Visualizing the Invisible: The Scandalous Interpreter in the First Opium War, 1839-1842
Sino-British relations were finally established after the First Anglo-Chinese War (also known as the First Opium War) in 1842. The First Opium War is highly significant in both Chinese and world history. Some historians have labeled the war as the starting-point of Chinese modernity, while others argued that it represented the moment when China entered the “family of nations.” There has been much research on the Opium War analyzing the cause and significance of this epoch-making historical incident. In these accounts, the role of the interpreters was largely ignored, omitted, or downplayed. Were the interpreters involved in the war negligible? Crucial members of the interpreters, now seen as pioneering Sinologists, included Dr. Reverend Robert Morrison (1782-1843), Reverend Karl Friedrich August Gützlaff (1803-1851) and Robert Thom (1807-1846The talk focuses on a scandal of translation involving Gützlaff at the signing of the Nanking Treaty, the most important chapter of modern Sino-British history, in 1842. Based on hereto undisclosed materials from the British Foreign Office, the Colonial Office and private papers, this paper discusses how the empire, although the victor in the war, was internationally humiliated by a disastrous omission in translating two clauses in the treaty – an error that was discovered afterwards and made into a scandal by France, Britain’s chief rival in Sinological development. Gützlaff has become the prime suspect in this political intrigue, as he has always been described as mystical, insecure, and belligerent. Nevertheless, the accusations of betrayal of the British side may stem from the fact that he was an Anglicized missionary. The talk will use two paintings commemorating the signing of the treaty to illustrate how he was shown in other cultural materials. This will demonstrate that visual arts not only can provide history with visible and tangible representational details, but can also rewrite historiographical assumptions and propositions laid deeply in the scribal culture.