Teaching

Short Teaching Module: Translation and a World History of the Qing Empire

Jaymin Kim
Page from the Qing Veritable Records

Overview

In 1953, L. P. Hartley famously wrote: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." His observation is particularly relevant for world historians, who have to engage in translation projects to bridge the distance between our world and the worlds of our historical actors. As a world historian of early modern Asian borderlands, I have constantly encountered the question of translation in the following three areas: calendars, language and script, and terms of reference for individuals and the groups that they belong to. This module provides a brief overview of these processes. 

Essay

In a recent award-winning book, Eric Schluessel brings to our attention the importance of tongchi (interpreters) in late nineteenth-century Xinjiang. Due to their constant movements between religions, cultures, and languages, tongchi did much more than translate between Chinese and Turkic languages. They engaged in practices of mediation and mimesis, ultimately creating a representation of local reality in terms that the Chinese magistrate could understand.  In a sense, all world historians are tongchi, for we also engage in translation projects to bridge the distance between our world and the worlds of our historical actors. 

As a world historian of Qing (1636-1912) writing in English, I seek to highlight the common human experiences of my historical subjects by writing about them in a language understandable to myself and my readers. My current book manuscript, “Elastic Sovereignty in Early Modern Asia,” analyzes how Qing and four of its tributary states—Chosŏn Korea, Lê Vietnam, Nguyễn Vietnam, and the Khanate of Kokand—handled interstate refugees and criminals from the 1630s to the 1840s. Over the course of my research and writing, I constantly encounter the question of translation in the following three areas: calendars, language and script, and terms of reference for individuals and the groups that they belong to. 

First, there is the issue of translating the dates. The Qing court used a twelve-month lunar calendar based on the sexagenary cycle, distinct from the solar Gregorian calendar used by most of the world today. A page from the Qing Veritable Records (Da Qing shilu) provides a good example. Here, the date is given in the following format: Qianlong year 2, dingsi [year], month 4, jiaxu [date]. To make this date comprehensible to my readers, I provide both the original date and the Gregorian equivalent in my work: Qianlong 2.4.jiaxu=5/15/1737. This, however, does not fully capture the temporal world of my historical actors. In thinking about the current year, for example, my historical actors would have immediately recalled the dingsi years of the past: 1667, 1607, 1547, etc. At the same time, the practice of dating the years according to the reign era of the current emperor (the Qianlong emperor in this case) highlights the centrality of the institution of the emperorship for one’s sense of time in late imperial China. 

Second, I engage in linguistic translation as well. The Qing empire was founded by the Manchus, and they used a language and a script that were distinct from those used in China Proper. From the 1630s to the 1760s, the Manchus went on to build an early modern empire consisting of its core of China Proper as well as the Inner Asian frontiers such as Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Ruling over such a vast territory and a diverse array of peoples, the Qing state had to employ more than its two main administrative languages (Chinese and Manchu) in its daily operations. A page from the Pentaglot Manchu Glossary (Wuti Qingwen jian) provides a clear piece of evidence for the multilingual characteristic of the Qing empire. Entry 1, for example, lists the word heaven in five scripts: Manchu, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chaghatay Turkic, and Chinese. For my research, I mainly use primary sources written in Chinese and Manchu, and the issue of translation and transliteration frequently appears. For example, one of the gifts carried by Kokand envoys to the Qing officials stationed in Altishahr (southern Xinjiang) is recorded in Manchu-language archival sources as pisde. This word does not appear in any Manchu dictionaries that I am aware of, so it was most likely a phonetic transcription of a Turkic word. Since this word always appeared with dried fruits such as raisins, I was able to make an educated guess that this must have been an edible item common in the region: pistachio. The contemporary Turkic terms for pistachio seem to support my guess: pista (Tajik, Uzbek), piste (Kazakh), fıstık (Turkish). 

The third and most challenging act of translation involves the terms denoting one’s membership in multiple communities. None of the five states that I analyze in my book manuscript (Qing China, Chosŏn Korea, Lê Vietnam, Nguyễn Vietnam, and the Khanate of Kokand) can be considered a modern nation-state, so I use the term “subject” instead of “citizen” when I describe a historical actor’s membership in one of these states. Further complicating the situation is the issue of sovereignty. In the twenty-first century, we are used to post-Westphalian norms of inter-state equality and noninterference. These norms, however, did not apply to interstate relations between the Qing empire and its tributary states. For example, in official diplomatic documents, the king of Chosŏn often referred to Qing as the “great country” (shangguo) and his own country as the “small state” (xiaobang). To illustrate this hierarchy, I often resort to cumbersome phrases such as “Qing imperial subject” and “Chosŏn tributary subject.” Moreover, in their internal documents, tributary states employed their own categories of classification. For example, the Chosŏn court could use any of the following terms to refer to Qing subjects: “Han Chinese” (Han in), “Tang person” (Tang in), “Qing person” (Ch’ŏng in), or “northern barbarian” (ho). Two pages from the Veritable Records of the Chosŏn Dynasty (Chosŏn wangjo sillok) show the Chosŏn use of the terms “Tang person” and “northern barbarian.” Similarly, the Lê court could use terms like “guest” (khách) and “Qing person” (Thanh nhân) to refer to Qing subjects. Trying to preserve the nuances of the original terms while rendering them intelligible in contemporary English is one of the most difficult methodological challenges I have faced as a world historian of the Qing empire. 

In the end, these methodological challenges highlight the act of mediation involved in the craft of world history. They constantly show me the vast distance between my own world and the worlds of my historical actors. This gap, in turn, encourages me to translate these historical experiences into a language understandable to my readers, while reminding me of the unique historical contexts of the past worlds. 
 

Primary Sources

Page from Qing Veritable Records

Page from the Qing Veritable Records
Annotation

The Qing court used a twelve-month lunar calendar based on the sexagenary cycle, distinct from the solar Gregorian calendar used by most of the world today. This page from the Qing Veritable Records (Da Qing shilu) provides a good example. Here, the date is given in the following format: Qianlong year 2, dingsi [year], month 4, jiaxu [date]. To make this date comprehensible to my readers, I provide both the original date and the Gregorian equivalent in my work: Qianlong 2.4.jiaxu=5/15/1737. At the same time, the practice of dating the years according to the reign era of the current emperor (the Qianlong emperor in this case) highlights the centrality of the institution of the emperorship for one’s sense of time in late imperial China. 

Page from the Pentaglot Manchu Glossary

Page from the Pentaglot Manchu Glossary from
Annotation

The Qing empire was founded by the Manchus, and they used a language and a script that were distinct from those used in China Proper. From the 1630s to the 1760s, the Manchus went on to build an early modern empire consisting of its core of China Proper as well as the Inner Asian frontiers such as Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Ruling over such a vast territory and a diverse array of peoples, the Qing state had to employ more than its two main administrative languages (Chinese and Manchu) in its daily operations. This page from the Pentaglot Manchu Glossary (Wuti Qingwen jian) provides a clear piece of evidence for the multilingual characteristic of the Qing empire. Entry 1, for example, lists the word heaven in five scripts: Manchu, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chaghatay Turkic, and Chinese. 

Veritable Records of the Chosŏn Dynasty

Several pages taken from the Veritable Records of the Chosŏn Dynasty
Annotation

In the twenty-first century, we are used to post-Westphalian norms of inter-state equality and noninterference. These norms, however, did not apply to interstate relations between the Qing empire and its tributary states. For example, in official diplomatic documents, the king of Chosŏn often referred to Qing as the “great country” (shangguo) and his own country as the “small state” (xiaobang).  Moreover, in their internal documents, tributary states employed their own categories of classification. For example, the Chosŏn court could use any of the following terms to refer to Qing subjects: “Han Chinese” (Han in), “Tang person” (Tang in), “Qing person” (Ch’ŏng in), or “northern barbarian” (ho). These pages from the Veritable Records of the Chosŏn Dynasty (Chosŏn wangjo sillok) show the Chosŏn use of the terms “Tang person” and “northern barbarian.” Similarly, the Lê court could use terms like “guest” (khách) and “Qing person” (Thanh nhân) to refer to Qing subjects. Trying to preserve the nuances of the original terms while rendering them intelligible in contemporary English is one of the most difficult methodological challenges faced by a world historian of the Qing empire. 

Credits

Jaymin Kim is the T.T. & W.F. Chao Assistant Professor of Transnational Asian Studies at Rice University. Kim received his M.A. and Ph.D. in History from the University of Michigan and his B.A. in Asian Studies and History from Rice University. Before joining the faculty at Rice, he taught at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota and the Korea Military Academy in Seoul, South Korea. His current book manuscript, “Elastic Sovereignty in Early Modern Asia,” analyzes how Qing and three of its tributary states—Chosŏn Korea, Lê/Nguyễn Vietnam, and Kokand in today’s Uzbekistan—handled interstate refugees and criminals from the 1630s to the 1840s. 

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Translation and a World History of the Qing Empire," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-translation-and-world-history-qing-empire [accessed August 7, 2022]