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Merchants of War and PeaceBritish Knowledge of China in the Making of the Opium War$
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Song-Chuan Chen

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9789888390564

Published to Hong Kong Scholarship Online: September 2017

DOI: 10.5790/hongkong/9789888390564.001.0001

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A War of Words over ‘Barbarian’

A War of Words over ‘Barbarian’

(p.82) 5 A War of Words over ‘Barbarian’
Merchants of War and Peace

Song-Chuan Chen

Hong Kong University Press

This chapter assesses a decade-long debate that occurred within the British community in Canton over how best to translate the word ‘yi夷‎’—as either ‘barbarian’ or ‘strangers’. The dispute first raged in the Canton Register for more than two years beginning in 1828, and played a key role in igniting the war argument in 1830. The community agreed that it meant ‘barbarian’, representing a Chinese conception of foreigners as uncivilised savages. The translation was in wide circulation after the 1835 war lobbying campaign in London and formed an integral part of the pro-war argument. However, by 1837 the Canton community belatedly retracted their earlier translation, believing that yi should be rendered into English as ‘strangers’. However, in the early Qing, the main word used to name Europeans and things European was xiyang (Western Ocean). This term was replaced by ‘yi’ after the 1750s, coinciding with the establishment of the Canton system. Yi was another part of the Chinese soft border that classified Europeans as ‘strangers’ to be kept out of the Chinese civilizational order and was also another ideological device used to shore up the port’s vested interests.

Keywords:   Translation, yi, barbarian, naming the Europeans

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