Asia-Pacific in the Making of the Americas: Toward a Global History

About Benjamin Bowen Carter’s Xiuxiang hongmao fanzi (Illustrations of the Writing Methods of the Red-haired People)

It is generally believed that William C. Hunter (1812-1891) was the first American to devote himself to the study of the Chinese language in the 1820s.[1] Hunter claimed that none of the Chinese in Guangzhou​ (Canton) could read or write English in the 1820s, and he was the only American who knew Chinese. After his arrival in China, Samuel W. Williams 衛三畏 (1812-1884) pointed out that very few foreigners were willing to spend their time learning the Chinese language. Tyler Dennett (1883-1949) was also disappointed that the U.S. had already been engaged in the Canton trade for 45 years since 1784, and yet there was not even an American in Canton who barely knew the Chinese language.[2] Admittedly, in recent years scholars notice that there were already a small number of Americans before William C. Hunter who could understand and speak Chinese, but the process in which they learned Chinese, the teaching materials of Chinese they used and the proficiency of Chinese (especially in reading and writing) they attained were usually not recorded in detail. Thanks to support from the U.S. Library of Congress, however, the author of this paper has discovered new evidence to challenge this account, first in a manuscript entitled Xiuxiang hongmao fanzi [Illustrations of the Writing Methods of the Red-haired People, referred to as “the Illustrations” hereafter]. It belonged to Benjamin Bowen Carter (1771-1831), a native of Providence, Rhode Island, and was later acquired by Caleb Cushing 顧盛 (1800-1878) probably during his time as envoy to China in 1844. It was deposited in the Library after his death.[3] Carter was one of the few Americans to live in Canton (Guangzhou) at the beginning of the nineteenth century and recognize the need to learn Chinese. Fortunately for Sino-American research, his letters, accounts, and Canton trade-related documents, including the dictionary and exercise books he used in learning Chinese, have all been preserved. 

This essay draws upon these invaluable archival materials to reshape the story of early Sino-American relations. Carter’s manuscript was compiled nearly thirty years earlier than any other previously known work of the “hongmao” genre (often referred to as “hongmao (tongyong) fanhua/guihua” 紅毛(通用)番話/鬼話 [the (commonly used) foreign language of the “Red-haired people/devils’ talk”).[4] In addition, it also is one of the earliest linguistic maps of “Canton English,” standard English and Chinese, a precious historical document. Its discovery sheds new light on the history of learning both English and Chinese language in Qing China. The majority of the Chinese characters included in the Illustrations are written by one of Carter’s teachers of Chinese, while some of the characters in different handwriting style are believed to be supplemented by Carter himself. The transliterations of Cantonese and Guanhua, explanatory notes in Latin, and English translations appended to all the Chinese characters are Carter’s own handwriting. Taking this point into consideration, although Carter was not the compiler of the Illustrations, his supplements and explanatory notes played a very important part in enriching the whole book with useful materials and facilitating readers to understand the characters and words in the manuscript. The discovery of this manuscript may provide the academic circle with an important example of how an American took pains to understand the Chinese language with the help of Latin and English in an era when the pidgin English was prevailing in the Canton trade.

The paper begins with an introduction to Carter’s life and works, followed by a transcription and annotation of the Chinese text of the Xiuxiang hongmao fanzi, its English transliterations and selected Latin remarks. It concludes with an evaluation of the manuscript’s historical and cultural importance.


[1] David Shavit, The United States in Asia: A Historical Dictionary (New York: Greenwood Press, 1990), p. 254; Li Yuan 李苑, Zhongmei Wangxia tiaoyue qianding qianhou Meiguoren hanyu xuexi de lishi kaocha 〈中美望廈條約〉簽訂前後美國人漢語學習的歷史考察 (The Historical Review of Chinese Learning of Americans before and after the “Treaty of Wanghia”) (Master’s thesis, Beijing University, 2012), p. 19.
[2] William C. Hunter, The “fan kwae” at Canton before Treaty Days, 1825-1844 (Shanghai: Oriental Affairs, 1938), pp. 27 & 37; [] Samuel W. Williams, “Jargon Spoken at Canton”, Chinese Repository, Vol. 4 no. 9 (Jan., 1836), p. 429; [] Tyler Dennett, Americans in Eastern Asia: A Critical Study of the Policy of the United States with Reference to China, Japan, and Korea in the 19th Century (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1922), p. 63;  see also Li Ting-Yi 李定一, Zhongmei zaoqi waijiaoshi, 1784-1894 中美早期外交史(1784年—1894年)(A History of Early Sino-American Diplomatic Relations [1784-1894]) (Taipei: San Min Book Co., Ltd, 1985), p. 47.
[3] Mi Chu 居蜜 and Man Shun Yeung, “Cong Meiguo guohui tushuguan cang Gusheng wenxin tan shijiu shiji ZhoneMei liangguo de wenhua jiaoliu” 從美國國會圖書館藏顧盛文獻談十九世紀中、美兩國的文化交流” (China-US Cultural Relations in the Nineteenth Century: A Study of Caleb Cushing’s Documents and His Collection of Chinese Materials in the US Library of Congress), Ming-Qing shi jikan 明清史集刊 (Bulletin of Ming-Qing Studies), Vol.8 (2005), pp. 261-324.
[4] Keiichi Uchida 内田慶市 and Shen Guowei 沈國威 eds., Gengo sesshoku to pijin: 19-seiki no higashi Ajia (kenkyu to fukkoku shiryo) 言語接触とピジン:19世紀の東アジア(研究と復刻資料) (Language Contact and Pidgin: 19th Century East Asia [Research and Reprinted Article]) (Tokyo: Hakuteisha, 2009), pp. 183-382; Kingsley Bolton, Chinese Englishes: A Sociolinguistic History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 266-274.  

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