The perils of interpreting: the extraordinary story of two translators between Qing China and the British Empire

Wednesday 3 May 2023 (14:00-15:30)

Dr Kate Smith (


This is the story of the interpreters for the Macartney embassy: Li Zibiao and George Thomas Staunton.  Both grew up between Europe and China and gained a deep knowledge of the other’s languages, society and culture, but that knowledge was never used because of the growing conflict between China and Britain in the early nineteenth century.  I argue that some Chinese people knew much more about the West than is usually acknowledged and we should look instead at the reasons why that knowledge did not reach senior decision makers. 

This event has been postponed from the original date in November until 3 May.

Henrietta Harrison is Professor of Modern Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Pembroke College.  Before Oxford she taught at the University of Leeds and then at Harvard.  Her books include The Man Awakened from Dreams: One Man’s Life in a North China Village 1857-1942 (Stanford University Press, 2005) and The Missionary’s Curse and Other Tales from a Chinese Catholic Village(University of California Press, 2013). 

This event has been organised by the Birmingham Research Institute for History and Cultures (BRIHC).