Narrow maxims of antiquity: who owned my books part 2, Mayers, The Chinese Government

Mayers, The Chinese Government, 3rd edition, (1897)

Mayers, The Chinese Government, 3rd edition, (1897)

This is a battered survivor. I acquired this much-annotated volume from the family of a retired British consular officer, J.F. Ford. Someone, I think Ford, has copied out from p.125 the phrase I use here in the blog title: ‘Narrow maxims of antiquity!’, turning it, with that exclamation mark, back on its author, F. M. Mayers, as a reflection on a particular vein of thought about Chinese culture.

Joe Ford hardly shared that view. He joined the consular service in the 1930s, and was a Vice-Consul in Shanghai when Maurice Tinkler was killed in 1939. As I recount in Empire Made Me, Joe was despatched across the Huangpu river to Pudong, where Tinkler was held in the local headquarters of the Naval Landing party after after his altercation with  Japanese marines in the China Printing and Finishing Company mill. In fact, Mr Ford can be seen in the grainy newspaper clipping on p. 285, peering at bullets recovered from Tinkler’s gun. Tinkler was at that stage slowly dying. Ford left without being able to persuade the Japanese to release Tinkler, and it was only late that night that he was transferred, too late, to a hospital in the international settlement.

Ford was at least the third owner of this copy of William Fredeick Mayer’s The Chinese Government: A Manual of Chinese Titles, categorically arranged and explained, first published in 1877. This was a copy of G.M.H. Playfair’s revised edition, published in Shanghai by Kelly & Walsh in 1897. While Ford had not inscribed his name in it, ‘L.G.C. Graham’ had, and so too had an ‘A. Schmidt’.

Mayers signatures Lance Gerald Cloete Graham was a ‘student interpreter’, a consular language trainee, who is not listed in P.D. Coates’s comprehensive survey, The China Consuls, but who is pictured in this photograph, dated 1900, of the consular student interpreters at the British Legation in Peking (second from left in the middle row), and in this one, with pony, in 1902. L.G.C. Graham was one of the few men transferred from the China consular service into the wider general service, leaving China in 1904. By 1906, however, he was at the British Legation in Tehran; in 1908 he was Acting Consul-General in Algeria. Perhaps his language studies had not proved that fruitful, although his son entered the China consular service, and later served in the 1950s as British ambassador to Libya.

As likely as not the A. Schmidt who crossed out Graham’s name was a German member of the Imperial Maritime Customs. Schmidt had joined as a ‘Watcher’ in June 1882, and was one of a number of men transferred from the ‘Outdoor’ staff into the ‘Indoor’ staff by July 1896. He rose to be Deputy Commisisoner at Shanghai before his dismissal, with all other German and Austrian staff, in 1917. Schmidt woudl have needed Mayers’s guide to the structure of Qing government, its system of ranks and appointments etc. Schmidt was married to an Englishwoman, and surfaces in the North China Herald in connection with attempts to get sequestered funds released after 1918. They seem to have lived in Niuzhuang (Newchwang, Yingko) after 1917 at least, where Mrs Schmidt, sister of a British trader, William J. Lister, died on 17 June 1926. So the book seems to represent also the pre-war closeness of Anglo-German ties in China, an intimte relationship largely obscured by the First World War.

Perhaps Joe Ford acquired the book when he too began his language studies in Peking in the 1930s, but it would have been of historical interest only in the republic. Like many consuls and customs men, however, Ford also developed a scholarly interest in China. In later life he worked with the late Professor Ying-wan Zheng  on a project to translate into English the journal of Feng Ling, a ‘travelling naval observer’ sent to Europe in 1894-7. Feng spent over a year in Britain, and it was his British diary that the collaborators worked on. Ford came across the diary by chance on a road-side bookstall in Chongqing in 1944. It had been published in 1904 and then reprinted by Feng’s son in 1929.

Mayers died long before Feng Ling set sail, falling fatally ill at Shanghai in 1878, en route from Peking where he was Chinese Secretary, to take leave in Britain. He was an ‘excellent Chinese scholar, a fluent and polished writer, and an indefatigable worker’, in the words of the North China Herald, part of whose legacy was this training manual for newcomers to the Chinese language and the Qing political system, passed on from consul to customs man, and back to consul, and perhaps held and used by others in between, a book which has clearly done service in its time.

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