26 Sep /13


China and the armchair travellers

Eden, Hakluyt, Herbert – translator, geographer, ambassador

Modern day China is the subject of countless works of fiction and non-fiction, but until the sixteenth century the country was unknown to English speakers. What is more, the men who broke the silence and introduced China to an English audience never set foot in the country themselves.

The name China is thought to derive from the Qin dynasty, which ruled the country in the third century BC. The task of introducing it to English speakers fell to the same person who brought the words alligator and canoe to the lexicon. Richard Eden (1520 – 1576), the banker, alchemist and translator popularised Spain’s great voyages of discovery by translating the 1555 work Decades of the New World. Included in this work is the reference; “The great China, whose king is thought to be the greatest prince in the world”.

Leaving aside translation, when did the English begin to write about China at first hand? Enter Richard Hakluyt (1550 – 1616), widely regarded as the first English travel writer. From his childhood he was fascinated by geography, but the limitations of the age gave him very few opportunities to indulge this passion. Hakluyt only managed a single overseas trip in his lifetime, but he made it a very productive one. In 1583 he travelled to Paris as secretary to the English Ambassador. He would stay for five years. Returning to England in 1588 he resumed chronicling the voyages of others. In his 1589 work The principal navigations, voyages, traffiques and discoveries of the English nation he tells of “China ships with one sail”.

The third of the pioneering travel writers was the diplomat, Thomas Herbert (1606 – 1682). Herbert travelled far more widely than Eden or Hakluyt, and accompanied the royal embassy of King Charles I to Persia when only 20 years old. At 28 he published A relation of some years travel into Africa and Greater Asia. This is the first English language work to mention China’s prowess as a manufacturer, referring particularly to the satin and ceramics that remain symbols of Chinese creativity to this day. For all his accomplishments, though, Herbert never visited this fascinating country.

Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries was a small country, weakened by plague and civil war, with a native language still confined to its own shores and only 6 million speakers. China was a mystery then to English-speakers and maybe still is.

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