s intent; this really is a “what you see is what you get” kind of travel narrative. Anderson may be straight-talking, but he’s obviously well-read, and, if one may say so, doesn’t write like a valet, even if he was, as David Goodman says, “the least prestigious member of the delegation.” It would be so interesting to know more about this man named after a Trojan hero!

Aeneas Anderson was no mere valet. His an account of 18th-century China almost pulsates with life.

Aeneas Anderson in China: A Narrative Of The Ill-fated Macartney Embassy 1792-94 , Frances Wood (ed) (Earnshaw Books, October 2019)
Aeneas Anderson in China: A Narrative of the Ill-fated Macartney Embassy 1792-94 , Frances Wood (ed) (Earnshaw Books, October 2019)

Aeneas Anderson gives us an account of 18th-century China that almost pulsates with life. We see people eating, drinking and working, we see them as they interact with the strange foreign visitors, and we are given an account of how the English related to the Chinese which is as near to spontaneity as a written account gets. Anderson describes buildings and ceremonies with great precision, and he’s especially adept when it comes to processions and formal occasions such as funerals or banquets, making them seem the opposite of stiff and boring. His sense of wonder and novelty is never far away. When he describes Chinese soldiers, for example, he gives details of their standards, which were “chiefly made of green silk, with a red border, and enriched with golden characters,” and describes in detail how they use their swords:


They wear their swords on the left side, but the handle or hilt is backwards, and the point forwards, so that when they draw these weapons, they put their hands behind their backs, and unsheath them without being immediately perceived, a manoeuvre which they execute with great dexterity, and is well adapted for the purposes of attacking a foreign antagonist, who is not accustomed to this mode of assault…


Anderson is at his best, though, when he describes the Qianlong emperor, whom he obviously admires greatly:


Though he had dark, piercing eyes, the whole of his countenance discovered the mild traits of benignant virtue, mixed with that easy dignity of exalted station, which results rather from internal consciousness than exterior grandeur.


The emperor, Anderson shows us, was also human; after he “received the credentials of the embassy with a most ceremonious formality,” Qianlong turned his attention to the son of Sir George Staunton, the embassy’s secretary:


He appeared to be very much struck with the boy’s vivacity and deportment, and expressed his admiration of the faculty which the young gentleman possessed of speaking six different languages. The Emperor, to manifest the approbation he felt on the occasion, not only presented him, with his own hand, a very beautiful fan, and several embroidered bags and purses, but commanded the interpreter to signify that he thought very highly of his talents and appearance.


In Chapter IV, Anderson treated readers to a discourse on Chinese food and cooking methods which is like no other description in early modern travel-writing about China. He writes of the “gross appetites” of the Chinese, which apparently included “all animals” in their diet as well as eating spoiled food and laughing at the English for being too fastidious. He describes Chinese baking and roasting, and tells readers how chopsticks were used; it seems that the English preferred boiled meat to roast, which was too oily for their delicate palates and had “a gloss like that of varnish.”


While Wood provides a useful introduction, I was disappointed to find out that she included no notes or glossary. Anderson is a clear enough writer, but there are words with which the reader would find difficulty, for example “matrosses” or “shaddocks”, to select a couple at random, and the editor should have glossed them. A matross is a naval artilleryman and a shaddock is a large citrus fruit also called a pomelo, but who knew that? Giving modern equivalents for Anderson’s rather quirky transliterations of Chinese would also have been helpful. Some further information about some of the more important people (such as Sir George Staunton, Sir Erasmus Gower and the mandarin “Van-Tadge-In”) might also have been included, which would have made them more than just names in a story.

There are also some typographical errors that should have been noted: for example, the chronology at the top of the page starts in 1792, but on page 65 we time-travel forward to 1973, where we remain until page 303, at which point we find ourselves sent back to 1794. This is just careless proof-reading. However, it does not detract much from the value and interest of this book, which I would heartily recommend to anyone interested in China.


Chinese Pictures: China Through The Eyes of Isabella Bird (Earnshaw Books, September 2019)
Chinese Pictures: China Through The Eyes of Isabella Bird (Earnshaw Books, September 2019)

With Isabella Bird’s book Chinese Pictures we move forward to the end of the 19th century, which means that a reader who knows Anderson’s work can make some comparisons by looking at a remarkable series of photographs taken by Bird herself and published in 1900. She needs no introduction here, but this book presents Bird the pioneer woman photographer as well as intrepid traveler, and Graham Earnshaw’s brief but more than adequate introduction will easily suffice to fill in anything a reader didn’t already know.

Bird was in China more than once; from 1894-98 she was traveling in Japan and Korea as well as China, and in 1902, two years before her death, she went to China for the second time. Her photographs appeared initially in her book The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, and some of these are reproduced in the present volume, but she also included others. This book seems to have been a collaborative effort with an anonymous “editor”, who states that it resulted from “talks with Mrs. Bishop over some of the photographs which were taken by her in one or other of her journeys into and across China.” The editor refers to Bird in the third person as “Mrs Bishop” (her husband had died in 1881), which make it difficult to separate her own words from his (assuming it was a man), and even some of the opinions expressed may not be Bird’s own. Why the editor remained anonymous is a mystery.

That been said, it’s a fascinating collection, ranging from pictures of important buildings such as the Imperial Palace to studies of Chinese people of usually humble status such as a coolie, a bottle-seller, a manure-carrier and a silk-weaver. A little boy eating his rice with chopsticks provides a light touch; however, there is a poignant study of a “dying coolie”, one of Bird’s servants who became ill and was promptly abandoned under a tree by his fellows. “Personal kindliness and care for the sick and dying do not characterize the people of China,” declares the editor, understanding from Bird that these matters are taken care of by guilds. Bird probably mentioned that she was laughed at for applying a cool cloth to the poor man’s feverish head.

Bird’s photographs are far more often of places or buildings than people, which gives a good idea of what a traveler might see when casually walking around—they are not contrived or posed, and in an era when photography was barely out of its infancy must have really made readers feel that Bird’s book was the nearest thing to actually being there, a feeling which is still present today, and fortunately Earnshaw Books has done an excellent job of reproducing the photographs. Everyday objects, too, such as a wheelbarrow, coffins and astronomical instruments are among the everyday objects captured in time by Bird’s ubiquitous camera.

It’s good to have both books in an accessible print form with readable and informative introductions.

The editor writes of “the problem of China” (later the title of Bertrand Russell’s book on China), an opinion of the country most likely derived from the fact that the so-called Boxer Rebellion had only recently been crushed (although Bird herself was lucky to miss it), and he finds it unfair that the Chinese, “according to our newspapers today, are simply cruel barbarians.” He marvels, though, that Bird, who was twice attacked physically in China because the Chinese had a “deep-rooted hatred of foreigners”, believed that they were nonetheless “likeable people.”

It’s telling that Anderson had noted that there was a reason for Chinese dislike of foreigners; their “good will,” he tells us, “may much depend on the ideas which they shall be induced to entertain of the disposition and conduct of the English nation.” One hundred years and a couple of opium wars later, it seems, those ideas were not always positive.

Bird told the editor that some Chinese believe that “the foreigner is a child-eater, that no children are safe within his reach, that he kills children that he may take their eyes and hearts to make into his medicine.” The little boy in Bird’s photograph, eating his noodles with his chopsticks, seems blissfully unaware of the cannibalistic foreigner a few feet away from him, though. And Bird, or the editor, notes that this is just the way some eastern Europeans felt about the Jews.

Bird’s photographs show China a few years before the end of the Qing dynasty, still very much as it would have appeared to Anderson, and just before being ravaged by the terrible civil upheaval which began the process of pushing China into the modern age.

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.