James Flint – a sino-pioneer ahead of his time

Possibly the first Briton to learn Mandarin, James Flint was a pathbreaker who tried to penetrate China's trade barriers and culture.

Watercolour by William Alexander (1767-1816) of Pingze Men, the Western Gate of Beijing, 1799.
Watercolour by William Alexander (1767-1816) of Pingze Men, the Western Gate of Beijing, 1799. Credit: CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo.

Even for specialists in the history of Sino-British relations, James Flint is probably not someone who enjoys a high profile. His date of birth was around 1720. His time of death is unclear. He was certainly still alive in the 1760s, when he helped other merchants in their ongoing business in Qing era China. He corresponded with Benjamin Franklin around 1770, introducing the word ‘tofu’ from Chinese into the English language. He leaves something more akin to a light trace rather than any clear, visible lines in the historic record.

Regardless of this, Flint is an important and significant person, and someone it repays thinking about today. According to H B Morse’s monumental history of the East India Company, the principal bridge between China and Britain from the seventeenth century to the period just before the Opium Wars in the 1830s, Flint was the first recorded British person to learn Chinese. Even for a work as granular and thorough as that of Morse, published more than 100 years ago, Flint makes only a spectral appearance in the five-volume, almost year by year account from 1635 (the time the first recorded British registered trading ship went direct to China) to 1840. He is first mentioned in the year 1740 when Morse states that, ‘Captain Rigby [of the Normanton] left a young lad in China, James Flint, to learn the language’. Flint is referred to as living in Nanjing thirteen years later. He occupied a more central position in 1759, trying to intercede directly with the Qianlong Emperor, reigning at that time in Beijing, on behalf of British merchants frustrated at the tight limitations on their business imposed by local officials in Canton. For this, as we will see, he was harshly treated. For all those non-Chinese, and, in particular, Europeans and North Americans, Flint should figure as a great pathbreaker — someone present at the dawn of modern engagement between China and the Western world. His life stands as a poignant and representative tale for all those who have followed, knowingly or not, in his footsteps.

Flint may have been the first recorded British subject to learn Mandarin. He was certainly not the first European to learn the language. From the middle of the sixteenth century, Portuguese, Italian and then Dutch, French and German traders and missionaries had found their way to Ming China, the dynasty before the Qing, which collapsed in 1644. There were Jesuit missionaries in particular who remained in China for so many years that they acquired native levels of language fluency. The most celebrated of these was Matteo Ricci, who wrote a number of treatises in Chinese, promoting Christian theology and its potential compatibility with Confucianism. He died in 1610. His key arguments about this accommodation were the cause of deep controversy some decades later when they were accused of heresy and doctrinal laxness.

Britain was a latecomer to the Chinese world discovered by other European pioneers. Its initial contact was indirect, via interests in the ostensibly even more remote Japan. Queen Elizabeth had written to the Wan Li emperor in 1596, but the ship due to carry the letter sank soon after setting off, sending her message, along with most of the unfortunate crew, to the bottom of the English Channel. This was a symbolic start. Britain may have been developing as a great seafaring and trading nation, but its initial encounters with what must have then been the world’s largest economy were haphazard and accidental.

Few would have prophesied at the turn of the eighteenth century that Britain would be the key nation clashing with China in its eventual battle with modernity a century and a half later during the Opium Wars. When Flint was born, Britain’s main geopolitical areas of focus were ongoing interminable fights within Europe, and its emerging imperial interests in the newly exploited Americas. Its eastern sphere of influence, as far as it had one, was through trade with the Indian region. But it was Chinese sourced tea, a drink that first appeared in London around 1660, that aroused merchant engagement. The East India Company (EIC), the extraordinary entity that employed Flint and paid for his Chinese tuition, was the key. While clearly not a state but a commercial actor, the EIC was of such economic importance that it almost figured as a quasi-government body, eventually administering parts of India, and forging complex links in neighbouring China.

While Britain — through tea, silk, and porcelain — enjoyed an eighteenth-century era of Sinophilia, with authors as diverse as Samuel Johnson and Oliver Goldsmith singing the praises of this ancient, civilised power, those such as Flint at the forefront of this process of engagement had to endure endless vexation and frustration. Restricted to a small area of Canton, where foreign women were banned and visitors were only able to live part of the year, and only allowed to trade with a small, but benighted group of Chinese intermediaries called the Hongs, the lack of reliable, competent translators simply compounded things. Edicts from the local government made clear that no non-Chinese were allowed to formally study Chinese. Linguists, as they were called, supplied by the Hong merchants spoke an idiosyncratic English, subsequently labelled ‘pidgin’. The scope for misunderstanding was huge. All too often, when the sailors, cooped up for months on British and other European boats, were finally allowed ashore in the small area of Canton open to them, they were plied with expensive liquor by locals. This resulted in cases involving affray, and even murder. Linguists who spoke limited English were not able to handle these sensitive cases. For the EIC, therefore, supporting Britons in learning Mandarin was eminently worthwhile.

The challenge to Flint would have been formidable, with no text books, no experienced teachers, no dictionaries, or helpful grammar guidelines. With Chinese characters, too, he could not have even enjoyed a writing system common to his native English. For those who labour today learning what the Foreign Office still labels one of the most difficult languages, thinking of what Flint had to go through puts their toils in perspective.

The most dramatic event that Flint became involved in was the attempt to expand trading opportunities in China. He and his EIC colleagues looked at provinces like Zhejiang, where the port of Ningbo offered an attractive destination. Such places were off limits, however, because of a regulation issued in 1757 by Emperor Qianlong, confining them to work in Canton. The EIC felt this restricted scope for mutual enrichment. Tired of dealing with the thick layers of vested interest at provincial level, Flint took the lead in trying to intercede. He went straight to the imperial court in Beijing, where he was certain that their reasonable points would be accepted and implemented. Despite hitting blockages along the way, he made his way to Tianjin, the closest port to the capital, in 1759. With the help of some native translators, he put forward pleas for more Chinese ports to be opened up to British traders. In his own journal, he speaks of how having arrived in Tianjin, he explained to one of the local officials that if ‘they would not make a proper representation to the Emperor, I would go as far as the foot of the great wall, and he must take care of himself for I should acquaint them of my having been here’.

Flint’s message got through. But the fall-out after its delivery was unexpected and dramatic. Once aware of the demand, Qianlong was obliged to deploy his august and vast powers. Local officials were found wanting, not because they were missing trade opportunities but because they had allowed this foreigner to gain access to him. This was interpreted as a challenge to his edict restricting trade to Canton. Those found culpable were either imprisoned, exiled or executed, including the individuals who had assisted Flint in translating his message. It was a sobering episode ensuring that any future collaborations were even more unlikely and dangerous. Flint himself became the first British person to travel overland from Beijing back to Canton. But he did this under guard and was rewarded by a three-year spell in prison in Macau, followed by expulsion for life from China. Despite his good intentions, the country did not open up. Far from it. His daring to seek redress on local ills by involving the central government had backfired due to protocols he could barely have known about, despite his language skills. So not only was Flint a pathbreaker in learning Chinese, he was also the first Briton to discover the complex vagaries of central provincial dynamics in China. We are still learning these lessons more than 250 years later.

Flint’s experiences were symptomatic of all those who try to mediate between two very different business and political cultures. Blamed by both sides, while the Chinese government threw him into jail, the EIC refused to pay a modest fee for his early release, in effect abandoning him, on the grounds that he had acted beyond his remit – which was unlikely to have been written down anywhere, or have had any legal basis. Subsequently, from the late 1780s, and particularly during the famed Macartney embassy to China in 1793-4, Britain shifted to understanding that more than just trading links were needed with this increasingly important new partner, and that a mode of diplomacy was necessary that somehow mixed understanding of cultural differences with valid promotion of one’s own interests. That, too, remains an ongoing project to this day.

Of Flint, after his brief moment of prominence, little else is recorded. He did some business with the Americas in the 1760s and 1770s, but it is unclear when and where he died. For those, though, berating the low levels of British knowledge of Chinese language and culture today, where only a few hundred graduates each year emerge with degrees in Chinese studies, Flint should figure as something akin to a secular patron saint. Made to learn Chinese by necessity, rather than by choice, he found his skill as much a liability as a benefit — an ambiguity around the value of knowing Chinese that still lingers. Flint’s story is one that still serves well as a morality tale, and is symptomatic of the endemic complexity and mixed feelings that have always been part of British relations with China.


Kerry Brown