Public Success, Private Sorrow

The Life and Times of Charles Henry Brewitt-Taylor (1857–1938), China Customs Commissioner and Pioneer Translator

(中國海關稅務司與翻譯先驅:鄧羅 (1857–1938) 生平事跡)

Isidore Cyril Cannon

ISBN : 978-962-209-961-6

History Royal Asiatic Society Hong Kong Studies Series (皇家亞洲學會香港研究叢書)

March 2009

288 pages, 6″ x 9″

  • HK$250.00

Living most of his adult life as an official in the Chinese Imperial Customs Service, Charles Brewitt-Taylor also achieved distinction as a scholar of Chinese. He prepared a masterly translation of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms making this the first of the major traditional Chinese novels to be fully translated into English.

In this biography, Cyril Cannon provides the fascinating story of an Englishman who lived through the last years of the Qing dynasty, was trapped in the British Legation during the Boxer uprising (when the first draft of his translation was destroyed), and went on to occupy a number of senior positions in the Imperial Customs as Commissioner of Customs in various ports, Shanghai Postmaster and first Director of the important Customs College.

While recounting his official life and his scholarly work, the author skillfully reconstructs the life of an expatriate and his relationships. His public success from humble origins was marred by the early loss of family including his first wife, and achieved while coping with the mental instability of his second wife (her amazingly frank revelations and fantasies are remarkable), as well as her suspected infidelity. To tell this story, the author draws on a rich range of sources, many previously unused, including archives, official and personal correspondence, diaries, memoirs, contemporary publications, and newspapers, as well as scholarly texts.

This study will appeal to all interested in modern Chinese history, and especially in the Imperial Customs Service and in Western interactions with China. It will be valuable reading for anyone studying the history of translation, and the Western discovery of Chinese culture. This readable personal story effectively introduces a crucial transitional stage in China’s early development.

After fifteen years in the printing industry, Isidore Cyril Cannon entered academic life following undergraduate and postgraduate study at the London School of Economics. He taught in adult and higher education, engaged in post-doctoral research, and was founding Head of Department of Humanities and Social Studies at what is now the University of the South Bank, London, before appointment as Deputy Director responsible for academic affairs at the forerunner to the Plymouth University in the UK. For nearly ten years he worked in Hong Kong, helping to set up the precursor to City University as the member of senior management responsible for academic affairs. Following retirement he was appointed Academic Consultant to Lingnan College on its transition to university status.

“Often sent with their families to lonely outposts at a turbulent time in Chinese history, the experiences of the Customs Officers are very little-known: this makes the story of C.H. Brewitt-Taylor, his rise from very humble origins to service in far-flung corners of China, both hot and cold, dull and dangerous, all the more welcome.” —From the Foreword by Dr. Frances Wood, British Library

“This is a valuable book. Brewitt-Taylor is an interesting subject for three reasons: he had a distinguished career in the Chinese customs service, an important institution that mediated China’s relationship with the outside world; he undertook the first quality translation of an important traditional Chinese novel, which made him an important interpreter of Chinese culture in the west; his family life gives us insight into the experiences of those Britons who went abroad in the Victorian and Edwardian ages. While B-T himself remains an elusive personality, through the author’s judicious analysis gradually a sense of the man and his world emerges.” —Professor Richard Horowitz, California State University, Northridge