Historic Shanghai: Ashes and characters

Historic Shanghai: Ashes and characters

How British attempts to make first contact in Shanghai resulted in doors being kicked in and Biblical passages burned
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historic shanghai -- Jingtu Jie - inlineInside a courtyard at No. 74 on Jingtu Jie is a stone slab covered with the insignia of “The Society for Cherishing the Written Word.”On the morning of June 20, 1830, the Lord Amherst, the first British ship to visit Shanghai, was anchored at the mouth of the Huangpu. A single longboat rowed upstream and landed on the swampy western bank, where the Bund is today.

Two Europeans strode ashore.

These men were Rev. Charles Gutzlaff, translator and missionary, and H. H. Lindsay, representative of the British East India Company. They’d come to spread the good news of the savior Jesus Christ and to facilitate the trade of British goods in Shanghai.

Though in his published account Lindsay mentions cotton cloth and calico, his real objective was to sell opium.

Crowds gathered to gaze at the “red-bristled barbarians.”

Gutzlaff was ready: he handed out Christian pamphlets. Literate Shanghainese read them aloud.

Hands reached for more papers. The mob became so eager that Gutzlaff ended up throwing paper in all directions.

In Shanghai, this is the last physical evidence of a tradition that lasted a thousand years and befuddled at least two imperialists

Behind the red door

Evangelizing the heathen was easy. Securing an agreement to peddle drugs was more difficult.

Shanghai’s highest official, the Daotai, sent a message to the two foreigners: he wasn't home. The messenger helpfully suggested that the foreigners return to their ship.

But Lindsay and Gutzlaff had already visited Xiamen, Fuzhou and Ningbo. They were used to the mendacity of the Qing officials.

They ignored the messenger and entered the walled city.

There was an outdoor opera playing with hundreds of spectators. When the two foreigners appeared, the music stopped.

In the sudden silence Lindsay loudly demanded directions to the Daotai’s office. Hands pointed.

The office doors indeed were closed. Lindsay kicked them open and found the Mandarin officials hiding inside.

No cigar

Thus, diplomatic relations were established. But the trade agreement still required delicate negotiations.

In fact, after several days of refusals, deferments and excuses, Lindsay and Gutzlaff headed back to their longboat with nothing but a disingenuous promise to forward their petition to a higher authority.

historic shanghai -- Jingtu Jie - inline2Local residents explain the history hidden in their walkway.

A bonfire met them at the waterfront. Locals were throwing Gutzlaff’s Christian tracts into the fire. The two men were astounded by this brazen sacrilege.

Adding to the insult, bearers from the Daotai ran up loaded with gifts: baskets of chickens and sweetmeats -- clearly a sarcastic parting insult.

Infuriated, Lindsay and Gutzlaff threw the presents into the same fire that consumed Christian pamphlets and took their longboat back to the Lord Amherst.

That year, Shanghai was not opened for foreign trade.

But, the burning of the Christian pamphlets was not an insult, explains Herbert Giles in his book "Chinese Sketches" on Chinese customs during the time period.

'Treat The Written Word Like Gold'

A 12th-century scripture declares: “If you pick up inscribed paper and burn it you earn a measure of good karma for each hundred written characters,” acknowledged Chinese academic Cao Hui.

Discarded writing was imbued with the spirit of the writer. All texts appeared equally important to the illiterate.

It was forbidden to reuse scrolls and make fans, curtains or insoles. If a piece of paper had one character on it, even the poorest citizen dared not use it to wrap chicken or anything else.

Religious and secular authorities encouraged such reverence. The literacy of the elite secured their monopoly on power.

It was unquestionably at the bequest of local priests that Gutzlaff’s tracts were burned. Because they had Mandarin characters they were holy, in both Western and Eastern senses.

'The Society of the Written Word'

There is a curious artifact just a few blocks south of Yuyuan Garden.

Jingtu Jie is lined with shikumens from the 1920s. They face the street with stained glass windows and carved gateways, some of which are still scribbled with red proclamations from the 1960s.

Inside a courtyard at No. 74 is a stone slab covered with the insignia of “The Society for Cherishing the Written Word.”

This was a sanctified incineration point for discarded text, reports Chinese press.

In Shanghai, this is the last physical evidence of a tradition that lasted 1,000 years and befuddled at least two imperialists.


Katya Knyazeva is a journalist and fine artist born in Siberia.
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