Recent Posts

Barbarians and Lao Wai: Trans-lingual negotiation and the clash of empires

What are the perils of trans-lingual negotiation? Lydia Liu’s The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making explores the myriad roles language, and the process of translation, played in shaping the relationship between the Qing and the foreign powers (especially Britain) during China’s long nineteenth-century.

The book itself is a little too laden with the vocabulary of linguistic theory for my tastes, reading the first chapter (“The Semiotic Turn of International Politics”) is its own exercise in trans-lingual negotiation. The emphasis on linguistics also in some ways obscures other historical exigencies. The ‘insults to the crown’ perpetrated by the Qing officials, who insisted on using the term when referring to the British, may have exacerbated issues in Canton circa 1840, but the crux of the dispute remained the demands of the British to ‘liberalize’ trade with the Qing empire, the Qing resistance to British overtures and the continued hostility of the Qing court and (some) Qing officials to the trade in opium. It’s a bit like if I’m hanging with my buddies, come home at 3:00 in the morning, and YJ and I have a fight, the critical problem is not that we’re discussing the situation in two (or three) languages and risk a misunderstanding. The problem is that I was an ass and should have come home at a normal time.

Perhaps my initial reaction to the heavy use of literary theory in a historical work and my quaint attachment to sources and evidence are more matters of taste. Putting those aside for the moment, Liu’s book is chock full of fun things to ponder. For example, what of this character (yi)? One of the more fascinating discussions in the book is Liu’s description of as a “super sign” existing beyond the signifier and the signified: “a linguistic monstrosity that thrives on the excess of its presumed meanings by virtue of being exposed to, or thrown together with, foreign etymologies and foreign languages.” [1]

Liu argues that the British (deliberately in some cases) misunderstood the term`夷 as “barbarian,” a translation that perplexed the Chinese, who insisted on the neutrality of the term. Liu quotes Admiral Wu Qitai who used the term in an 1832 decree telling the Brits to get the hell away from Shanghai and stay down in Guangzhou. The British protested being referred to as 夷. Wu responded, “We have always said southern man, northern di, eastern yi, and western rong. Take our own noble sages King Shun and King Wen. Mencius himself said, ‘King Shun was an eastern yi and King Wen was a western yi.’ How can the word be offensive, you must be overreacting.” [2] Translation: “Quit whinging and get back on your boats.”

The Chinese would continue throughout the 19th century to maintain that the word simply meant “foreigner,” but the British might have actually had a point. Generally, yi referred to those people known to the Chinese but who remained outside the Qing Empire. (That the term’s relationship to ethnicity was ambiguous at this stage was due in large part to the Manchus, who had their own delicate relationship with the word for obvious reasons.) But all of the yi states had some kind of theoretical subordinate status–at least in the minds of the emperors–to the Qing throne. Maybe these other states, for example Japan, didn’t always play the game right, but it was understood that in an ideal world they would.

The British, of course, were approaching the problem from the position of an expanding empire; one that would brook no challenges to British superiority—never mind consideration of the British as anything less than fully civilized. Herein is the crux of the debate: Both the Qing and the British were expansive empires. Both participated in a project of ‘civilizing’ those peoples recently incorporated into their imperial polities. Liu argues that the fight between the British and the Qing was a clash of empires not civilizations and to an extent she’s right—but inherent in the quest for empire were competing civilizing projects and two universalistic worldviews that struggled to coexist.

Eventually, the British insisted on including a ban on the term as part of the Treaty of Tianjin in 1858 (the negotiations for which involved other translator shenanigans, but that’s a story for another time). The British even tried to force a ban on using the terms 番鬼 or 鬼子 (fangui/guizi ‘foreign devil’) in people’s speech…you can guess how well that worked out. [3]

I thought about this in the context of today’s China and the seemingly innocuous term “lao wai.” All of the Chinese that I ask insist that the word is a neutral, even respectful, word for a foreigner. If that’s so, then why does the word cause so many foreigners in China to grit their teeth? I think, like the word, there are contexts in which the word denies foreigners a sense of humanity: we are not referred to as people (ren ), we are referred to as lao wai. Never mind the inevitable, high pitched “lao wai!” with accompanying finger points and wide eyes in the countryside, how many times has a foreigner gone to an appointment in China’s major cities and heard the receptionist call her boss and whisper into the phone: “有一个老外…./you yige lao wai… Perhaps we are the heirs of the British, constructing our own ‘super-sign.’ It probably doesn’t make us want to blockade the Chinese coast and bombard the city of Canton…but it does offer insight into how a simple word can say so much about communicating down that trans-lingual highway.

And on that note, I’m going to go get some lunch. something to celebrate and embrace my “laowai-hood”:
“Fuwuyuan’r, lai yi fen’r gongbao jiding…”

[1] Lydia He Liu, The clash of empires : the invention of China in modern world making, (Cambridge, Mass., 2004), 13.
[2] Ibid., 43.
[3] Ibid., 97.

13 Comments on Barbarians and Lao Wai: Trans-lingual negotiation and the clash of empires

  1. davesgonechina // October 19, 2006 at 2:43 pm //

    I’ve saved the PDF of the book… through my own little ways, I’m not (yet) a legitimate student/scholar. But thanks, this is something I didn’t know existed and I crave to read.

    I think the linguistic approach can be overanalytical. The fact is, the word laowai is loaded, mei you “ren” or otherwise. The history of China seems to inform the word more than the linguistic form of the word itself. Hence the fingers. By the way, I’m planning to post on a topic I’ve neglected for a year: Opium in China and historical revisionism. That’s right, I’ve read Frank Dikotter’s book, and a bit to go with that, as well as a little Xinjiang perspective on the matter, old school. I know I’m walking into a proverbial historical war zone and I’d like your opinion.

  2. 花崗齋之愚公 // October 19, 2006 at 5:15 pm //

    I think it sounds like a great topic. Two books I would suggest, and you may have read them already, are Peter Perdue’s tome China Marches West and James Polachek’s The Inner Opium War.

    I’ve enjoyed your posts a great deal, I’m sure you’ll bring some great insight to this topic.

  3. I guess I always thought 夷 refered to the different people immediately bordering china like to the north and such. Do you happen to know what word was used to refer to the people Zheng He met on his voyages in the 15th C? I just wondered if people overseas were refered to differently. Did the british make any other suggestions as to what they would like to be called? I mean its kind of hard to imagine people being really PC concious in those days.

    I just read a biography of Yongle, and there was one interesting point that foreigners were noted for their different colored eyes, rather than skin. I wonder if that was just a one time reference, or if that was a major factor in determining if someone is non-Han.

  4. 無名 - wu ming // October 19, 2006 at 7:59 pm //

    it’s all in how you say it, and what the sentiment behind the word is. i’ve heard laowai hurled out like a curse, as well as totally polite. not unlike the use of any ethnic term in the states, the meaning depends a lot on the speaker’s intent.

  5. This post reminds me a bit of two recent conversations. The first I mentioned in my dispatch on Shenyang. My friend Will overheard two kids in the imperial palace:

    First kid: “Look, foreigners.”

    Second kid: “You shouldn’t talk like that. We should pay attention to foreign culture.”

    Will: “Why can’t my students speak like that?”

    The second exchange was between me and a student who is supposed to be tutoring me in Chinese. We were eating at a Japanese restaurant.

    Him: Chopsticks are only for Chinese use.
    Me: But I’m not Chinese (clicking mine, for emphasis).
    Him: I mean, they are only for Chinese food.
    Me: Aren’t we in a Japanese restaurant? What about Korea?
    Him: OK, but Chinese use chopsticks best.
    Me: Why do you say that?
    Him: Because I am a Chinese man.

    Part of the problem, of course, is my tutor’s limited ability in English. But somethings, even if properly translated, really just won’t sound any better. I’m noticing a similar thing with “laowai.” It’s not the word, like you said, it’s the pointing, stairing and general “I’ve never seen one of those before” attitude.

  6. 花崗齋之愚公 // October 19, 2006 at 10:07 pm //

    I’m wandering into Wu Ming’s territory here (actually blundering in inadvisedly) but 色目 (se mu/colored eyes) was a term used certainly in the Yuan (and the Song and before too, Sean?) to refer to people of Central Asian origin, and was one of the four categories by which the Mongol administrators divided society (the others being Mongols at the top, then Semu, then northern Chinese who surrendered early, then Southern Chinese who surrendered last). It wouldn’t surprise me that the terminology outlasted the Yuan and there are similar terms used in the Qing as well.

    Wu Ming, feel free to add/correct where appropriate…this is more in your wheelhouse.

  7. 無名 - wu ming // October 19, 2006 at 11:57 pm //

    that’s a good question, actually, whether 色目 goes back before the yuan. i should run a siku search on that.

    my understanding of mu in that context is that it isn’t literally “eyes,” in the same way that 夷目 didn’t mean “barbarian eye,” to borrow one of liu’s arguments for a moment. the mu has the meaning of “one in charge,” “chief,” or “most important,” in the sense of 題目.

    the real question is what se meant in that compound, whether it referred to the color of eyes, or some other meaning.

  8. oh, jeff, i haven’t read the records of zheng he’s trips yet, but the song and yuan-era descriptions of foreigners in the south seas use 夷 for some foreigners (usually overseas), 蕃 for arab merchants as well as a general word for foreigners, and occasionally 蠻 for more “primitive” peoples and hill tribes. classically, 夷 were to the east, somewhere near shandong, although it came to be associated with all foreigners to the east (hence, perhaps, the use of the words for the british, who came to china from the eastern coastline?).

    whether any of those names are pejorative is a major headache for me right now, and i’m leaning towards the dodge of “only in a pejorative context.”

  9. Its probably too much of a long shot, but one of the obscure verbal uses of 色 given on the online 國語辭典 is 訪求, so 色目 could be something like ‘visiting leaders.’

  10. 花崗齋之愚公 // October 20, 2006 at 7:39 am //


    I wouldn’t say that’s a long shot at all. That was the gist of Wu Ming’s comment.

    Wu Ming,

    Thanks for reminding about Liu’s discussion of the ‘barbarian eye’ and the mistranslations of 目 in the Qing.


    That’s what we call the classic “no win” conversation. I get into those too. Of course, for me, arguing usually means I sleep on the sofa.

  11. “The British even tried to force a ban on using the terms 番鬼 or 鬼子 (fangui/guizi ‘foreign devil’) in people’s speech…you can guess how well that worked out. [3]“

    In their defense, the over-regulation of Chinese-Foreign exchanges by the Imperial court makes this look like a playground scuffle. Issuing the death penalty to Chinese citizens found instructing non-natives in mandarin? The mere regulation of what swear words could be legally leveled at opium merchants somewhat pales in comparison.

    I’d be curious to know if 夷 was a colloquial term used to address foreigners, or a more literary one used more exclusively in written official documents/correspondence. I’d hazard a guess it is the latter, simply because I can’t think of any surviving colloqiual usage (洋, conversely, has survived in a couple of forms). I can see legitimate reasons for the British to try and regulate the terms of their formal exchanges with the Chinese government, anyway.


  12. // August 28, 2007 at 2:46 am //

    I think it sounds like a great topic.

  13. This was such a great post J. There is so much of interest! Are you going to read the other book just recommended by the same author? If so, please do post about it.

    Japanese– obviously– has many of these same issues. The truth is as 無名 said above, “foreigners” get into trouble when they start translating everything they hear into English. The languages are just not used the same way.外人、青目、赤毛 these all mean foreigner, with the final two meaning westerner… they are neither negative nor positive– heck, they aren’t even neutral. The terms are so dependent on context that I am not sure any deconstructing or “revisionizing” would turn up anything worthwhile… hmmm

    Anyway, my eyes are green.

Comments are closed.