Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 September, 2010, 12:00am

Comparative perspectives are always valuable. One of the first - and best - English-language 'views from the other side of the hill' of the mid-19th century's so-called 'opium wars' was Arthur Waley's masterly The Opium War Through Chinese Eyes, first published in 1958. One of the 20th century's more distinguished translators, Waley (1889-1966) taught himself Chinese and Japanese, and lectured at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

Until this groundbreaking work appeared, most Western accounts of the Anglo-Chinese conflicts, which led to the cession of Hong Kong Island to Great Britain in 1842 and Kowloon in 1860, relied on information gleaned from English-language sources. But a clearer view of exactly what key Chinese participants thought of the whole affair, and broader Western political and economic motivations around this time, remained the preserve of patchy information and guesswork.

Chinese primary source materials help illuminate our knowledge of this heavily mythologised period. Respect for original sources - much derided in today's academic world - underpins Waley's work. In sharp contrast to many turgid, pointless contemporary historical 'narratives' and 'standpoints', those eternal questions - What happened? What happened next? Why did that happen? - begin to form coherent answers as a direct result.

Most fascinating is the personal diary kept by Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu, the senior mandarin tasked with eliminating the opium trade. Lin's descriptions of places such as Guangzhou's Five Genies Temple and Monastery of the Six Banyans suggest they have changed little since the 1830s.

His observations of locals give an intriguing glimpse into official Chinese racial chauvinism. Lin's descriptions of the Cantonese, in particular, are unflattering. 'Apart from actual traitors in the service of the foreigners,' he wrote, 'the people in general are so used to foreigners that they no longer regard them as creatures of a different species, and, in fact, get on very well with them. Some small present, such as a mechanical contrivance, is enough to win over most Cantonese completely.'

We hope today's 'imperial commissioners' in Hong Kong do not regard the natives in a similar light.

Waley's other works introduced the Western public to classic Chinese and Japanese literature. His best-known translation is Monkey, a delightful telling of Wu Cheng-en's classic Journey to the West, which recounts the mythical, humorous tale of the monk and the monkey, whose adventures brought Buddhism from India to China.