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
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 夷 (yi)? One of the more fascinating discussions in the book is Liu’s description of 夷 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.” 
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  Translation: “Quit whinging and get back on your boats.”
 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
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. 
Eventually, the British insisted on including a ban on the term夷
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. 
I thought about this in the context of today’s
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…”
 Lydia He Liu, The clash of empires : the invention of China in modern world making, (Cambridge, Mass., 2004), 13.
 Ibid., 43.
 Ibid., 97.