The forgotten romantic who became the first British sinologist

When we think of the first great Western scholars of Asia, the name of Thomas Manning does not appear in the same sentence as William Jones or Jean Francois Champollion. Yet Thomas Manning pursued fame with relentless self-confidence and energy. In the end, fame did not elude him as much as he ceased to interest him.

As a young man, Manning set himself an especially challenging life goal: to become Britain’s first Sinologist. No one in Britain spoke Chinese, nor were there any books or manuals available. Macartney’s 1793 embassy to the Qianlong Emperor had relied on the Vatican’s Chinese Catholics for interpretation, requiring the English to speak Latin. The Continent, at that time, seemed to be the seat of science. So, taking advantage of the brief peace between Britain and Napoleon’s France, Manning traveled to Paris, where he reveled in the intellectual and social brilliance of French society. He knew Chateaubriand, but no one who could teach him Chinese. Finally, he convinced the East India Company to send him to Guangzhou.

The China of Manning’s time was deliberately closed to foreign research. The Chinese were forbidden to teach their language to the few foreigners who crowded into Whampoa, near Guangzhou. Travel to the interior was prohibited. China’s unwillingness to open up was based on sound policy. The Jiaqing Emperor knew how Britain’s trading ports in India had been transformed into colonial conquests. Manning was sympathetic to the Chinese, as he had a radical streak, favorable to the American and French revolutions, and critical of Britain’s exploitation of India. But this same radical streak made him constitutionally impatient with the even more formal Chinese. He kept pestering the mandarins for special permission to go to Beijing, but never got it.

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The Europeans were in the process of reassessing China. Earlier generations, steeped in Enlightenment ideas, saw China as an ideal state ruled by a philosopher king. Manning’s enthusiasm for China reflected the temperament of the Romantics, who appreciated foreign cultures as equally valid expressions of our essential humanity. However, Manning’s increasingly utilitarian contemporaries saw Asian civilizations as obstacles to progress. The important people around him could only disapprove of his approach to studying China, which included growing an old-fashioned beard and dressing in robes.

Whatever success Manning achieved reflected his charm, his academic achievements, and his high intelligence. Manning counted in his circle of friends with Charles Lamb, George Staunton, Stanford Raffles and Alexander Hamilton (the Sanskrit). She is the only person who knew both the Dalai Lama and Napoleon. Finally, he was appointed interpreter at the Amherst Embassy in Beijing in 1816.

Notes by Thomas Manning on “The Pavilion of Peonies” and “The Palace of Longevity”, from the Chinese Collection of the RAS Library.  Of the Royal Asiatic Society

Notes by Thomas Manning on “The Pavilion of Peonies” and “The Palace of Longevity”, from the Chinese Collection of the RAS Library. Of the Royal Asiatic Society

However, Manning’s actual commitment to China, despite his excellent intellectual credentials, turned out to be a wet joke. A chance friendship in Penang, a troubled relationship with a Chinese Catholic, invitations to the banquets of Puankhequa, the famous buyer, even being pursued by the infamous female pirate Shi Yang—none of these experiences seemed to have matured Manning’s thoughts on China. enough to inspire him to produce a magnum opus.

In fact, in his life, he published very little. His youthful passion and ambition seem to have been consumed by the effort to penetrate forbidden China. After the failure of the Amherst Embassy, ​​which left Beijing on the day of his arrival, his shipwreck off Borneo, and a long return to England via St. Helena (where he met Napoleon), he avoided the limelight, turned down a post at the newly formed Royal Asiatic Society, and seemed content simply to go out to dinner with affable friends. It was an amazing anticlimax to an adventurous life.

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As his illustrious circle of friends dwindled, Manning’s accomplishments were forgotten. In 2015 alone, the Royal Asiatic Society acquired Manning’s papers, allowing the society’s librarian, Edward Weech, to write this first full-length biography. Readers will find a brilliant mix of scholarship on Weech’s part, at home in the Anglican parishes of Norfolk, the salons of Paris, and the trading houses of Penang and Whampoa. Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope could not have invented a more colorful character, whose story is captivatingly retold here.

the cover of

The cover of ‘Chinese Dreams in Romantic England: The Life and Times of Thomas Manning’. From Manchester University Press

This is a review of “Chinese Dreams in Romantic England: The Life and Times of Thomas Manning” by Edward Weech (Manchester University Press, November 2022). It was originally posted by the Asian Book Review. It has been republished here with permission. The author, David Chaffetz, is the author of “Three Asian Divas: Women, Art and Culture in Shiraz, Delhi and Yangzhou” (Abbreviated Press, November 2019). His next book, “Horse Power,” will be published by WW Norton in 2023.

(Banner image: A portrait of Thomas Manning. From the Royal Asiatic Society, republished by Sixth Tone)

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