This article reconsiders the social, economic, and literary significance of Chinese Pidgin English (CPE) in Chinese society by exploring lexicographical and literary practices of pidgin in nineteenth-century China. Resituating the history of CPE in Chinese language history, this article problematizes the concept of pidgin and pursues three arguments. First, the author maintains that CPE arose from the marginalized status of the Euro-American traders who were restricted from learning the Chinese language in Canton. Second, by exploring foreign-language glossaries, this article foregrounds the key role of sinographs and Chinese topolects in mediating and remolding foreign languages. Last, by examining the appropriation of foreign sounds in Cantonese folk songs and Pan Youdu's poetry, this article demonstrates the complex flow of these sounds among different languages and the power of pidgin in transgressing linguistic boundaries.
Chinese Pidgin English (CPE) emerged and developed around the Canton area as a lingua franca between Chinese and Euro-American traders during their early contacts in the eighteenth century. The “unusual” sound and linguistic features of pidgin never failed to surprise early European traders who traveled to the southern coast of China, and the term pidgin itself embodies their uncanny auditory experience. The term is believed to stem from how Cantonese speakers mispronounced the word business (Baker and Mühlhäusler 1990) in their early contacts with Europeans, and it has since then been taken to refer not only to the trade jargon spoken in Canton but more broadly to all “broken” languages “that emerged out of sporadic interactions between speakers of European languages and those of non-European languages, in European trade and settlement colonies” (Mufwene 2020). Hence, the nomenclature of this language is closely associated with the representation of non-European society and language in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European travel accounts. The racist overtones in the word pidgin are thus palpable: the term is rooted in the history of European expansion and colonialism, manifesting a Eurocentric point of view that considers this form of contact language as a mere aberrant variety of a European language in a non-European society.1 And in the case of CPE, its “strangeness” has further been ridiculed and taken as a mark of the inferiority and stubbornness of Chinese in English-language publications since the eighteenth century (Spence 1998: 54–55; St. André 2018: 146).
This article, however, problematizes the concept of pidgin English and questions the idea that this language is a corrupted language subordinated to English. Engaging with the lexicographical and literary texts of CPE in Chinese, this article provides an alternative point of view from which to reread the history of CPE and to theoretically complement current language contact and World Englishes approaches to pidgins, which often give more weight to the superstrate or lexifier language (European languages—especially English) than the substrate language (non-European languages) and tend to assume that pidgins and creoles are localized and simplified, if not distorted, forms of their lexifiers.2 By foregrounding the intermediary role of sinographs and Chinese topolects (fangyan 方言) in the formation and development of CPE,3 this article not only interrogates the dominance of the English language in the nineteenth century but also challenges the long-held assumption that sinographs are inadequate for expressing sound because of their nonphonographic nature (i.e., China's lack of an alphabet).4 I will instead argue that Chinese people, especially subalterns, displayed tremendous creativity and innovation in utilizing the Chinese writing system and regional topolects to mediate, transform, and reproduce foreign languages to accommodate their own communicative, literary, and social needs. In contrast to the concurrent linguistic trend of Romanizing and alphabetizing Chinese led by European missionaries and Chinese intellectuals,5 the creation and development of pidgin gestured toward a less-recognized history of what I call “Sinicizing European languages.”
According to its conventional definition, CPE is a mixed language made up mostly “of English words, sometimes with a bit of Hindi or Portuguese, set to Chinese grammar and pronunciation” (Platt 2018: 2). But in this article I choose to historicize this language and consider “pidgin” as a variable concept that is constantly and rapidly changing along with history. Instead of assuming any definitive parameters of pidgin, this article positions the meanings of pidgin English in specific historical contexts and explores how and by whom this language variety was defined and discussed. Focusing on the ways in which Chinese and Europeans perceived pidgin English in their specific contexts, this article aims to liberate the concept of “pidgin” from its conventional definition in Eurocentric history and linguistics. What I am primarily interested in is how this language was defined, used, and reproduced by Chinese people in their own historical, social, lexicographical, and literary traditions—a crucial question that has been overlooked in, if not excluded from, previous studies of CPE.
Under this approach, CPE will not simply be considered a local variety of English but a product of the conflicts, compromises, and collaborations between a diversity of language systems and regional topolects. The various strategies for using sinographs to transcribe the pronunciations of foreign languages in dictionaries and literary works constitute the core of this discussion. By retelling the history of CPE from a Chinese perspective, this article shows how foreign sounds were heard, recorded, mediated, manipulated, and imagined, and how they were used as a literary device in Chinese music and verses to portray foreign cultures and customs in the nineteenth century.
Restrictions on Foreigners in the Canton Trade
Pidgins and creoles are generally thought to have originated among non-Western and geopolitically peripheral populations that were disadvantaged under Anglo-European colonial control. The unequal relationship between European and non-European languages in pidgins and creoles is already implied in the terms superstrate and substrate. Originating in historical linguistics and dialect geography in the nineteenth century, the term substrate is generally used “to refer to the presence of linguistic influence from the language(s) of the lower prestige group,” while the terms superstrate and superstratum are coined to designate “the language of the group with highest prestige” (Arends, Kouwenberg, and Smith 1995: 99). However, the power situation against which CPE emerged might provide a counterexample. As Umberto Ansaldo (2009: 6) suggests, during the formative phrase of CPE, the Chinese were far from colonial subjects. They were, on the contrary, in a position of power, dictating local trading terms between them and the English.
In his article written in 1836, the American missionary linguist Samuel Wells Williams (1812–84),6 who sailed for Canton in 1833, pointed out the long existence of CPE as a result of the vulnerable status of foreigners. He noted that the Qing government had endeavored to “restrict the intercommunication of natives and foreigners as much as is consistent with its existence,” and as one way of achieving this goal, “it [had] prevented foreigners from learning the Chinese language.” The true obstacle for foreigners in learning the Chinese language was not the difficulty of memorizing the shapes and pronunciations of sinographs but was the law that “[denounced] as traitors all those natives who dare to teach the language of the ‘central flowery nation’ to outside barbarians” (Williams 1836: 429). The long-standing British dissatisfaction with the restrictions on their learning of the Chinese language could be detected from the list of demands submitted by George Macartney (1737–1806) to the governor general of Guangdong in 1793 during his embassy to China. One of these eleven demands was that the British traders be allowed to learn the Chinese language. In his response to this request, Jueluo Changlin 覺羅長麟 (1748–1811), the governor general of Canton, states that the British should be permitted to study Chinese, but only with the official linguists or other existing employees (Xu 1931: 163–71; Harrison 2021: 139). Robert Morrison (1782–1834), the Anglo-Scottish Protestant missionary who arrived in Canton in 1807, also mentioned in his dairy that the main impediment to his study of the Chinese language came from the policy that forbade Chinese individuals from teaching Chinese to foreigners and that violators would be punished by death (Daily 2013: 107). The consequence of this language policy, as Williams noted, was the overuse of pidgin English, which had led to segregation between the Chinese and the Europeans as well as to a disadvantageous position for the latter. In these circumstances, some Chinese could enjoy many benefits, including the considerable profits earned from foreign customers who could not understand the Cantonese topolect in petty bargaining (Williams 1836: 429).
Apart from the suppression of language learning, foreigners in China faced many other constraints from the mid-eighteenth century until the mid-nineteenth century. In this phase, Canton remained the only port for all maritime trade in China. The single-port policy (yikou tongshang 一口通商) was set by the Qing court to control and regulate all commercial interactions with foreigners. Confining most of the overseas trade to Canton, the Qing government put foreign traders under rigorous administration.7 Upon their arrival, each foreign ship was assigned by the government a specific Chinese merchant or a merchant house, which acted as brokers for and superintendents of the foreign traders (Ansaldo 2009: 190). These Chinese merchant houses, known as cohong (公行), were officially sanctioned as monopolies to manage foreign trade under the supervision of the Guangdong customs superintendents (informally known as hoppo 戶部) and governors-general. The cohong and hoppo assisted, controlled, and taxed the foreign cargoes. The Canton system, as Michael Greenberg (1970: 41) notes, “was not the outcome of treaty or diplomatic restrictions but arose entirely from a unilateral Chinese policy towards foreign trade and traders.”
Given the precarious position of the Europeans in eighteenth-century Canton, some researchers postulate that it was the Europeans, instead of the Chinese, who first simplified their own language in contact situations for easier communication (Hall 1966: 8; Ansaldo 2009: 194; Si 2016). Despite the disputes over who initiated the use of pidgin, what is certain is that the formation and stabilization of CPE was a century-long process that involved mutual accommodations carried out jointly by Europeans, Americans, Chinese, Southeast Asians, and many others in the Canton trade. The necessities of communication between people from all the various nations in commerce produced, drove, and characterized pidgin English (Van Dyke 2005: 81). As a lingua franca mixed from a variety of languages and topolects, CPE was more valuable and practical than any single language.8 Furthermore, the use of pidgin also gained support from the Qing authorities, who found it adequate for the purposes of commerce and believed that “there was no need for [foreigners] to interact with the local people beyond selling and buying goods” because they presumably came solely for trade (Chen 2016: 77). As an amalgam of multiple languages, CPE was accepted by everyone in the Canton trade, ranging from officials to servants and foreigners to local Chinese. For Chinese merchants and European traders, CPE provided a crucial linguistic medium for circumventing the restrictions imposed by the government and facilitating contact between Chinese and Westerners; while for Qing officials, CPE helped accomplish their goal of controlling foreign trade and separating foreigners from Chinese communities.
But how was this language mediated in the Chinese writing system and how did it circulate in Chinese society? The following sections investigate the various lexicographical products that shaped the features of CPE throughout the nineteenth century. Situating these texts in the history of linguistic mediation, I will examine the ways in which they inherited and challenged the tradition of translation and the role they played in stabilizing and dispersing CPE within and beyond the Canton area.
From Pidgin Portuguese to Pidgin English
Pidgin English was not the first and only language used as a medium in the Canton trade system. Prior to the early eighteenth century, linguists, who were appointed by the Qing government as mediators between foreigners and Chinese officials, came from Macao and most often communicated with the Europeans in Portuguese or pidgin Portuguese,9 which was known in Chinese records as xiyangyu (西洋語, “the language of the Western Ocean”). Evidence of this language can be found in the Summary Account of Macao (Aomen Jilüe 澳門記略), a study of Macao penned by two Chinese scholar-officials in 1751. In this monograph, a Chinese-Portuguese glossary, Translated Vocabulary of Macao (known as Aoyi 澳譯) is appended. It contains 395 entries, each of which starts with the meaning of the item followed by its Portuguese pronunciation indicated in a combination of sinographs that are to be pronounced in Cantonese, with a few exceptions in Mandarin or a Min topolect (Hu 2004: 72–73). The written form of the Portuguese language is, however, omitted (fig. 1).
Quoting the story of Yang Ziyun (揚子雲, aka Yang Xiong 揚雄, 53–18 BC) from Miscellaneous Records of the Western Capital (Xijing zaji 西京雜記) in the brief foreword, the compiler pays tribute to the Han scholar who traveled to distant regions to collect indigenous vocabulary and inaugurated the linguistic tradition of using sinographs phonographically to record regional spoken words in his work Regional Words (Fangyan 方言). This paragraph embeds the rendering of Portuguese language in the history of mediating and recording regional and peripheral forms of speech through sinographs. The view of center and periphery is further stressed by choosing yi 譯 instead of ji 寄 to convey the meaning “translation” in the title, as the former is used in the imperial capital and appears in the Confucian canon the Great Tradition of the Book of Documents (Shangshu dazhuan 尚書大傳).10 Therefore, “yi was used in preference to ji out of respect for the emperor’s dwelling place” (不言寄, 尊王畿也) (Yin and Zhang 1880: 54).
This glossary shows two noteworthy characteristics: First, the editor(s) tended to employ commonly used sinographs and combine both the phonetic and semantic values of sinographs for phonetic annotation (Zhang 2017). The pronunciation of the Portuguese word setembro (“September”), for example, is rendered as 雪添補爐. It is pronounced in Cantonese as /syut3 tim1 bou2 lou4/11 and would mean “repair the stove as the snow is getting heavier,” corresponding to the seasonal characteristics of September in China. Second, the words in this glossary are drawn from not only the Portuguese of Portugal but also from Hindi, Malay, Indo-Portuguese creoles, and Macanese Portuguese (Yuelian Liu 2004). The diverse origins of the words demonstrate that the translingual activities between Chinese and European languages in this period were not a unidirectional exchange between two languages; instead, we see an ongoing process that involved complex interactions and mediations among a variety of languages as a result of the burgeoning trading network between Asia and Europe.
Sinographs were widely employed as phonograms to transcribe non-Sinitic names and terms. Moreover, phonographic transcription was not limited to individual foreign words. In translations of Buddhist sutras, sinographs are used to transcribe dhāraṇī from Sanskrit to facilitate chants and recitations (Lurie 2011: 204–5). The employment of sinographs as phonograms also has a long history in the sinographic cosmopolis beyond the territory of China. By the sixth century, sinographs had been used to inscribe the vernaculars in both Korea and Japan, and the process of phoneticization “depended upon knowledge not only of the meaning of Chinese characters but also of their phonetic realization, which was subject to regional variation” (Kornicki 2018: 56).
In late imperial China, the strategy of using sinographs phonographically to approximate and denote foreign speech sounds is best demonstrated in the collection of multilingual dictionaries known as A Sino-Foreign Translation Vocabulary (Hua yi yiyu 華夷譯語), which were compiled across the Ming and Qing dynasties to translate and transcribe foreign texts of diplomatic or strategic importance to the courts (Nappi 2021).12 Among these dictionaries, six European-language dictionaries, including French, Italian, German, Portuguese, Latin, and English, were compiled, probably between 1747 and 1761—almost simultaneously with the writing of Aomen Jilüe—at the behest of the Qianlong Emperor (Huang 2010). The written forms of these words in their original languages are given in these dictionaries along with their pronunciations indicated in sinographs. It is worth noting, however, that these European words in this collection were written by foreign missionaries in Beijing, with the exception of the English dictionary, titled the Translated Vocabulary of English (Yingjiliguo Yiyu 𠸄咭唎國譯語), which was probably produced by a Chinese (Fuchs 1931: 92). Not only are there mistakes in the spelling, but also the phonetic notations are primarily based on Cantonese phonology and sometimes do not match the original words. For instance, the entry 是我 is translated into English as “It is me” and phonetically notated as 買 /maai5/, which approximates the pronunciation of my (Gugongbowuyuan 2018, 13:186). Huang Xingtao (2010) detected that the mistakes and mismatches in this dictionary evince many features of Canton English and it was probably penned by a Chinese linguist from Canton.
In the early nineteenth century, a number of anonymous Chinese-English glossaries, known as Red-Haired Barbarian Speech (Hongmao fanhua 紅毛番話), became hot commodities in the Canton area.13 These chapbooks normally contain three hundred fifty to four hundred entries, each of which is given its foreign pronunciation annotated in a combination of sinographs. Not a single Roman letter appears in any of these texts. Though in a similar format, what sets these wordbooks apart from Aoyi and Yingjiliguo Yiyu is that they were not officially sponsored but were market driven and designed in particular for ordinary Chinese people, most of whom were semiliterate, to acquire language skills in an efficient way.
Several such pamphlets, including six printed versions and three hand-written manuscripts with different titles and varying quantities of entries, have been uncovered by Chinese and Japanese scholars in recent years.14 None of these pamphlets, however, adopts the concept of “pidgin” to define the vocabulary; nor do they mention anywhere the differences between the words they include and those of formal English. One of the surviving copies carries the title Commonly Used Vocabulary of the Red-Haired People in Business (Hongmao maimai tongyong fanhua 紅毛買賣通用番話) (fig. 2). Around four hundred entries are categorized into four groups: (1) business and numbers, (2) figures and idioms, (3) common words in conversation, and (4) foods and sundries. Following a format similar to that in Aoyi,15 each entry in this book starts with a Chinese term followed by its pronunciation in English indicated in sinographs based on the phonology of Cantonese.
These surviving multilingual pamphlets must have been but a few of many more foreign-language pamphlets circulating in Canton in the early nineteenth century. They were most likely compiled by the linguists in Canton and passed down from one generation to another, first in their family and then in more widely distributed print form (St. André 2018: 8). Samuel Wells Williams (1837: 279) provides a description of how a local Cantonese used these pamphlets: “A Chinese commits one of these vocabularies to memory, and then constructs his sentences according to the idioms of his own language.” Although the more or less monosyllabic nature of Chinese led to the result that “the word is much broken when spoken and often nearly unintelligible to a foreigner unacquainted with this fact,” Williams was surprised by the fact that “in pronunciation, the true sound of course is more nearly attained.” The main problem of this language, as he noted, is the transposition of words in a sentence based on Chinese word order rather than that of English. As a result, “the meaning of many expressions is obscure, where the pronunciation of the words is nearly correct” (432).
Nonetheless, to equate the vocabulary in these wordbooks with English is not unproblematic. In addition to the fact that these words come from a diversity of languages, the changing meaning of the epithet hongmao 紅毛 (lit., “red-haired”) is also noticeable. It was first coined to refer exclusively to Dutch people in early Sino-Dutch contacts until the seventeenth century, when it started to be used more broadly to refer not only to the Dutch but also to the British and other Europeans, or more generally white people or Caucasians (Ding 2021: 25–26). In other words, the term hongmao was not necessarily associated with a clear nationality in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This ambiguity suggests that most of the target readers of these wordbooks were unconcerned about the distinctions among European languages. More important, it was not necessary for them to be too expert in a foreign language—indeed, it was dangerous. While foreigners were barred from learning Chinese, Chinese people dared not be overly enthusiastic and fluent in a European language for fear of provoking suspicion from the Chinese authorities.16
These “Red-Haired” pamphlets had already existed and circulated in Canton for several decades before they were formally printed in the 1830s (Williams 1837). Their readers were primarily those literate and semiliterate Chinese people who often dealt with foreigners in their daily life, and included not only male merchants, linguists, compradors, shopkeepers, and servants, but also female laundresses and prostitutes (Ching 2021: 220–24). Despite the popularity of these lexicographical products, we cannot neglect the unrecorded process of oral transmission of and instruction in this language in Chinese society. In A Chinese Commercial Guide (1844), there is a brief description about how these wordbooks were combined with in-person oral instruction provided by someone senior or those more experienced in dealing with foreigners and foreign business in Canton:
Before they [the Chinese] consider themselves qualified to act as servants, they receive what in their opinion is a tolerable English education, which consists in committing to memory a number of words and phrases from small manuscript Chinese and English vocabularies written in the Chinese characters, and with the English phrase constructed according to the Chinese idiom. There are usually a few men to be found in Canton who get their living by thus teaching English to the lads about the factories and shops, in order to qualify them for conducting business with the foreigner. (Morrison and Williams 1844: 162)
This profession and the wordbooks continued to flourish in treaty ports to meet the growing demand for foreign-language training in the second half of the nineteenth century (Si 2013).
The six-volume Chinese and English Instructor (Ying Ü Tsao Tsün 英語集全; pinyin: Yingyu jiquan), printed in 1862 in Canton, is a more formal and comprehensive English-language learning resource edited by Tong Ting-Kü 唐廷樞 (1832–92; pinyin: Tang Tingqu), a leading Cantonese merchant who had received English-language training at the Morrison School in Macao. This book contains more than ten thousand words, phrases, and sentences. Before introducing the alphabet and vocabularies, there is also a chapter on pronunciation (dufa 讀法) that includes a detailed explanation about the differences between Chinese and English phonology and where the method of pronouncing English words is given by the editor. It is followed by another chapter in which he compares the Roman alphabet and sinographs and elaborates his phonographic uses of sinographs in the book. The sinographs employed to transcribe English pronunciation are meticulously listed at the beginning of each volume, where Tong takes the phonology of the provincial capital of Canton as the standard and uses the method of “turn-and-cut” (fanqie 反切) to phoneticize each character.17
For each entry, Tong not only provides the sound of the foreign word in sinographs and Roman letters but also includes its pronunciation in what he calls Guangdong fanhua (廣東番話, “Canton language for foreigners”) in the annotations. As figure 3 shows, the entry for 大 consists of (1) its Cantonese pronunciation in Roman letters, “Tai”; (2) its spelling in English, “large”; (3) its English pronunciation transcribed in Chinese characters, 罅柱 /laa chyú/; (4) and its pronunciation in Guangdong fanhua in sinographs, 罅治 /laa jih/. In addition to the pronunciation, the editor also notices differences in morphology between standard English and Guangdong fanhua. In the header of the page, the editor notes the distinct way of forming comparatives and superlatives in Guangdong fanhua: the comparative is marked by 嚒 /mō/ (derived from “more”), while the superlative is marked by 稔巴溫 /náhm bāa wān/ (derived from “number one”). Therefore, “longer” in Guangdong fanhua is 嚒郎 /mō lòhng/ (“more long”), and “longest” is 稔巴溫郎 /náhm bāa wān lòhng/ (“number one long”). In the end, Tong points out that “Westerners are familiar with these expressions today,” implying the practical value of Guangdong fanhua in communication.
The lexical items denoted as Guangdong fanhua in this book are almost equivalent to what the Europeans labeled as pidgin English in the same period.18 Tong was fully aware of the distinctions between formal English and pidgin English, yet he took the latter seriously in this dictionary. Placing the words of CPE either side by side with those of standard English or in footnotes with detailed explanations, he presents them as a kind of knowledge equally useful as English, even though he recognized that they are far from “authentic” English.
Although the British found the “English dialect” (Noble 1762: 262) spoken in Canton new and strange, this language was neither entirely English nor new to the ears of the Chinese subalterns. It was in fact a product of the long-established tradition of linguistic mediation and phoneticization in China and the Sinographic Cosmopolis.19 Since the mid-nineteenth century, these wordbooks and pamphlets had been adapted to other topolects and become immensely popular in treaty ports. They were reprinted many times by different publishers and spread across China, from Canton to other cities, including Shanghai, Hankou (Hankow), and Tianjin (Tientsin) (Rowe 1984: 229–30; Hao 2013), and were carried abroad to Japan, Southeast Asia, Europe, and New Zealand with Chinese migrants and foreign travelers (Qiu 2017). In the annual astrological almanacs published in Malaysia and Hong Kong nowadays, we can still find several pages introducing English words as practical knowledge for everyday life, and they are organized in a format and categories virtually identical to these early lexicographical works.
The sinicized European vocabularies, as an essential medium through which CPE was formed, did not exist exclusively in dictionaries and wordbooks for utilitarian purposes. They were also absorbed into Sinitic languages and topolects and found their way into folk songs, traditional opera performance, and poetry compositions going as far back as the earliest contacts between Chinese and Europeans.
A typical example can be found in a Cantonese folk song recorded in a surviving songbook, probably printed in the nineteenth century. Two sinicized English words are inserted in a lyric as follows: “女唱:番鬼識當唐人坐落,兄哥,哥歪二字趕走兄台” (“Female singer: the foreign devil sik-dong [sit down] and the Chinese sit down; my brother, the two characters ‘go-waai’ [go away] is to drive you away”) (Ching 2021: 226; my translation and emphasis).
Taking the form of a male and female duet, this song depicts a flirtatious dialogue between a young girl and her suitor, revolving around a comparison between European and Chinese men. When describing fangui (“foreigners,” or “foreign devils”), the lyrics are interspersed with English words transliterated in sinographs based on Cantonese phonology. As in the above line, the phrases sik-dong (識當) and go-waai (哥歪) are juxtaposed with their semantic Chinese translations zuoluo 坐落 (sit down) and ganzou 趕走 (go away) in the same line, forming a structure of equivalence within the lyric. Noticeably, these foreign sounds are inserted not because they are untranslatable but because of their phonetic value in adding an exotic flavor and evoking an acoustic imagination of everyday life in Canton.
“A Man Burning Clothes” (Nan shao yi 男燒衣), the well-known narrative song of Cantonese naamyam (南音, “southern-tone song”), may provide us with another example of how European lexical items were Sinicized and seeped into a Sinitic language. Though there is little evidence to pinpoint the time when this piece was composed, this song had already enjoyed great popularity in the Canton area by the Late Qing.20 The story of the song is sung in the voice of a man who learns about the death of his lover, a courtesan on the Pearl River, and burns her clothes and personal belongings to pay tribute to her dead soul on the river. The main part of the song is composed by describing the objects he burned, and one of those items is the so-called yalandai (芽蘭帶), the meaning of which has long been puzzling: “又燒到芽蘭帶, 與及繡花鞋。 可恨當初唔好早日帶妹埋街, 免使你在青樓多苦捱, 咁好沉香當作爛柴。 芽蘭帶乃係小生親手買, 可惜對花鞋繡得咁佳 。 ” (Then, I burning the yalandai and a pair of embroidered shoes. I regret that I did not marry you earlier so that you could suffer less in the brothel. Such fine incense was treated as rotten firewood! I bought this yalandai with my own hands. Sadly, this pair of flower shoes is so well embroidered).21
Ching Maybo (2017) observed that the word yalan (芽蘭, / nga4 laan4 /) was borrowed from the Spanish word grana, referring to cochineal, an insect native to South America and an important commodity that was used to make the finest red dye in the eighteenth-century global trade. The Spanish provenance of this word illustrates how the Spaniards dominated and monopolized the trade in cochineal since the seventeenth century. The sinicized Spanish word yalan had been assimilated into the everyday vocabulary of Canton, and its linguistic origin had become obscured by the nineteenth century. In the aforementioned Chinese and English Instructor, the editor Tong Ting-Kü also included an entry “呀囒米 ngá lán mae” as the first item listed under the category of “dyestuff,” yet he presented it not as a foreign word but as a Chinese idiom corresponding to the English “cochineal,” or 高遷尓厘 /gou1 chin1 yi5 lei4/ (Tong 1862, 3:33). In this Naamyam song, the word yalandai probably refers to red foot-binding strips or red shoelaces dyed with cochineal. Unlike the English phrases inserted in the previous folk song, the word yalan was used here as a local idiom with no need for further explanation in the song.
Cochineal entered the Chinese market via Manila from South America as early as the sixteenth century, but it was not until the eighteenth century that the import and export of this good reached a significant scale in China, and Canton became a crucial site for the supply of cochineal to Britain where there was a rising market for this dye because of the booming textile industry (Ching 2017: 126–27). In this period, the Cantonese hong merchant Poankeequa (or Pan Zhencheng 潘振承, 1714–88) and his successor, Poankeequa II (or Pan Youdu 潘有度, 1755–1820), who maintained constant control over the Spanish trade in Canton and were well-versed in the business of cochineal, played a key role in providing knowledge and information about this dye to the British (Van Dyke 2012: 78). Pan Youdu has been historically famous for his economic power and success as a merchant in the Canton trade, yet his poetic oeuvre has received little scholarly attention.
With the support of his father, who had accumulated great wealth in Canton through his business acumen and multilingual skills, Pan Youdu received both an excellent classical education and English-language training from a young age.22 His older brother, Pan Youwei (潘有為, 1743–1821), achieved the highest jinshi 進士 degree in the imperial examination and participated in the compilation of the Complete Library in Four Sections (Siku quanshu 四庫全書). Pan Youdu's power was partially built on the status of his family members, which enabled him to “speak easily with high-ranking officials,” and, more important, on his ability to speak English and interpret in negotiations between Qing officials and the Europeans (Harrison 2021: 160). He penned a set of verses, titled “Poetry of the Western Ocean” (Se-yang tsa yoong 西洋雜詠; pinyin: Xiyang zayong), believed to have been written around 1812 (Cai 2003). Before it was printed in Chinese by the descendants of the Pan family in 1894, some of the verses had been translated into English and commented on in Poetry of the Chinese (Davis 1829: 59–61) by Sir John Francis Davis (1785–1890), a British sinologist and the second governor of Hong Kong. These works possess both lexicographical and literary significance and well illustrate how the poet made use of the polysemy generated by the combination and collocation of Cantonese topolect, literary Sinitic, and European languages.
The first verse starts by lauding the good faith of the foreigners:
Under the word 奢慳, Pan adds the gloss “In Sino-Western trade, a handshake stands for a promise that cannot be broken, even if there are tens of thousands of dollars at stake.” He ends the note by explaining that “the full word for ‘shake hands’ is ‘奢忌慳,’” which is to be pronounced in Cantonese as /che1 gei6 haan1/. Noticeably, the entry for 揸手 (“shake hands,” or lit., “hold hands”) also appears in several wordbooks presumably produced around the same period. In Essential Words of English (Yiyin Jiyao, 夷音輯要), the entry was, however, annotated as 昔忌牽 (/sik1 gei6 hin1/), corresponding to “shake hand.”23 The reason for employing different characters to phoneticize “shake hands” in the two texts, I would argue, lies not in the authors' different levels of English proficiency, but in their varying intentions to incorporate the semantic and rhythmic values of sinographs into literary and lexicographical works.
In Yiyin Jiyao, 牵 refers semantically to “holding hands,” which matches the meaning of 揸手 in Cantonese, and the phrase 昔忌牽 literally means “avoid holding hands in the old days,” suggesting that the handshake was a new custom developed in trade with foreigners. The three characters not only provide a phonetic approximation but also create a local semantic context by exploiting the properties of the Chinese writing system—that is, the sinographs hold both phonetic and semantic information. Although only for utilitarian purposes, the lexicographer appears to have artistically incorporated both the sound and meaning of sinographs in order to mediate, reproduce, and transform foreign words.
Nevertheless, the way Pan Youdu appropriated sound and script in his poem is quite different. In deploying the sinographs 奢慳 /che1 haan1/ to phoneticize English “shake hand” in the second line, Pan not only makes use of the phonetic value of these sinographs to mimic the foreign sound but also takes into account the fact that the character 奢 refers semantically to “luxury” and “splurge” while 慳 means “parsimony.” These two characters thus create an interesting contrast, while at the same time coinciding with the vast world of trade and transaction highlighted in this poem. The complete phonetic annotation, 奢忌慳, provided in the notes, which could be interpreted as “enjoy the splurging and do not skimp,” further embeds this word within the context of trade and business. And in terms of sound, Pan Youdu selected the character 慳 /haan/ instead of 牽 /hin1/, not because the pronunciation of 慳 is closer to “hand,” but primarily for the purpose of rhyming, in that the last characters of the first and fourth lines, 關 /gwaan1/ and 蠻 /maan4/, both rhyme with /aan/ in Cantonese. Even though these verses were written in a laxer poetic form, the poet still follows the basic prosodic rule that the final syllable of the first, second, and fourth lines in a seven-word quatrain should rhyme.
In addition to “shake hand,” Pan willfully deployed a number of foreign terms and expressions, with lengthy explanations in notes, to portray foreigners and their peculiar customs in this set of twenty poems. These lexical items, again, display an ambiguous nationality, showing how a diversity of languages is mixed and interwoven through sinographs. The eighth poem (Pan 1894: 3), for example, describes the Catholic fasting culture of the Portuguese in Macao and introduces the term 彼是 (/bei2 si6/) and the phrase 里亞彼是 (/lei5 a3 bei2 si6/), which stem from the Portuguese peixe (fish) and dia do peixe (fish day). The last two lines of the poem read, “The period of the fast is called bei-si, / during which only fish and crabs are offered, not lamb” (齋戒有期名彼是, / 只供魚蟹厭羔羊). The fifth poem (Pan 1894: 2) depicts the various smoking styles of the Europeans. Whereas the poet uses the Chinese word 烟葉 in the notes to refer to tobacco imported from Luzon (another colony of Spain), he employs 淡巴姑 (/taam5 ba1 gu1/) in the poem to express the same meaning while approximate the sound of tabaco (tobacco) in Spanish.24 In Sinicizing foreign words and incorporating them into poetry according to traditional rhymical schemes, the poet reproduced these European lexical items by imposing Chinese prosodic structure and tonal patterns on them.
Among these foreign sounds, the terms 摩盧 and 三蘇 in the sixth poem vividly illustrate the complex and multidirectional linguistic mediations that may compel us to reconfigure our understandings of pidgin English:
The author's note tells us that the word 摩盧 /mo1 lou4/ is the name of a nation where people all wear white cloths on their heads. However, the etymology of this term is a myth. A Chinese-language attestation of this word can be found in another wordbook, Chinese and English, in which the entry 白頭鬼 (white-head devil) is phonetically annotated as 摩路文 (/mo1 lou6 man4/) but the spelling of the corresponding English word is not given.25 In English-language sources, the term mo-lo-man appeared in many pidgin English guidebooks compiled by British writers in the nineteenth century and was regarded as a typical CPE term of Chinese origin.26 Herbert Giles (1845–1935), a British sinologist and diplomat, provides another clue in his A Glossary of Reference on Subjects Connected with the Far East (1878), a glossary designed to “provide a key to shibboleth of Anglo-Chinese society,” especially “the famous pidgin English of the treaty ports in China,” for English readers (Giles 1878: ii–iii). Under the entry for “Moormen,” Giles glosses this word as equivalent to the Chinese term “白頭人, or white head men,” which was “taken from the turban worn by Mahommedans and others” and used to refer to “the miscellaneous natives of India who go there to trade.” He further explains that the English word “Moormen” has a Cantonese folk etymology: “Our word has been fancifully derived from 貌陋 mao lou men, or ‘ugly face’ people” (91). Therefore, if 摩盧 in Pan's poem was drawn from the English “Moormen,” the latter in turn came from the Chinese word 貌陋 in Cantonese pronunciation.
Nevertheless, this speculation is almost certainly Giles's own fantasy. Recent researchers tend to hold that the Cantonese mo-lo (摩盧 or 摩羅) was borrowed from the Macanese Portuguese word mouro, or môro (Portuguese: marata, muçulmano), which had been used in Macao to refer to “natives of India of Moslem religion” since the sixteenth century (Batalha 1994: 148). One salient example is the famous building, Quartel dos Mouros (Barracks of the Moors), which was established in 1874 to house a regiment from Goa, Portugal's colony in India. Even in the 1960s, the Indians in Malaysia were still referred to by the Portuguese of Malacca as moros (Thompson 1966: 165), and the word 摩羅差 continues to be used as a derogatory term for Indians in contemporary Hong Kong. This word thus reminds us of the crucial role of the Indians in Sino-Western trade as well as in the formation of CPE. It also demonstrates that the vocabulary later labeled as pidgin English was not a corrupted localized variant of English lexicon in China, nor was it a product of language mixture exclusively between Chinese and English; instead, these words were created along with complex interactions among multiple languages and peoples along the routes of global trade, and this process often involved misunderstandings, mishearing, miscommunications, and misrepresentations.
The word 三蘇 /saam1 sou1/ in the last line provides us with yet another intriguing example. Under this term, Pan Youdu notes that “foreigners refer to Chinese liquor as saam-sou” (夷人呼中國之酒為三蘇), which implies that 三蘇 was not a local Chinese idiom and would be new to his readers. Yet samshu (or various other different spellings such as samshoo or samciu) circulated widely in English newspapers and publications in the nineteenth century. It was introduced in almost every pidgin English guidebook and was said to refer to Chinese rice spirits (Leland 1876: 132; Hill 1920: 59). Samuel Wells Williams (1848: 75) claimed that samshoo, or sam shiu, semantically means “thrice fired” in Chinese, because its production process involves two to three distillations, thereby making it stronger than common liquor, and yet this view is not supported by any Chinese-language sources. Giles (1878: 122) followed Williams's idea and stated that samshoo originates from Chinese word 三燒 (“thrice fired”). However, I have been unable to identify the word 三燒 as the name of any kind of liquor in Chinese historical sources. More surprisingly, the term samshu has existed in English literature since as early as the seventeenth century, even before the establishment of the Canton trade system. One of the earliest English-language attestations of this word, in two different spellings (“samciu” and “sam shu”), appeared in William Dampier's (1652–1751) travelogue. Dampier (1699) noted down some presents received from “Tartarian” officers on one of the Pescadore Islands (now Penghu), and these presents included “Samciu, a sort of Chinese Arack, and Hocciu a kind of Chinese Mum” (403). On a following page, the author provides more details: “2 great Jars of Arack, (made of Rice as I judged) called by the Chinese Sam Shu; and 55 Jars of Hoc Shu, as they call it” (419). This early record reveals the important information that the word samshu, or samciu, did not arise in a Cantonese-speaking environment. It seems that samciu and hocciu might originally have derived from the pronunciation of 燒酒 (a more common name for arrack in late imperial China) and 黄酒 (yellow rice wine) in a northern or eastern topolect. And there is a possibility that it was the Europeans who carried the “distorted” Chinese sound of samshu to Canton over the following centuries and gave it a Cantonese etymon and history. Multiple translations and transliterations thus obscured its origin and turned this word into an exotic idiom for both Chinese and foreigners.
Obviously, Pan Youdu, who was so well-versed in trade and commodities, did not think that the word samshu in foreigners' mouths came from a Chinese liquor named 三燒, otherwise he would have mentioned it in his note. As in the previous poem, the sinographs were skillfully selected to both approximate the foreign sound and accommodate Chinese rhythmic rules. But perhaps also with deliberate irony, Pan used the two characters 三蘇 /saam1 sou1/ in this poem to mimic and poke fun at how the Europeans misspoke the Chinese language. Before the British conceived the concept of pidgin in the mid-nineteenth century to categorize these words and to ridicule how the Chinese distorted pure English, these words had already been used in reverse to mock the way the Europeans mispronounced Chinese.
By examining the intricacy of how these foreign words emerged and circulated in Chinese literature, what I would like to emphasize here is that the etymology of these pidgin English words is not as important as how these words have been used, discussed, and presented, as well as what imaginations have been projected onto them and who held or holds the power to define them. In other words, to judge CPE from any standard of linguistic purity entirely misses the point. The flow of these words shows that the value of pidgin lies precisely in its ability to transgress different linguistic boundaries, thus radically challenging our conventional division of languages primarily by nationality and ethnicity. These in-between words and phrases, including the word pidgin itself, was not a result of one language being corrupted by another, but an embodied record of what different groups of people heard and saw in each other.
Taking advantage of his position as a hong merchant and literatus, Pan Youdu was arguably the first to incorporate pidgin English into Chinese poetry writing, though he did not see the words he used as pidgin. However, he was not the only one to do so. In 1873, a series of one hundred bamboo branch lyrics, titled “Pidgin Bamboo Branch Lyrics” (Bieqin zhuzhici 别琴竹枝詞), were written by a Yang Shaoping (楊少坪) and published in the recently founded Shen Bao 申報 (1841–1908), one of the earliest modern Chinese newspapers. Taking a similar poetic form as “Poetry of the Western Ocean,” Yang inserted and introduced more than two hundred pidgin words and phrases in a macaronic form. Noticeably, Yang—who had received formal English training at Shanghai Tongwenguan (上海同文館)27—used the term 別琴, a transliteration of “pidgin,” in the title, and consciously adopted this concept to differentiate these words from standard English. In comparison with Pan Youdu's works, Yang's poetry marked a different era when the Western concept of pidgin was introduced into Chinese and began to influence the classification and perception of this language by Chinese elites.
This language did not cease to exist with the breakdown of the Canton trade system. Quite the contrary, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was marked by an increasing interest in pidgin in Chinese literature, although the phonology, the cultural connotations, and even the name of this language had changed with the shifting of trading centers and power dynamics between China and the West. This period witnessed a boom in the production of verses, novels, oral performances, and films that made use of pidgin English to produce laughter in public media and serve various ideological purposes in China. The production of lexicographical witnesses to pidgin English vocabulary also persisted further into the twentieth century inside and outside China.28 Far from dying, CPE continued to grow and prosper in the new treaty-port system.
Pidgin English circulated in the decades leading up to the vernacularization and phoneticization experiments of the 1890s and subsequent decades.29 In this article I have tried to show that when European missionaries and Chinese elites tried to employ the Roman alphabet to transcribe and transform Sinitic language(s) in order to solve the problem of illiteracy in China, there was also a large group of Chinese people, both elites and semiliterate subalterns, who actively participated in Sino-European interactions, using sinographs phonographically to reproduce, transform, and mediate foreign languages to facilitate their upward mobility.
To conclude, in this article I problematize the concept of pidgin and retell the story from a Chinese perspective. Resituating the history of this linguistic phenomenon in the genealogy of linguistic mediation in China and against the evolving power relations between China and the West, I propose to free the concept of pidgin from the dominance of English and instead view the formation of this language as a valuable product of the joint efforts made by multiple groups of people over a long historical period and along global trading networks. By examining lexicographical works on European languages in nineteenth-century China, I also demonstrate the intermediary role of sinographs and Sinitic topolects in Sino-Western contacts. Finally, by analyzing the creative appropriation of foreign sounds in Cantonese folk music and poetry, especially Pan Youdu's “Xiyang Zayong,” in this article I emphasize the literary value of foreign idioms mediated into Sinitic through sound and highlight the power of these words, later categorized as pidgin English by the British, in transgressing various linguistic boundaries.
I express my deep gratitude to the editors and the two anonymous reviewers for their insights and criticisms. I thank Ross King, Christopher Rea, Haun Saussy, and Jessica Hanser for their patience, advice, and support that has helped me improve this study in innumerable ways. I am also immensely grateful to Keiichi Uchida, who generously shared with me his scanned copies of “Red-Haired” dictionaries while I was unable to travel during the pandemic. I presented a part of this article at the Berkeley-Stanford Graduate Conference in April 2022. I thank Laikwan Pang, Aaron Gilkison, Andrew F. Jones, and Haiyan Lee and many others for reading and listening to my project and offering me their thoughtful feedback.
Roxy Harris and Ben Rampton (2002: 32) observe that until the mid-twentieth century, debates in the studies of pidgin and creole were dominated by a simplistic notion expressed by white European and North American linguists that pidgins and creoles were flawed corruptions of “higher” European languages, and that subordinated people were attributed with minimal creative effect in encounters where pidgin and creole languages arose.
World Englishes and New Englishes emphasize pluricentric approaches to English worldwide. These approaches acknowledge that English is no longer the sole possession of the British and the Americans, “but an international language which increasing numbers of people adopt for at least some of their purposes” (Halliday, Strevens, and McIntosh 1964: 293), and thus more attention should be paid to the various localized forms of English, or what are called “new Englishes” or “world Englishes,” in the Caribbean, West and East Africa, and parts of Asia.
This article follows Victor Mair's (1991) proposal and uses “topolect” to translate fangyan 方言.
According to James St. André (2018: 158), in nineteenth-century European representations of the sight and sound of the Chinese language, Chinese was often described in comparison with European languages, “with any differences between the two being theorized as a lack or fault on the part of Chinese or, especially in terms of dialect, as an excess of (not recordable) sounds.”
Most of the reformers believed that it was sinographic writing that led to the illiteracy problem and backwardness in China. In their quest for mass literacy, many intellectuals called for an alphabetization of orthography to achieve “the congruence of speech and writing” (yan wen heyi 言文合一) (Kaske 2008: 90).
Williams later became the first professor of Chinese language and literature in the United States, at Yale University, after he returned to the United States in 1877.
While Canton was the only port for maritime trade, there were other trading centers on the northern and western borders of the Qing empire, including Kyakhta along the northern border between Mongolia and Russia, and Ürümqi and Aksu in Xinjiang. The trans-Himalayan trade that links Tibet and southern and central Asia also made Lhasa a prosperous trading center under Manchu rule (Zhao 2013).
According to Kingsley Bolton (2003: 159), not only English residents use pidgin to communicate with their servants and employees but also merchants and visitors from all other countries. With their limited grasp of English, the Dutch captains who sailed to Hong Kong from Batavia were generally adept at pidgin. With rare exceptions, the French and Germans used it and learned it as a separate subject upon arriving.
Hu Huiming (2004: 54–55) shows that the Portuguese variant spoken in Macao was referred to as “língua de Macau,” “dialect macaense,” “macaísta,” and “crioulo de Macau”; it possesses all the features of a pidgin and predated pidgin English.
For a survey of the compilation of Aoyi and the concept of yiyu, see Yuelian Liu 2003.
This article uses Yale romanization system to indicate Cantonese pronounciations.
These dictionaries were systematically compiled by the Office of Translators (Siyi Guan 四夷館), which was established in 1407 by the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. This translation institution was to be a part of Hanlin Academy, and it continued to exist under the Qing government and was renamed as Siyi Guan 四譯館 in 1644. Its various bureaus were initially “intended as diplomatic and strategic tools for imperial rule” (Nappi 2021: 14). At the time of its founding under Yongle's guidance, there had initially been eight bureaus, each of which “was charged with translating a particular foreign script to and from Chinese, training students and officials in the relevant language, and creating study aids for students studying the various bureau languages” (19). As Su Jing (1985: 5–6) and Henrietta Harrison (2021: 104–5) show, these translation institutions were products of the tribute system and differed from the three Tongwenguan founded in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou in the early 1860s as a part of the Self-Strengthening Movement.
For a thorough discussion of these glossaries, see Uchida and Shen 2009.
Keiichi Uchida and Shen Guowei (2009) compiled and reprinted five copies of The Red-Haired Barbarian Language, printed respectively by Rongdetang, Fuhuitang, Chengdetang, Bijingtang, Yiwentang in Canton. In addition, a handwritten manuscript that contains 1407 entries in a similar format with no title and cover was discovered by Uchida at the British Library and included in this book as well. Qiu Zhihong (2017) discovered another printed copy titled “The Red-Haired Barbarian Language Essential for Trade” (Hongmao fanhua maoyi xuzhi 紅毛番話貿易須知) at the Presbyterian Archives Research Centre in New Zealand.
The influence of Aomen Jilüe can be detected from its cover image, which was copied from the “Nanfan Tu” (男蕃圖, a picture of a Portuguese man).
For a discussion of the danger faced by translators in the Qing dynasty, see Harrison 2021; for a study of the long-standing suspicion and hostility of Chinese rulers toward translators, see H. Wang 235–75.
Turn-and-cut, or fanqie, refers to the method of phoneticization or sinographic “spelling,” which usually “used two characters to approximate the pronunciation of a third character, using the consonant of the first character and the vowel of the second character as well as its ending when applicable” (Zhong 2019: 9).
Zhou Zhenhe (2013: 7) infers that pidgin English was known among Chinese people as Guangdong fanhua and was later translated into English as “Canton English” by the British.
Sinographic Cosmopolis here means “the traditional region in East Asia that was bound by its commitment to literary Sinitic (classical Chinese) and to sinographs (Chinese characters)” (King 2014: 2).
Ching Maybo (2017) discovered several songbooks and two early recordings of “Nan Shao Yi” that were probably printed and produced in the early twentieth century, but the actual composition of this piece should be much earlier.
The lyric is cited from Nan Shao Yi (n.d.). This songbook is preserved in the Tateuchi East Asia Library at the University of Washington (Special Coll. Mu Yu Shu Box 10, Item 16c). The translation is mine.
According to Harrison (2021: 160), Pan Zhencheng originally came from Fujian province up the coast, where there were long-standing trade ties with the Philippines. He had gone to Manila to work at a young age and had learned to read, write, and speak Spanish there. He moved the family to Canton when he came back to China. The reason for his fortune lay partly in his early decision to work with the newly arrived British merchants, for which purpose he also learned to speak English.
This manuscript of Yiyin Jiyao was discovered by Keiichi Uchida in Shanghai. The author, transcriber, and time of writing are not identified. A scanned copy is appended to Uchida and Shen (2009), and the entry “揸手” can be found on p. 377.
The Spanish term tabaco was transliterated into Sinitic languages through multiple and multidirectional routes, but the history remains largely unclear. Another common word for tobacco in late imperial China was 淡巴菰, which appeared in Chinese literature as early as the early seventeenth century (Yunhua Liu 2012). This term was believed to be mediated by Japanese and Korean into China, whereas some Japanese scholars hold that it was originally borrowed from Chinese (Shen 2010: 202).
Chinese and English is a handwritten manuscript preserved in the British Library (Or. 7428). This book does not carry a Chinese title. A scanned copy is also appended to Uchida and Shen (2009) and the entry 白頭鬼 is on p. 340. Author, transcriber, and time of writing are not identified.
In Charles Leland's Pidgin-English Sing Song (1876), molo-man was included in the Pidgin-English glossary as “a negro” (129).
Shanghai Tongwenguan was one of the three official foreign language schools established by the Qing government in 1863 and was later reorganized and renamed as Guangfangyan Guan 廣方言館 in 1867. For a thorough discussion of this institution, see Biggerstaff 1961.
Examples include the serialization of “Yangjingbang Xiaocidian” (洋涇浜小辭典, Dictionary of Pidgin English), by Yangpan Boshi, in the tabloid Luli Lusu 嚕哩嚕蘇 from April to July in 1927, and the compilation of Broken China: A Vocabulary of Pidgin English by A. P. Hill in 1920.
According to Wang Dongjie (2019: 46–47), Chinese elites took on the task of alphabetizing Chinese language from the 1890s, and there appeared at least thirty proposals of qieyinzi 切音字 (alphabetic script) between 1892 and 1911.