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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Old China Trade

Foster Rhea Dulles

published by
The Riverside Press
Cambridge, Massachusetts

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p13  Chapter II
Old Canton

At the close of the eighteenth century, Canton was the one Chinese port open to the Western world. It had been first visited by the Portuguese in 1516. One hundred and eight years later came the Dutch​1 and in 1637 the English. An important trade had been established, but from the day on which the 'red‑haired barbarians' had first arrived and, 'by their tremendously loud guns, shook the place far and near,' the Chinese had looked upon the newcomers with suspicion. Secure in their arrogant conviction that in China alone could be found any true civilization, the haughty mandarins tolerated the foreigners with studied indifference. They were permitted to trade as the princes of neighboring states were permitted to pay tribute. It was a privilege for which the nations of the Western Ocean should ever be thankful to the august clemency of the Son of Heaven.

Again and again had the Europeans attempted to break through this wall of pride and ignorance. It was absolutely impossible. Nothing could shake the celestial confidence in China as the one great nation under the blue canopy of Heaven, and in the Emperor as the lawgiver of all the world. The embassies which Portugal and Holland had dispatched to Peking could make no dent upon this feeling of self-sufficiency. Their protestations of friendship were taken as a matter of course, their presents condescendingly accepted as evidence of true humility, and their requests for  p14 further trading privileges indifferently waved aside. On each occasion the foreign embassies returned to Canton with empty hands.

Every imperial edict concerning the 'foreign devils' heaped scorn upon their heads. 'As the dispositions of these said foreigners are depraved by the education and customs of countries beyond the bounds of civilization,' read one of them, 'they are incapable of following right reason; their characters are formed; their perverse obstinacy is untameable; and they are dead to the influence of our renovating laws and manners.' Yet so valuable were the teas and silks of Canton that the Europeans tamely submitted to every affront offered them by the mandarins. In other parts of the East they had dispossessed the native rulers. England controlled the dying East Indies of the Moguls and the Dutch had made themselves lords of the East Indies, but in Canton they traded on sufferance and clung tenaciously to the few privileges which had been granted them.

The Americans quickly enrolled themselves in the submissive foreign settlement outside the city walls, and perhaps their experiences may best present a picture of actual conditions at Canton. Samuel Shaw has left us a description of the port as he found it in 1784 and later traders have somewhat added to it. It was several decades before any material change occurred. No breach was made in the impenetrable wall which China had set up against foreign encroachments until, goaded beyond endurance, the English fell back upon force and proved that in this respect at least the Chinese had to admit Western superiority.

The American vessels approached Canton from the south, as had the Empress of China, making their way up the China coast in the fall. At Macao, as we have seen,  p15 they were obliged to get a chop, or official permit, to enter Chinese territory, and also to take on Chinese pilots. Then again all ships were examined at the mouth of the Pearl River, where the forbidding Bogue forts afforded the Chinese a somewhat questionable protection against invasion, since their guns, firmly anchored in stone sockets, could shoot in only one direction. If all still went well, the mandarins thereupon permitted them to proceed to the anchorage at Whampoa, some twelve miles below Canton itself.

Here in the winter months when the teas and silks were in the market might be found the foreign fleet. It was always an imposing sight. Traveler after traveler bears witness to the sudden thrill he felt upon rounding a narrow bend in the river and finding anchored in the reaches a line of great ships which sometimes stretched for three miles. Even in 1784 this fleet totaled forty-five vessels, and as the trade grew and more and more American ships came every season to take up their anchorage at the head of the line, the number rose to well over one hundred. When David Abel, one of the first two American missionaries to China, arrived in Canton in 1829 and found the East India Company's fleet at Whampoa, he wrote enthusiastically that it represented 'an array of naval magnificence unequaled in any other port.'

This was but a first introduction to the exotic charms of Canton. When the 'fast boats' which plied between Whampoa and Canton were taken up‑river, there was spread out before the eyes of visitors such a scene as their imaginations could never have painted. The river was crowded with Chinese shipping, strange craft of every possible description. Great, ungainly salt junks and six hundred‑ton vessels for the Java trade lined the banks or made their  p16 way slowly downstream, their high sterns fantastically decorated and their sharp prows painted with huge eyes to spy out the devils of the sea.​a River junks were manned by gangs of naked coolies who treaded paddle wheels, or, like the Christian slaves of Roman galleys,​b pulled on long sweeps. Mandarin boats flying white and vermillion flags, with red sashes tied about the muzzles of their cannons, patrolled the shores.

Even more strange and foreign to the eyes of travelers from the other side of the world were the gaily decorated flower boats where the mandarins dallied with Chinese ladies of pleasure. At night when the din of warning gongs had subsided and the flares of burning joss paper had died down, these craft became mysterious and disturbing. Weird strains of Oriental music floated out over the still river.

Nearer the city the press of boats was even thicker. In and out among the larger vessels sped tiny sampans which served not only as carrier boats and loaded and unloaded the cargoes of the seagoing junks, but housed the great floating population of the Chinese city. They were 'mysteriously abundant . . . everywhere they congregate in vast numbers; like a stream they advance and retire unceasingly.' Thousands were moored along the river-banks in addition to those plying their trade, and on each of them an entire family made its home. On the stern of every sampan burned a tiny fire over which a woman might be cooking the evening meal. The decks were cluttered with pots and pans and all manner of household utensils, while slung over the sides were wicker baskets of hens and ducks. Children, three and four perhaps to each sampan, played about unconcernedly with wooden buoys tied to their backs.

This was the scene which the first American visitors to  p17 Canton came upon as they were taken up the river in 1784. Even to‑day it has changed little except for the addition of river steamers and motor launches. Thousands of Chinese still live on the river as did their ancestors; their tiny sampans are still 'mysteriously abundant.'

When the fast boats passed the two Chinese forts known as Dutch Folly and French Folly and came opposite Jackass Point, the travelers at last could see the foreign factories,​2 the goal of the long voyage from the West. Soon the American flag was to be added to those which waved so proudly from the shore, but the trading-posts first established were those of England, France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Spain, and Austria. They were grouped together in a long line some three hundred feet back from the river. Two and three stories high, with sloping roofs and neatly whitewashed walls, we are told that they made 'a very pretty appearance.' The godowns where chests of tea and bales of silk were stored took up the first floors; living quarters were on the second and third. Covered galleries ran through the open courtyards which separated the hongs. The most imposing of the buildings was that of the East India Company — 'the Factory that Ensures Tranquillity' as it was rather optimistically called by the Chinese. It had a wide veranda supported by pilasters in 'princely grandeur.'

In front of the factories was an open square which at the time of Shaw's visit was enclosed by a rail fence, giving the Europeans the privilege of its exclusive use. But in 1822, when the foreign hongs burned down and were replaced by new buildings of brick and granite 'in a neat style, but with  p18 slight pretensions to architecture,' this space was made a free thoroughfare. The Chinese then thronged through it at all hours either to watch with insatiable curiosity the strange antics of the barbarians or to carry on the various trades of a Chinese market. It was crowded with itinerant barbers, tailors, cobblers, jugglers, and story-tellers. Peddlers hawked their wares — pickled olives, paper umbrellas, lichee nuts, or pastry — and filthy beggars cried for alms outside the foreigners' windows. Sometimes the Chinese police would clear the square by driving off peddlers and loafers with their long whips; more often it would remain so densely packed that Americans and Europeans could hardly elbow their way through the crowd.

Near the factories were some few streets which were also open to the foreigners. Thirteen Factory Street ran behind the hongs and the square was bounded by Hog Lane and Old China Street. Here innumerable Chinese shops offered a wide variety of native wares. Ivory, silks, silver and gold might be sold or exchanged, but also one could purchase bird cages, fireworks, insects, medical herbs, cats, and dogs. There were many shops for the benefit of foreign seamen. Ostensibly their wares were curios and souvenirs and they offered tea and refreshments to draw their customers; actually samshu, a fiery local wine, was the great attraction which thronged Hog Lane with sailors of all nationalities whenever ships were in port.

All in all the plot of ground to which foreigners were restricted was not more than a quarter-mile square. Here they had to remain during the winter months while cargoes were being unloaded and exchanged for teas and silks. In the summer they had to return to Macao.

All foreign trade in Canton was strictly regulated. No Chinese was allowed to do any real business with the visitors  p19 except the members of the co‑hong, a body of Chinese merchants who paid for the privileged monopoly of foreign trade. The first thing which the captain or supercargo of every newly arrived vessel had to do was to secure one of these men to act as his ship's security merchant, responsible to the Chinese authorities not only for vessel and cargo, but for its crew and their good behavior. In no other way could any business be transacted. It was the hong merchant who paid all duties to the Government and who had to submit to every exaction of the officials, who openly lined their purses with arbitrary levies upon the foreign commerce. Should the hoppo, as the chief customs officer was known, or the provincial governor, demand that the customs returns show a greater revenue, there was no recourse for the hong merchant but to produce it. He passed the burden of these demands on to the foreign traders, but the process was indirect and highly simplified. They merely paid a higher price for their tea and knew that the difference between market cost and what the hong merchants charged them was a thinly disguised bribe to officialdom for the privilege of trade.

The only direct duty levied on the shipping under this system was the measurement charge which every vessel had to pay before its cargo could be unloaded. The hoppo performed the task of determining the amount to be contributed to the Imperial Treasury and his path had to be smoothed by small bribes in the form of European curios. Clocks, watches, musical snuffboxes, and 'smellum water' were the conventional gifts. Upon the occasion of the arrival of the Empress of China ignorance of this custom had left Shaw without any of these articles. But he appears to have met the situation successfully. For after the ship had been measured, the hoppo sent aboard as a present to  p20 the newcomers 'two bulls, eight bags of flour, and seven jars of country wine.'

While the foreigners had to rely upon the co‑hong for all trade, another such organization had been formed to handle their ships; supplies and the needs of their factories ashore. Its members were known as 'compradors,' and every vessel had to have one if it expected to take on any provisions. All other business which involved contact with the Chinese had to be performed through still a third group of specially privileged men. They supplied the sampans to load and unload the ships, and as they acted generally as interpreters — for none of the foreigners during this early period had the slightest knowledge of Chinese — they were known as 'linguists.' It was a ludicrous misnomer. None of them really spoke any foreign language and the sole medium of communication between the Chinese and their visitors was that queer jargon known as 'pidgin English.'3

On the whole, this unique system of trade worked well. Eventually it broke down, but in 1784 the Americans accepted it gladly. They put themselves entirely in the hands of the Chinese, and from the time of Shaw's first contact with the co‑hong until the end of the period with which we are concerned — which also marked the end of the co‑hong — there were few complaints on the part of American merchants. As soon as he had experienced its workings, Shaw wrote that the trade at Canton 'appears to be as little embarrassed, and is, perhaps, as simple as any in the known world.'

His testimony was corroborated by almost all his successors. To take but two examples. In 1830, an American  p21 resident of long standing, W. W. Wood, wrote that 'the ease and expedition with which business is conducted in China renders mercantile transactions more agreeable than in any other part of the world.' Four years later, John Robert Morrison declared in his commercial guide to Canton that there was no port where trade could be carried on with such facility and regularity.

This did not mean that commerce was not subjected to many petty annoyances and that the greed and corruption of the Chinese officials did not bring many abuses in their train. But as business as a whole was entirely carried on through the hong merchants, the chief responsibility was theirs and they lived up to their obligations. Again we have Shaw's testimony, valuable not merely because he was the first American to do business in Canton, but because his opinions were never seriously disputed. 'The merchants of the co‑hoang,' he wrote, 'are as responsible a set of men as are commonly found in other parts of the world . . . they are intelligent, exact accountants, punctual to their engagements, and, though none the worse for being well looked after, value themselves much upon maintaining a fair character. The concurrent testimony of all Europeans justifies this remark.'

In later years American opinion of the co‑hong was just as favorable. 'As a body of merchants, we found them honorable and reliable in all their dealings, faithful to their contracts, and large-minded,' wrote William C. Hunter, who first sailed for China in 1824. And just sixty years after Shaw had first paid them his respects, Robert B. Forbes, one of the most prominent Americans in the China trade, stated his absolute agreement with his predecessor's conclusions.

It was in fact from this traditional integrity of the hong  p22 merchants that the Chinese gained their reputation for unusual honesty. But early visitors to Canton never carried their encomiums this far. From the days of the visit of an English voyager who found that the ducks he bought by weight had been stuffed with pebbles, and that sad occasion when an American trader discovered that the colors of some birds he had bought for their gay plumage washed off in the rain, the knavery of the Chinese shopkeepers had become proverbial. 'No Indians we had ever visited during the Voyage was more complete in the Art of thieving than the Chinese of the lower order . . . they appear'd to me to be the greatest villains in the Universe' was the outspoken opinion of one American in 1792.

The smaller dealers were in fact generally looked upon as 'almost universal rogues,' and it is only too apparent that Chinese honesty is subject to the same limitations as that of any other people. Generalizations based upon the integrity of the hong merchants, who necessarily found honesty not only the best policy but one from which they could not deviate and remain members of the co‑hong, created a myth no truer during the period of the old China trade than it is to‑day.

In so far as the social life of the foreigners at Canton was concerned, they were subject to as strict regulations as their commerce. The hauteur and condescension which characterized China's attitude toward the West found its expression in the rules which governed all the visitors' comings and goings. 'The barbarians are like beasts,' read a Chinese maxim, 'and not to be ruled on the same principles as citizens. Were any one to attempt controlling them by the great maxims of reason, it would tend to nothing but confusion. The ancient kings well understood this, and accordingly ruled barbarians by misrule. Therefore to rule  p23 barbarians by misrule is the true and best way of ruling them.' And of course in the eyes of the Chinese all Westerners — whether English, Dutch, French, or Americans — were barbarians.

The foreign residents accordingly had no rights outside the narrow confines of their settlement. They could not enter Canton itself or wander about the countryside. On only four days of each moon were they permitted to make excursions, accompanied by one of the linguists, to the Fati flower gardens on the opposite bank of the river or to the near‑by Honam Joss-House. And then, read the fifth of the eight regulations governing their conduct, they could not go in 'droves' of more than ten at a time and must return to the factories as soon as they were 'refreshed.' They could not row on the river themselves, nor could their ships 'loiter about' or 'rove about the bays at pleasure.' And finally, 'neither women, guns, spears nor arms of any kind can be brought to the Factories,' declared one order which neatly grouped arms and females as elements equally likely to disturb the tranquillity of the Celestial Empire.

Life was cabined, cribbed, confined to an impossible degree. Samuel Shaw considered the situation in which the Europeans found themselves anything but enviable, and wrote emphatically that 'considering the length of time they reside in the country, the restrictions to which they must submit, the great distance they are at from their connections, the want of society, and of almost any amusement, it must be allowed that they dearly earn their money.' Some of his successors who remained longer in Canton eventually discovered that the comforts and luxury of life in China to some degree made up for its restrictions, but at best it was tedious and monotonous except for the busy  p24 period when the teas were actually in the market. It is true that William C. Hunter could in later life recall somewhat sentimentally that no one left Canton without regret because of the novelty of the life, the social good feeling, and the facility of all dealings with the Chinese, but there is a somewhat more realistic touch in the memoirs of one of his contemporaries who speaks of his utter dreariness in pacing up and down in the square before the factories.

In time the original regulations were slightly relaxed. The foreigners organized boating clubs and held regattas on the river; they made occasional excursions in the countryside. But the hostility of the Cantonese always made such gestures toward freedom extremely hazardous.

The rule by which 'foreign devil females' were so strictly excluded was one which remained in force throughout the entire period of the old China trade. Great was the excitement some forty-five years after Shaw's visit when first an Englishman and then an American dared to make the experiment of bringing his family to the foreign settlement.

In the case of the Englishman, the president of the Select Committee of the East India Company, who combined with this offense the heinous crime of riding in a sedan chair, the result was almost open hostilities. The Chinese threatened, the English brought up guards from their ships to defend themselves, and peace and order were restored only by the lady's hurried retreat to Macao. 'Foreigners clandestinely taking foreign females to dwell in the factories at Canton, their ascending to sit in shoulder chariots (sedan chairs),' declared an emphatic reaffirmation of the old regulation hurriedly issued by the Chinese officials, 'must both be interdicted.'

Nor was the American female invasion of Canton any more success­ful. William H. Low, a partner in the well-known  p25 Canton house of Russell and Company, had to send his family back to Macao almost as soon as they had arrived. The Chinese authorities were prepared to stop all trade with his firm and no weapon to enforce their regulations could be more effective.

One member of this party was Low's twenty‑year‑old niece, whose brief visit naturally created a sensation among the American residents. Unfortunately the delight­ful diary she kept of her travels in the East has survived in only fragmentary form as far as this episode is concerned. But it is apparent, in such remarks as 'You have no idea how elegantly these bachelors live here. I don't wonder they like it,' that Canton to her was a novel and exciting experience.

'Good-for‑nothing creatures that they are!' was her sole comment on the Chinese, but this was inspired by the cruel order that trade would be stopped 'if one Low did not immediately remove his family to Macao.'

The Author's Notes:

1 A Chinese record of the arrival of the Dutch: 'Their clothes and their hair were red; their bodies tall; they had blue eyes, sunk deep in their heads. Their feet were one cubit and two tenths long; and they frightened the people by their strange appearance.'

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2 The 'factories' — the word is practically interchangeable with 'hongs' — were simply the residences and business places of the 'factors,' or agents, of the various East India companies. They were not manufactories.

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3 The word 'pidgin,' typical of the jargon it is used to describe, was the Chinese rendering of 'business.' The dialect is largely made up of English words, used more or less according to Chinese idiom, with some Portuguese and Chinese embellishments.

Thayer's Notes:

a The custom of marking boats with apotropaic eyes is universal, and not dead today: here's a striking example in twenty-first-century Italy.

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b The author is not an authority on ancient Rome, and is merely conjuring up a popular image here, no doubt influenced by the expression "galley slave" or even by the 1925 release of the movie Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, in which the fictional title character was cast as a slave made to serve as a rower.

Most rowers were in fact paid freemen; Rome had galleys centuries before there were Christians; and even in later times, many slaves were not Christian.

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Page updated: 19 Aug 16