’Twas well we had your pencil and your tongue

Great article by De-Min Tao on “mutual understanding and misunderstanding among Japanese, Americans, and Chinese, and the status of Chinese as a negotiating language in the communications of two non-Chinese speaking nations”: “Negotiating Language in the Opening of Japan: Luo Sen’s Journal of Perry’s 1854 Expedition.”

When talking about the opening of Japan in 1853-54, many people simply assume that the negotiations were carried on with the assistance of English and Japanese interpreters, as bilateral talks between the two nations would be today. Few give any attention to the question of what languages were actually used. As a matter of fact, Chinese and Dutch were the principal languages employed.

[…]

[Samuel Wells] Williams was hired as the chief interpreter despite having told Perry clearly at their initial meeting in 1853 that “I had never learned much more Japanese than was necessary to speak with ignorant sailors who were unable to read even their own books, and that practice in even this imperfect medium had been suspended for nearly nine years.” He considered himself “ill prepared upon the duties of this position.”

Williams did speak Chinese, of course, but “still needed a Chinese assistant to help him polish his translations and copy them in elegant calligraphy that would impress the Japanese officials with whom Perry would be conducting diplomacy.” (This is basically why I started printing labels for the envelopes I use to send out invoices.) So he hired…

[…] his Chinese tutor, an old man named Sieh 薛. It would seem that the choice was not carefully made, for Sieh was actually an incurable opium addict. Smoking heavily during the voyage, he eventually died a month before the Kurihama meeting, when the fleet was still anchoring in Ryukyu.

Luo Sen was Sieh’s replacement.

Luo Sen (Xiangqiao 向喬, ca. 1821-ca. 1899) was from Nanhai 南海 county in Guangdong province. At the time Williams employed him, he was doing business in Hong Kong, and his occupation brought him into contact with Englishmen and Americans. Asked by a friendly Japanese official why he had accepted a position with Perry’s expedition, Luo frankly confessed that his dissatisfaction with Qing officialdom had entered into his decision:

During the war with the English [the Opium War], I led a body of braves, and put forth all my strength in the service of my country. Yet afterwards the officers of the government, bent on nothing but gain, made no account of my devotion and efforts. It was this neglect which set my mind on traveling abroad, and led me to my present position on board this steamer.

The whole article is full of this stuff—vivid detail, quotations from diaries. Absolutely fantastic reading.

Author: Matt

I live in Japan and read less books than I used to before I had kids, but still quite a few.

1 thought on “’Twas well we had your pencil and your tongue”

  1. Anyone interested in this stuff should read Goncharov’s The Frigate “Pallada” (https://www.amazon.com/frigate-Pallada-Ivan-Aleksandrovich-Goncharov/dp/0312005997), or at least the long section on the attempted negotiations with Japan (which was the purpose of the voyage); there’s a great deal about the translators and the whole process of trying to get this or that concession. (They were in the harbor at Nagasaki.) But the whole book is lively and full of acute perceptions.

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