- Historic Sites
Once again, Americans are learning the delicate art of trading with the biggest market on earth. Here’s how they did it the first time.
February/march 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 2
“It was some time,” wrote Shaw, “before the Chinese could fully comprehend the distinction between Englishmen and us. They styled us the New People.” (Later, Americans were sometimes called “flowery-flag devils,” a variation on the standard term “foreign devils.”) Keenly aware of his responsibility as an unofficial representative of a new nation, he obtained French assistance to ensure that the Chinese understood that “we are Americans, a free, independent and sovereign nation, not connected with Great Britain, not owing allegiance to her, or any other power on earth, but to the authority of the United States.”
Throughout the Americans’ stay, the French continued to be particularly helpful. This evidently piqued the English, for Shaw later wrote that the English “more than once observed, that it was a matter of astonishment to them that the descendants of Britons could so soon divest themselves of prejudices which they had thought to be not only hereditary, but inherent in our nature.”
While in Canton, the Americans were part of a small foreign community that led a tightly restricted life. Except for special occasions—a supervised visit to a public garden in the Canton suburbs, an occasional dinner at a hong merchant’s residence—they were confined to the factory area, unable to enter Canton proper. One of the eight regulations governing foreigners stated, “Neither women, guns, spears nor arms of any kind can be brought to the Factories.” Not everyone objected to the prohibition against foreign women. George Chinnery, an eccentric British artist, found refuge in Canton from an irascible wife—who he said was “the ugliest woman he ever saw”—and gratefully observed, “What a kind providence is this Chinese Government, that it forbids the softer sex from coming and bothering us here.”
To relieve the tedium, there was considerable formal entertaining back and forth between the factories, although Shaw found that the “Europeans at Canton do not associate together so freely as might be expected … observing a very ceremonious and reserved behavior.” Recording an early version of a bring-your-own-bottle party, Shaw said that when he accompanied the French to dinner at a hong merchant’s house, the French “supplied the table furniture, wine, and a large portion of the victuals,” as apparently was customary on such occasions. In a comment that would be echoed almost two centuries later by visitors to the People’s Republic of China, one American wrote that “we find scarcely any flies,” although “most vindictive mosquitoes” were plentiful. Foreigners were permitted to remain in Canton only during the trading season of about six months; then they had to leave, some taking up residence in Macao.
The Americans became indirectly involved in an ugly incident that was briefly known as the “Canton war.” A British ship, the Lady Hughes, fired a gun in salute to some visitors, inadvertently killing one Chinese and wounding two others in a nearby sampan. The Chinese demanded that the gunner be handed over to them; when the British refused, the Chinese seized the ship’s supercargo as a hostage. The Europeans—a term that in Canton included Americans—decided that each ship at Whampoa should send a boat, “with an armed force, for the protection of the persons and property of the respective nations,” whereupon the Chinese stationed some forty warships opposite the factories. Shaw thought that “these ships were not very formidable … I am certain that three European long-boats, properly equipped, might have forced their way through them, had they been five times as numerous.” However, only the Americans actually gave the British full support, and the episode “terminated disgracefully,” in Shaw’s view, when the British decided they had no choice but to surrender the gunner to his executioners.
Some Chinese apparently found the Americans more likeable than the British; Shaw recorded one of the hong merchants as saying: “When I speak Englishman his price, he say, ‘So much,—take it,—let alone.’ I tell him, ‘No, my friend, I give you so much.’ He look at me,—‘Go to hell, you damned rascal; what! you come here,—set price my goods?’ Truly, Massa Typan, I see very well you no hap Englishmen. All Chinamen very much love your country.” But Shaw added, “Thus far, it may be supposed, the fellow’s remarks pleased me. Justice obliges me to add his conclusion: ‘All men come first time China very good gentlemen, all same you. I think two three time more you come Canton, you make all same Englishman too.’ ”