By Jerome A. Cohen
Here is a good NYT interview with historian Stephen R. Platt about his new book, “Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age.” It highlights the sad end to George Staunton’s remarkable career relating to China. That career began early with Staunton’s participation in the historic Macartney voyage to Peking in 1793 at age 13 when he reportedly impressed the Emperor with his newly-acquired Chinese language skills.
The high point of Staunton’s career, at least for those of us interested in the Chinese legal system and its interaction with the West, came with his 1813 publication of the first English translation of The Great Ch’ing Code. Having tried wine and women, if not song, to pass the time during the boring off-season in Macao while waiting for trade with the Mainland to reopen, Staunton made good use of the assistance of Chinese colleagues to produce this monumental work. It was stimulated by the recognition that successful business with foreigners requires familiarity with their legal system.
Staunton’s precedent was cited by missionary W. A. P. Martin (丁韙良) in the early 1860s in his campaign to persuade the authorities in Peking to translate Wheaton’s then leading Western text on public international law into Chinese. Martin believed that it would not only lead the heathen to Christ but, more practically, also help the Chinese cope with overzealous Western diplomats and traders whose demands were often couched in terms of international law. Some of the foreign diplomats living in China opposed the project for this reason. As Immanuel Hsu’s excellent book on the topic pointed out, the Chinese Government indeed successfully invoked the law of the sea principles recorded by Wheaton against Prussia even before the translation was published.