How Britain’s First Mission to China Went Wrong

Why the Macartney mission went awry – Stephen R. Platt

At last, an early departure on September 8 brought Macartney and his entourage into range of the emperor’s summer quarters. They had been traveling for nearly a year since their departure from England in the autumn of 1792, and the success or failure of the embassy would likely be decided in the next few days. They stopped a mile from the imperial residence to primp and reassemble themselves for presentation, then set forth for the final leg of the journey in a makeshift parade formation with as much pomp as they could muster. The English soldiers and cavalry led the way on foot, followed by a two-by-two procession of servants, musicians, scientists, and various gentlemen. Bringing up the rear were Macartney’s secretary, George Staunton, in a palanquin, and finally the ambassador himself, accompanied by his page, Staunton’s 12-year-old son, in a post-chaise trailed by a little turbaned African boy one of the gentlemen had brought along.


Can You Get There from Here?

Yi languages and scripts – Stevan Harrell

When I was planning to begin field research among minority groups in Southwest China, I looked for a group that was not much written about in English, but whose language was fairly convenient to study. I chose the Nuosu, a group that is part of the larger ethnic classification of Yi, mostly because I was able to get hold of a textbook and some conversation tapes. When people outside China hear that I can speak the Nuosu language, their first two questions are almost always: “How close is it to Mandarin (or to Chinese)?” and “does it have tones?”

Both Yi and Chinese are families of closely related languages (sometimes referred to as varieties), and both in turn are branches of the larger Sino-Tibetan family, which includes over 400 languages spoken in China, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh. To put it another way, Yi and Chinese are as closely related as any two distant Indo-European languages, like English and Bengali, or German and Dari. In other words, not much.

Little Red Podcast

Tinker, Tailor, Student, Spy?

Australia’s Chinese student boom – Louisa Lim

Editor’s note: We’re thrilled to share the news that The Little Red Podcast, hosted by Graeme Smith and Louisa Lim, was this year’s winner of the Australian Podcast Awards in the news and current affairs category. At the China Channel (and at our former incarnation at the LARB China Blog) we have long been collaborating with the podcast to bring you Louisa’s companion essays to each new episode. Below is Louisa’s essay paired with last week’s episode about Chinese students in Australia, as well as the Soundcloud audio. Our hearty congratulations to Louisa, Graeme and the team. – Alec Ash

Chinese Corner

East South West North

Which way does the compass point? – Anne Henochowicz

Back in 2013, Sam Duncan posed an etymological question on an old collective, the Anthill, that turns out to be a scientific and cultural question:

When I first learned the word for compass, “south-pointing needle” (zhǐnánzhēn 指南针), I thought: That’s weird, why isn’t it “north-pointing needle” (zhǐběizhēn 指北针)? I read somewhere that the reason the needle points south is because the ocean is generally to the south in ancient China. Does anyone know if this is true?
When I looked it up the other night, I discovered that people also say zhibeizhen. There don’t seem to be any obvious usage differences between the two. Baidu gives me 29,300,000 hits for zhinanzhen, and 2,720,000 for zhibeizhen, so I guess the latter isn’t used that often.

You’ll find “north-pointing needle” in the dictionary, but not really anywhere else. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with the Earth’s magnetic field in China. (Or with Chinese compasses – they invented them, after all.) And of course, all compasses point both north and south – each end of the needle is pulled toward one pole or the other. But there’s more to the “south-pointing needle” than arbitrary choice.


Writing Across the Pacific

Michael Gibbs Hill reviews Transpacific Community by Richard Jean So

My collection of Chinese writer and linguist Lin Yutang’s books in English was acquired for $1.50 in total. My Country and My People and With Love and Irony came out of a box marked “FREE PLEASE TAKE” in the lobby of the apartment building where I used to live in Washington Heights, New York. For two whole quarters I got The Importance of Living and The Wisdom of Confucius at a yard sale in Seattle, and my biggest purchase, a second edition of Moment in Peking, cost a buck at His House, a Christian resale shop on the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina.

I might not have paid much, but in Lin Yutang’s case, price is no reflection of quality. Mostly forgotten today, his books lurk in church basements and on grandparents’ bookshelves across North America. The same goes for Lin’s contemporary, Pearl Buck. When I lived in Taipei in the late 90s, the used bookstore in my neighborhood had a pile of four or five copies of The Good Earth in Chinese. The only copy without mildew went for the price of a sugary milk tea sold from a street-side stall.