Tongwenguan publications

31 October 2012

The Tongwenguan 同文館 was one of two bodies that operated in late imperial China under the auspices of the Zongli Yamen, or to give it its full name, the Zongli Geguo Shiwu Yamen 總里各國事務衙門, literally “office for regulating dealings with the various nations”. (The other body, by the way, was the Inspectorate General of the Imperial Maritime Customs 大清皇家海關總稅務司, which operated under the control of westerners appointed by the government, notably Robert Hart, who served as Inspector-General from 1863 until his death in 1911.)

It was established in 1862 by the emperor’s uncle Yixin 奕訢 (1833-1898), better known as Prince Gong 恭親王, and its initial purpose was to provide instruction in foreign languages to Chinese diplomats. Its curriculum was later expanded to cover western science, law, and international relations. The Boxer Protocol of 1901 replaced the Zongli Yamen with the Waiwubu 外務部 (“Ministry of Foreign Affairs”), and in 1902 the functions of the Tongwenguan were taken over by the newly established Peking University, whose present School of Foreign Languages regards it as its direct ancestor.

A most important activity of the Tongwenguan was the translation of western books into Chinese, starting with W.A.P. Martin’s translation of Henry Wheaton’s Elements of international law, which it published in 1864 with the Chinese title Wanguo gongfa 萬國公法.


These books were produced to a high standard and distributed free throughout the empire. Although the Tongwenguan published far fewer titles than the Kiangnan Arsenal which was operating contemporaneously in Shanghai, they were probably more influential owing both to their subject matter (many of the Kiangnan Arsenal publications were on highly specialised technical subjects), and the close relation of the Tongwenguan with the Zongli Yamen and its highly placed officials in the heart of the capital.

I have found the following general sources of information on the Tongwenguan useful:

  • Martin, W. A. P.: The Tungwen College. Appendix F (pp.471-478) of H. B.  Morse’s International relations of the Chinese Empire, Volume 3 (London, 1918)
  • Biggerstaff, Knight: The T’ung Wen Kuan. In The Chinese social and political science review, 1934/1935 (pp.307-340).
  • 蘇精: 清季同文館. 台北, 民國68年[1979].
  • 陈向阳: 晚清京师同文館组织研究. 广州: 广州高等教育出版社, 2004.

It remains difficult, however, to determine precisely how many western books were translated and published by the Tongwenguan. There is no definitive list such as that produced by the Kiangnan Arsenal cited in my earlier blog contribution on that subject. Su Jing lists 36 different publications (pp.208-213). Martin (Morse Appendix F p.478) lists 22, all of which are found in Su Jing’s list. Biggerstaff (pp.332-333, note 84) lists 21, of which 20 are found in the College’s calendar for 1888 and a further one in W.A.P. Martin’s A cycle of Cathay (London, 1896, p.235); all are also found in Su Jing’s list. The Illustrated catalogue of the Chinese collection of exhibits for the International Health Exhibition (London, 1884) referred to below lists only 16 (on  p.84), of which the last two are not found in Su Jing’s list, perhaps because they are not either translations or works by western writers, but simply Chinese works by Chinese writers, one of them being the work on trigonometry 測圓海鏡細草 by the 13th century writer Li Ye 李冶.

Some of the Tongwenguan publications were unusually influential, and have been the subject of detailed study. An excellent account of the very first one, Wheaton’s Elements of international law, is found in the website of an ambitious but apparently abortive project in the University of Erlangen – I have already alluded to the evanescence of what is found on the internet, and hope it hasn’t disappeared.

And a well-researched piece of work by Zhang Hao makes a detailed study of the contribution to the development of modern Chinese chemistry, and of chemical terminology, by Anatole Billequin, the College’s first Professor of Chemistry, evidenced in a number of Tongwenguan publications: 張澔: 畢利幹(Anatole Billequin) – 同文館第一位化學教習與近現代中國化學, in 中華科技史學會會刊, 8(2005:1), 33-42.

The Bodleian has eleven Tongwenguan editions, of which ten came with the collection of Chinese books (mostly Protestant missionary publications) exhibited at the International Health Exhibition in London in 1884 under the auspices of the Inspector General of Customs (whose connection with the Tongwenguan has been pointed out above). See Helliwell: Two collections of nineteenth century Protestant missionary publications in the Bodleian Library, in Chinese culture (Taipei) 31:4(1990) – a paper originally presented at the International Conference on Resources for Chinese Studies, Taipei, 30 November – 3 December 1988.

Here is an image of the page in the exhibition catalogue on which they are listed:

We did not receive all sixteen of those listed (it is inconceivable that we did receive them and subsequently lost them), and the first and most important of them, Wheaton’s Elements of international law, may be of a different provenance; I found it on the shelves in my room in 1977, the year after joining the Library.

Here is what we now have, as described as in my catalogue:

萬國公法 四卷 / (美)惠頓撰 ; (美)丁韙良譯
線裝4冊 ; 30公分
本書譯自 Henry Wheaton: Elements of international law (6th ed., Boston, 1855)
Sinica 2887

星軺指掌 三卷續卷一卷 / (清)聯芳, (清)慶常仝譯
線裝4冊 ; 30公分
本書譯自 Karl Freiherr von Martens: Guide diplomatique
Sinica 2121

公法會通 十卷 / (德)步倫氏撰 ; (美)丁韙良譯
線裝5冊 ; 30公分
本書譯自 Johann Caspar Bluntschli: Das moderne Voelkerrecht der civilisirten Staten
Sinica 2122

化學指南 十卷 / 法國畢利幹著
線裝10冊 ; 30公分
本書譯自 Faustin-Jovita-Marinus Malaguti: Leçons élémentaires de chimie
Sinica 2123

法國律例 刑名定範四卷﹑刑律四卷﹑貿易定律六卷﹑園林則律二卷﹑民律二十二卷﹑民律指掌八卷 / (法)畢利幹口譯 ; (清)時雨華筆述
線裝46冊 ; 28公分
本書譯自 Code Napoléon
Sinica 2124

化學闡原 十五卷 / (法)畢利幹口譯 ; (清)王鍾祥筆述
線裝16冊 ; 28公分
本書譯自 Carl Remigius Fresenius: Traité d’analyse chimique qualitative
Sinica 2125

富國策 三卷 / (英)法思德撰 ; (清)汪鳳藻譯
線裝3冊 ; 30公分
本書譯自 Henry Fawcett: Manual of political economy
Sinica 2126

英文舉隅 / (美)喀爾氏撰 ; (清)汪鳳藻譯
線裝1冊 ; 26公分
本書譯自 Simon Kerl: An elementary grammar of the English language (21st ed., New York, 1868)
Sinica 2127

算學課藝 四卷 / (清)席淦, (清)貴榮編
線裝4冊 ; 30公分
Sinica 2128

四述奇 十六卷 / (清)張德彝撰
線裝16冊 ; 26公分
Sinica 2129

測圓海鏡細草 十二卷 / (元)李冶撰
線裝4冊 ; 26公分
Sinica 2130

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