Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor: Translator of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Cyril Cannon worked in the printing industry before moving to academia, undertaking undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the London School of Economics. His final posts were in Hongkong, initially helping to set up what is now City University, and then as Academic Consultant to Lingnan. He is retired and lives in London. He has been a SACU member for well over 20 years, and was on the editorial board of China in Focus.
This article is based on the author's Public Success, Private Sorrow: the Life and Times of Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor (1857-1938), China Customs Commissioner and Pioneer Translator. Foreword by Frances Wood (Hong Kong University Press 2009), 280 pages, plus photographs. The research is based on a variety of materials most of which have not previously been used: the result involved travelling to a various universities and other institutional archives in Australia, China, England, Scotland and Ireland, family letters, newspapers, and personal memories; many books and journals on China have also been a major source of historical information. This article uses the book for citations as a convenient single publication for the original sources; the book is available in bookshops world-wide.

The majority of Westerners who worked in China kept aloof from Chinese culture and tended to treat the minority who engaged with the culture with disdain: a widespread view being that 'fellows that went in for Chinese grew queer in the head'. ;But many of the latter became eminent sinologues and sinologists, and were an important bridge for bringing understanding of the East to the West. Brewitt-Taylor was one of these. This article looks at his early years, highlights his successful career in China, introduces his highly regarded writing achievements, and considers his personal sadnesses. His biography was drawn against the background of the colourful events in China's history where he lived for forty years, from 1880 to 1920.

Readers of China Eye would have met several references to the famous Chinese novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the San Kuo Chi Yen-I (Sanguozhi yanyi in Pinyin). This was regarded as one of the four great Chinese novels and probably the most famous. Far less well-known is the author of the first complete English translation, Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor. His translation was published by Kelly and Walsh in 1925; and was the first of the big four to have a full English translation. It was also the earliest to have been written down, probably in the 14c around the time of Chaucer; translation would have required extra care. Thus B-T can be regarded as a pioneer in the history of English translations of Chinese novels.

By his Romance he was also pioneering in another way. Before the twentieth century, traditional Chinese literati didn't recognize novels as literature, for they were popular stories, appealing to the less well-educated. They were also written not in the literary or classical language, the medium for everything seriously regarded as literature in pre-modern China, but in the vernacular; they were, therefore, considered unworthy of serious consideration by traditional scholars, although many educated Chinese would have been familiar with the major novels. A shift in attitude to a more sympathetic view of the vernacular novels is often associated with the populism of the May 4th Movement following the First World War. Yet foreign sinologues, as well as Chinese were beginning to appreciate their value long before. In his Preface to the San Kuo, B-T quotes A. Wylie, a well-known sinologue, at length: 'Novels and romances are too important as a class to be overlooked' He went on to emphasise that the insight they give to national customs and manners, their role in providing some knowledge of history, and the influence of the novels on character were all too weighty for them to be left out of account 'notwithstanding the prejudices of scholars'. Wylie wrote this in the first edition of his Notes on Chinese Literature, published in 1867.

I became curious about B-T. How did he come to know Chinese so well? Why did he go to China? How long was he there, and what work did he do? Very little was known about him, surely his achievement deserved some record, perhaps a short article?

Locating and delving into a fascinating range of sources I gradually built a picture of his life; the research expanded and so did the writing.

Despite the hyphenated name, adopted by B-T in China in his twenties, he came from a poor background. His father had worked in the low rank of coastguard boatman, his mother eked out the family income by working as a dressmaker. The father had taken early retirement probably because of ill-health, and not long after, in October 1868, he committed suicide in his home in Littlehampton.

This family tragedy did have an upside: it provided a useful opportunity for the 10-year old Charles, enabling him as an orphan to apply for entrance to the prestigious Royal Hospital School in Greenwich, to pursue a maritime-orientated education as a boarder. He did well in his studies and undertook a teacher-training pathway there. He was more attracted to Astronomy, and applied to the Royal Observatory for a post, but was turned down on medical grounds despite strong appeals from the Astronomer-Royal. But he must have had other irons in the fire, for soon after this disappointment in 1880, aged 22, he married and set sail for China. Astronomy's loss was to be sinology's gain.

The post Charles had secured was at the Naval School in Foochow, where he taught mathematics, navigation and nautical astronomy. The school and the naval dockyard, of which it was a part, had been set up around 1869 and was regarded as one of the successes of the Self-Strengthening movement which had followed the Taiping rebellion. The initial successes of the rebels (who had a distorted Christian ideology), had produced feelings of vulnerability within the Ch'ing dynasty, and encouraged an awareness among some important progressive officials of the need for China to modernise. In Foochow Charles soon became a close friend of the Vice-Consul, H. A. Giles (of the Wade-Giles system of transliteration), who later claimed to have persuaded Charles of the need to become proficient in Chinese. Giles thought well of Charles and when awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Asiatic Society in 1922 (the first person to be awarded the medal for Chinese Studies), he cited B-T in his speech of thanks as one of a 'tidal wave' of British sinologues helping to establish the study of Chinese.

B-T had clearly taken Giles' advice seriously. Within a few years of arriving in China with all the demands of a new job and adapting to a new life, he had developed sufficient proficiency and confidence in Chinese to have published pieces of translation from novels and other writings in the Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society and the China Review. He also wrote Problems and Theorums of Navigation and Nautical Astronomy, which I haven't been able to discover.

Family life was happy and his wife bore a number of babies, but only two survived. Sadly, his wife never recovered from her last maternity. B-T was devastated for he was reputed to have been very much in love with her.

He decided to change career and joined the Imperial Chinese Maritime Customs. The ICMC was one of the most famous organizations in China; though a government institution it was run by Westerners. A China customs organization had existed for centuries, but it was not efficient, customs were levied in an ad hoc way, and corruption was rife. According to the powerful Prince Kung 'embezzlement and smuggling and a hundred malpractices flourished, and were a great hindrance in the collection of customs revenues'. Whilst some foreigners were happy about this, many foreign traders preferred more certainty and consistency in the collection of dues. Political activities at the time of the Taiping revolt, presented the opportunity to bring about new arrangements in 1854. The famous Robert Hart was appointed Inspector-General of the ICMC in 1863, and under his leadership, lasting nearly half a century, the organization became a unique and powerful body engaging in a range of infrastructural activities.

B-T's first posting was to a fairly junior position, but he clearly saw greater opportunities in the ICMC than in teaching. In 1891 he travelled to Tientsin with his two sons, Leonard and Raymond, aged 7 and 4. There he remarried, to Ann the China-born daughter of Alexander Michie, the publisher and editor of the highly regarded China Times. After a few years he was posted to Peking, and went through a series of rapid promotions to Deputy Commissioner and then to Acting Commissioner in Swatow in 1900. The B-Ts were all packed and ready to leave when the Boxer uprising broke out, and he and his wife were sieged in the British Minister's residence, which became the main base for defence. Whilst there he heard the news that his home and possessions had all been burnt down, including the complete draft of his translation of the San Kuo, as well as another translation that he was working on, Chats in Chinese, which was published in 1901. This was the second time he had lost his home which had also been wrecked in 1885 by the French bombardment of the naval dockyard in Foochow.

After Swatow he was seconded to the Post Office also under Hart as District Postmaster of the busiest postal area in China: Shanghai. Somewhat surprisingly, he didn't like the city, finding it expensive and noisy. He much preferred his next posting to Mengtze, the scenic and tranquil small Yunnan town close to the border with French Indo-China (now Vietnam). But tranquillity was not to last in his domestic life. B-T frequently made trips to other parts of the region, leaving behind his wife. On his last trip, because of unsavoury characters in the area, he asked a young member of staff to stay in his house. A romantic relationship developed and on B-T's return he suspected adultery. The member of staff resigned the Service, Ann had a nervous breakdown, and was hospitalized for several months in 1906/07, before being sent back to the UK for treatment. She was accompanied by a nurse who reports on the trials of the voyage including Ann annoying other passengers and throwing all her luggage into the sea. She was received into Bethlem mental hospital in London (now the home of the Imperial War Museum) where she stayed for a further seven months before returning to China. Her story was pieced together after locating a long letter from her seeking admission in 1915 to a mental hospital in Edinburgh, where she spent four years. The letter is extraordinarily frank, delusionary with Freudian-type overtones, her relationship with her husband, and her continuing romantic attachment to the staff member she met in Mengtze. Throughout her life, Ann continued to have mental problems and hospital incarcerations.

In 1908 a new college was to be set up in Peking providing a four-year higher education course for selected Chinese preparing for senior positions in the Customs. Hart had selected B-T, now a full Commissioner, as Director, someone 'whose previous training, experience, and sound Chinese scholarship marked him as eminently fitted to fill the post.' During his final year, 1912-13, he combined the Directorship with Acting Chief Secretary whilst the incumbent (who described the job as a number two to the Inspector-General), was on leave. The arrangement suggests a high degree of confidence in B-T. Whilst there his two-volume edition of the Textbook of Documentary Chinese was published. Readers shouldn't be put off by the dull title: the work contains some fascinating material impinging on the work of the Customs. His edition has been cited as one of the three important translations of Ch'ing documents.

For his last three postings his wife remained in Earlsferry/Elie in Fifeshire, Scotland where she had a house. Foochow where he was posted for two years must have been an odd experience, recalling perhaps happy times with his first wife and the sadness of her death. Then to Mukden (now Shenyang), politically a highly sensitive town where Japanese and Russians jostled for influence, and needing an experienced Customs Commissioner. Chungking was his final post; a period when the war-lords flourished, avoiding customs duties and bringing down the price of opium which affected customs income. He decided to retire in 1920 taking advantage of the new pension scheme. He was aged 62, and after forty busy years in China was feeling his age. During his working life he had been awarded a number of decorations and was satisfied with his achievements.

He must have approached the prospect of retirement with his wife with some trepidation. But he came south four times a year to visit family and also Evangeline Dora Edwards whom he had met in Mukden when she was principal of the women's teacher training college; she became professor of Chinese at SOAS. She was the only non-family to receive a legacy from him when he died. Both his sons, with whom he got on with very well, died before him: Raymond, a medical captain in the Field Ambulance Service, was killed at the Front just before the end of the First World War, aged 33, and leaving a son he had never seen. Leonard died in 1933, from a cancerous blood condition he was aged 48, and had taken early retirement. For B-T to have lost both his sons, it must have been a grievous blow.

B-T's still frequently printed translation of the San Kuo was first published by Kelly and Walsh, then in Shanghai, in 1925; it was very warmly received by many reviewers.

B-T died in 1938, aged eighty. My wife and I visited his grave in Elie, Fifeshire, where Ann's Michie family had come from and where I had been invited to give a talk about B-T and the Michies. He and his wife, who had died about nine years after him, were buried side-by-side; just two sad mounds of grass with no headstones. The heavy wetness of the day added to the forlornness of the occasion. Yet it somehow seemed not entirely inappropriate for a life of achievement, but one accompanied by much sorrow.