‘Of the greatest practical importance’: Chinese Studies at the University of Manchester

David Woodbridge received a Cultural Engagement Fellowship from the British Inter-University China Centre, for which he undertook a study of the E. H. Parker Collection at the John Rylands Library. A summary of the collection, along with links to relevant handlists, can be found here: https://rylandscollections.wordpress.com/2016/12/22/from-consulate-to-classroom-the-e-h-parker-collection-and-the-development-of-chinese-studies-in-manchester/  For further information, David can be contacted on: dwoodbridge100@gmail.com

In September 2015, in a speech in Chengdu, China, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne invited Chinese investment in his Northern Powerhouse scheme. His visit formed part of a broader attempt to increase ties between China and the UK. During his speech in Chengdu, Osborne referred to an announcement, made a few days before, that the government would be investing £10 million with the aim of increasing the number of children in Britain learning Mandarin to an additional 5,000 by 2020.[1] This, Osborne claimed, would ‘give more young people the opportunity to learn a language that will help them succeed in our increasingly global economy.’[2]

This is not the first time that the study of Mandarin has been promoted in Britain in order to strengthen economic ties with China. Nor is it the first time that it has been done particularly with the economy of northern England in mind. In 1901 E. H. Parker (1849-1926) became Professor of Chinese at Owens College, Manchester (then a constituent part of the federal Victoria University, and reconstituted as the Victoria University of Manchester in 1903). Parker’s appointment was perhaps the first time that the study of Chinese was promoted in Britain with the stated intention of enhancing the country’s commercial prospects in China. As Henry Harrison, the Blackburn manufacturer who funded the chair, stated in 1903 in a letter to Owens College: ‘a knowledge of the Chinese Language has become of the greatest practical importance’.[3]

Henry Harrison (1834-1914), was a cotton manufacturer, and from 1887 also served as president of the Blackburn Chamber of Commerce. In 1896 this Chamber sent a commercial mission to China, and in its report the mission drew attention to the many potential export and investment opportunities, particularly in the cities inland recently made open to foreign trade. But the report also highlighted the challenges that presented themselves to British businesses in China. Prominent among these was the lack of foreign merchants with a good knowledge of the Chinese language, a deficiency which left them dependent on compradors who, according to the report, could not be relied upon to act in the best interests of the foreign firms they represented. ‘The want of a knowledge of the language was so frequently brought home to us in our journey through the country’, concluded the report’s authors, ‘that we are quite prepared to advise, that every junior attached to a mercantile house should be compelled to learn the language of the country’.[4]

Harrison appears to have taken this advice very seriously. In 1900 he donated £200 ‘for the study of Eastern Languages and ultimately for the establishment of a Chair in Chinese.’[5] His donation was recorded in a list of subscribers to the College’s commercial education scheme, which had been initiated the previous year. This scheme consisted of a series of evening courses, completion of which led to the award of the Certificate of Commercial Education. Candidates had to select from a range of courses on economics, commerce, geography and commercial law, and also to study at least one modern language. Initially students could choose from French, German and Spanish, but thanks to Harrison’s donation, Chinese was soon added to this list. Over the next few years, the courses offered in commercial education were expanded and formalised, and in 1904 a Faculty of Commerce was established, at that time only the second such faculty to be formed in a British university.

A professorship in Chinese was instituted in 1901, and further donations from Harrison safeguarded its future. Parker was appointed to the professorship, and would remain in position until his death, in 1926. This was not Parker’s first academic position. Since 1896 he had been Reader in Chinese at University College Liverpool (which became the University of Liverpool in 1903). Prior to this, Parker had worked for over twenty years for the British consular service in China. During this time, he had been a prominent member of what Norman J. Girardot has described as ‘a remarkable group of hyphenated missionary- and consul-scholars’.[6] These amateur sinologists undertook a range of enquiries, and their findings and disputes filled the pages of journals such as the China Review, and represented a first flourishing of English-language scholarship on China. Parker’s most distinctive contributions were in the field of Chinese dialectology, but he wrote on a wide range of topics, including history and religion.[7]

Parker’s classes were deemed a great success. As early as 1904, the University Council asserted that ‘the value of the classes has been demonstrated by the nature of the appointments obtained and of the work entrusted to those who have studied the Chinese language under Professor Parker’s instruction. The advantages offered by these classes ought to be more widely known in the mercantile community.’[8] Manchester’s professorship in Chinese was only the fifth to be founded in the UK, and the first outside of Oxford, Cambridge and London. But more significantly, it was distinctive in its focus on training students for an engagement with the China of contemporary times. As Parker proudly asserted a few years later, what set the University of Manchester apart from Cambridge, Oxford and London was that it was involved ‘actively in preparing students for China’.[9]

However, despite the attested benefits of offering instruction in Chinese, other universities did not follow Manchester’s example in establishing chairs. Neither did Manchester appoint a successor following Parker’s death in 1926, though Edgar W. Mead (1887-1941) was later employed for a while as Reader in Chinese Language and Social Economy. Following this, it was not until 2006 that Chinese studies again became a programme of study at the University of Manchester. This time, however, it is one of many such programmes that have commenced in British universities since the turn of the century. The courses offered predominantly have a contemporary focus, often with the option of combining Chinese language with business studies. It would seem that, though it did not catch on at the time, Harrison’s vision of Chinese studies as a practical training for those seeking to engage with contemporary China, and particularly with its commerce, has become the predominant model in British universities today.

Notes

[1]        https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/chancellor-speech-in-chengdu-china-on-building-a-northern-powerhouse

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/chancellor-announces-boost-to-mandarin-teaching-in-schools

[3] Vice-Chancellor’s Files: China, GB 133 VCA/7/31: Harrison to The Treasurer, 21 May 1903. University of Manchester Archives.

[4] Report of the Mission to China of the Blackburn Chamber of Commerce, 1896-7 (Blackburn: The North-East Lancashire Press Company, 1898), pp. 326-7.

[5] Vice-Chancellor’s Files: China, GB 133 VCA/7/31: Extract from Owens College Council Minutes, 10 October 1900. University of Manchester Archives.

[6] Norman J. Girardot, The Victorian Translation of China: James Legge’s Oriental Pilgrimage (London: University of California Press, 2002), p.7.

[7] For Parker’s work on Chinese dialectology, see: David Prager Branner, ‘The Linguistic Ideas of Edward Harper Parker’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 119:1 (1999), pp. 12-34. Many of Parkers books can be viewed at https://archive.org/

[8] Printed Minutes of Court /Reports of Council to Court, GB 133 OCA/8/3: 10 November 1904. University of Manchester Archives.

[9] Report of Council to Court: 1919, GB 133 UOP/2/16. University of Manchester Archives.

Image Credit: Historic Images, Lancashire