The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Chinese Hanzi Characters in 1801


On 30 July 1801 the snow Pacific Trader bound for Canton floundered in the Pacific Ocean when the vessel took on water in the midst of a violent two-day gale. The winds tore the sails and mangled the rigging so terribly that the ship and its small crew limped into safe harbor at Macao on 23 August 1801. Proprietors William and Sullivan Dorr in Canton received more than ten letters from Captain Samuel Edes aboard the Pacific Trade in the subsequent month while the ship sheltered and was repaired in Macao. These letters are contained in the Samuel Barrett Edes papers held at the MHS.

On 27 September 1801 Captain Edes writes to inform the Dorrs of the progress of ship repairs and the condition of the cargo. However, it is the verso page of the letter that truly captures my imagination. The verso functioned as the envelope, containing the address information of the intended recipient, Sullivan Dorr. Far more interesting than the address is the beautiful example of Chinese Hanzi characters composed on the verso.

I imagine that the Hanzi message reveals directions due to its location close to the address, just near the seal. However, a larger question looms in my mind. Who wrote this inscription? The small crew of the Pacific Trader hailed from Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Ireland, St. Croix, Guadeloupe, and Bengal according to a crew list in the Samuel Barrett Edes papers. None of these men were native to China or surrounding countries that utilized Hanzi script. Although some crewmen may have learned the spoken language, the beautiful and careful script of the Hanzi suggests to me that a native writer composed the message.

Are you familiar with 19th century Chinese Hanzi script? Can you read this inscription? We would love to hear from you!

permalink | Published: Friday, 4 October, 2013, 1:00 AM


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