The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Answers to Questions of Chinese Script, 1801

In a prior blog post, "Chinese Hanzi Characters in 1801," I wondered what message the Chinese script on the verso of the 30 July 1801 letter from Captain Samuel Barrett Edes of the snow Pacific Trader to American merchant Sullivan Dorr expressed. Last month, to my great surprise, I received two separate e-mails regarding the script.

The first correspondent, professional Chinese translator Ye Aiyun, graciously gave me a direct translation of the Chinese characters:


[This letter] is to the Sixin Grocery Store at Stoning Street in Canton, and the store will send it to Dorr of the flower flag country (United States of America). If Dorr writes back, his letter will be sent to Canton in the same way. This letter should arrive at Macao on [September] 22nd and back to Canton on the 23rd.  If the foreigner [does not have a letter to send back in return], the store will just leave it [alone]. The postage is two dollars, and [the people in] Macao have paid one dollar.

Ye's translation confirmed my first assumption about the script.  It definitely gives directions for delivery of the letter to Sullivan Dorr.

Paul A. Van Dyke, professor at Sun Yat-sen University in Canton, China, and former Benjamin F. Stevens fellow at the MHS, also wrote concerning the Chinese script. Van Dyke gave me further context for the letter:

"The address on this envelope is to Sullivan Dorr's residence in Canton, which was in the Thirteen Factories area. It is clear from the Chinese inscription that this [letter] was sent to the Thirteen hong district 十三行。 The confusion comes in the name of the street Zao Shi Street (鑿石街) which does not exist on any maps [of which] I am aware. And the name of the building Si Xing Ban Guan (泗興办館) is also very strange and appears in [none of the] listings of the buildings in this district. In short, we know all of the Chinese names of the streets and buildings in this district at this time and these names do not appear."

Yet another mystery arises from this letter! Van Dyke explained that perhaps this address is a small undocumented alley within the American Factory, a trading post that American Consul Samuel Shaw constructed and Sullivan Dorr, at one time, managed. Responding to my previous post, Van Dyke also addressed my final query concerning who might have written this note. He stated that Chinese compradors (provision purveyors), pilots, linguists, and merchants were generally literate, so any one of them could have written the instructions for delivery.

Thank you to my generous correspondents Ye Aiyun and Paul A. Van Dyke for their answers to my questions. Do you have any additional information to contribute to this conversation? Please leave a comment on the blog or feel free to e-mail me.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 9 April, 2014, 8:28 AM


Apr 11, 2014, 3:29 am

Paul Van Dyke

Dear Andrea,

I would like to post an alternative translation of this message, as follows:

[This letter is to be delivered] to the factory comprador Sixing on Stoning Street in Canton, who will give it to Dorr of the flowery flag country United States of America in person. The letter should arrive at Macao on the 21st day [of the lunar month, which is September 28] and at Canton on the 23rd [September 30]. If the foreigner has a message to send in return, the factory comprador [Sixing] will give it [to the messenger]. The postage [to be paid in Canton] is two dollars, and one dollar paid at Macao [which the captain paid at the time of sending].

Dorr wrote on the envelope that he received the letter on September 30, and there is a note saying that he paid the messenger 2 dollars, which was what was still owed for postage. The captain had already paid the 1 dollar on the ship. One dollar was the normal fee to send something from a ship to Macao.

I'll be the first to admit that this translation is not perfect. But I think this is the general gist of the message. The term 办馆 is confusing. But if it is referring to the factory comprador 买办 of the 商馆, shortened to 办馆 then this message makes perfect sense. Anyway, now you have two translations to choose from!

Paul Van Dyke
Sun Yat-sen University

May 22, 2014, 10:39 pm


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