The British Empire Library

Chinese Dreams in Romantic England: The Life and Times of Thomas Manning

by Edward Weech

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This review must start with Charles Lamb who worked for the East India Company’s London office as humble quill-pen pusher. Lamb is revered today as one of the finest letter writers in English literature, and his favourite correspondent was a man called Thomas Manning. The exchange of letters was witty, facetious (not the same thing), and as relaxed as two warm friends can be. Manning’s letters to Lamb were eventually published in 1921. We know Manning was Lamb’s favourite correspondent, because the only letters Lamb kept were those from Manning.

Manning was born in 1772, the son of Norfolk parson, and studying at Cambridge when Lamb and he first met in 1799. Through Lamb, Manning also met Coleridge, Southey and Wordsworth, and was thus at the heart of romantic England. After university, because scruples prevented his subscribing to the 39 Articles, Manning failed to obtain a degree, but supported himself as a maths tutor. And then quite suddenly Manning got a thing about China. He determined to study the Chinese language and the habits and culture of the people. We don’t really know exactly how this obsession took hold of him, but he certainly was single-minded about it. Beyond a hint that he detected some affinity between ancient Greek and Chinese, we have very little clue. The hint mentions as apparently significant the Greek particles and prepositions. The word ‘particle’ here has a precise meaning. The standard textbook on the subject defines a particle as ‘a word expressing a mode of thought, ... or a mood or an emotion’. The author compares them to English ‘well’, ‘come’ and ‘now’, as having lost their original function and becoming mood words. ‘A loss of definiteness has been accompanied by increased subtlety of nuance. There is less body, more bouquet’. Confused? Mr Weech has had a shot at elucidating Manning’s obsession but it is no criticism of him to say that we simply do not have enough to go on to understand precisely what it was about China and its language and culture that so obsessed Manning.

Manning had picked a particularly difficult time to realise his objective. China in decline and under the later Qing Emperors was deeply suspicious of the west, limited western trade to Wampoa near Canton, and banned Europeans from penetrating further into China. The Emperor even stopped Chinese subjects from teaching the Chinese language to foreigners. Manning picked up what he could about China both in Britain, and in Paris. Then in 1806, he boarded HCS Thames and sailed for Wampoa. There he learned much from two Englishmen who had already mastered something of the Chinese language: Sir George Thomas Staunton, a diplomat, and the missionary Robert Morrison.

Despite being on Chinese territory at Wampoa, it was an impossible place from which to enter China proper, with no access even to Canton. Manning therefore hit on a different tactic and decided to approach China via Tibet. This meant going to Calcutta whence in 1810 he set out for Rangpur, up the Brahmaputra just south of Bhutan. From there travelled through Bhutan and into Tibet. He acquired a Chinese Christian called Zhang Jinxiu as a companion and guide; they conversed primarily in Latin! They reached Tibet and Manning had an interview with the then Dalai Lama - a seven year old child. However Manning’s ignorance of Buddhism aroused the Chinese authorities’ suspicions, and it became apparent that Manning would not be able to get any nearer China. So he returned to India (a country he detested), to hang about for four years waiting for something to turn up. Lamb’s jokey letters claiming that England had changed out of recognition and all Manning’s friends were dead (neither statement true) perhaps did not help.

Eventually in 1816 Manning got a post as translator for an embassy to China headed by the new Governor-General, Lord Amherst. This came to nothing over concern as to whether his Lordship should kow-tow (prostrate himself before the Emperor and touch his forehead on the floor). Manning and the other Chinese experts attached to the embassy argued he should not.

Manning returned at last to England in 1818. He lived till 1840, but did almost nothing about China - just a little book on Chinese jests. He remains an enigma. His biographer, Mr Weech, Librarian at the Royal Asiatic Society, where Manning’s papers are kept, has done his best to explain him. Like many enigmas Manning’s was a fascinating life. Charles Lamb, loyal to the end, thought Manning the most interesting man he had ever met - more so even than Wordsworth. Mr Weech’s book is scholarly, excellently produced, and must surely remain the last word on Manning’s extraordinary life.

Review by Richard Morgan

British Empire Book
Edward Weech
Manchester University Press
Review Originally Published
Spring 2023 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe