My brother Peter has been studying the Mandarin language for several years and, when he heard that I am now working for Huawei, he strongly recommended The Search for Modern China by Jonathan D. Spence (1999, 2nd edition). I love history books and this is one of the best I have ever read. I am still working my way through and enjoying every page.
I was particularly interested in the story of James Flint, a trader who in 1759 tried to do business with Imperial China. The Spence passage which intrigued me was:
The East India Company tried to enlarge the scope for China trade and negotiation in 1759 by sending James Flint, a company trader who had learned Chinese, to present complaints to the Qing court concerning the restrictions on trade in Canton and the rampant corruption there. By dint of tenacity and a certain amount of bribery, Flint, sailing first to Ningbo and then to Tianjin in a small 70-ton vessel, the Success, was able to have his complaints carried to Peking. The emperor initially seemed to show flexibility, and agreed to send a commission of investigation to the south. But after the Success, sailing back to Canton, was lost at sea with all hands except for Flint (he had traveled south independently), the emperor changed his mind. Flint was arrested and imprisioned for three years for breaking Qing regulations against sailing to northern ports, for improperly presenting petitions, and for having learned Chinese.
This is the first I have heard that learning Chinese was historically illegal. I searched the net to learn more about James Flint and found
“History of Soy – Introduction of Soybeans to North America by Samuel Bowen in 1765” by Theodore Hymowitz and J.R. Harlan.
According to the “History of Soy”, Samuel Bowen was a seaman aboard the Success who was also imprisoned in China and, like Flint, returned to London by 1763 to claim compensation from the Court of Directors of the East India Company. In 1764 Samuel Bowen turned up in Savannah, in The Colony of Georgia, where he planted seeds which he had brought to America from China. The seeds were from soybeans – which Samuel Bowen is credited with introducing as an American crop.
Samuel Bowen and James Flint seemed to have continued to have business dealings with each other. Samuel Bowen’s two sons were named James Flint and Samuel Flint. The older James Flint was also connected with the ever-curious Benjamin Franklin who wrote a letter in 1770 about the food we now call tofu. In the letter, he refers to Mr. Flint.
I was thinking about all of this when I saw the billboard pictured below near where I live in Willow Glen (San Jose, California). We Americans are taught from a very young age about foods from the Americas which now feed the world: potatoes, tomatoes, and corn. I was interested to learn that one of our own staple food crops originated in China.
Image Copyright 2010 by Katy Dickinson