Archive to shed light on Briton's Chinese adventure

By CECILY LIU | China Daily | Updated: 2017-08-02 08:52

A collection of more than 400 letters and documents written two centuries ago will be digitized and made available to the public by the end of the year, something that is likely to shed light on Britain's intellectual engagement with China in the 19th century.

The papers, produced by Thomas Manning, who lived from 1772 to 1840 and who was one of Britain's first scholars of Chinese language and culture, will be made available by the London-based Royal Asiatic Society.

Although Manning is famous for his friendship with leading British literary figures, including Charles Lamb, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Lloyd, his contribution to Western understanding of Chinese language and culture was previously little known.

Gordon Johnson, president of the Royal Asiatic Society, said: "Wide public access to these papers could help Western scholars and members of the public see Chinese culture in a new way. These historical documents will play an important role in furthering relationships between China and the West in the 21st century."

The archive consists of letters, papers, diaries, and notebooks detailing Manning's unpublished research, as well as the manuscript of Narrative of the Journey of Thomas Manning to Lhasa, which was published posthumously in 1876.

Johnson said the documents, which were acquired by the Royal Asiatic Society in October 2015 for 98,000 pounds ($129,500), may be accessible to the public as soon as December.

Manning, the son of a British rector, developed a fascination with Chinese history and culture at an early age. He travelled to Paris in 1800 where he studied the Chinese language. He later returned to England, where he studied medicine because he wanted to have useful skills to offer upon his later travels to China.

Manning arrived in China in 1807 and lived in Guangzhou in the south of the country before embarking on several trips to less accessible areas in China, including Tibet. He returned to the United Kingdom in 1816.

The full extent of Manning's achievements as a Sinologist only became apparent recently when his China-related papers were found and study of them revealed interesting and unexpected new material.

"New study of this collection will be of tremendous value in furthering our understanding of European political and cultural engagement with Asia at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries: a critical period of interaction between the West and the wider world," Johnson said.

Peter Luff, chairman of the UK's National Heritage Memorial Fund, said the Manning papers provide a "vital new perspective on the nature of Western intellectual engagement with Asia in the early 19th century".

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