The boy who spoke Chinese with the Emperor

The first European boy to speak with a Chinese Emperor was Thomas Staunton whose father was from Galway.

The year was 1793 and they were part of the first British diplomatic mission to China.

The leader of the mission was George Macartney  from Co Antrim, a Trinity Dublin graduate.

His secretary was George Staunton from Co Galway who despite being, officially, a Protestant had studied at the Jesuit College in Toulouse.   Half of his family were Joyces, from Galway, and that might explain his close relationship with clergy in his public and private life.

George took along his eleven year old son, Thomas, and during the year-long voyage to China had him study Chinese with the four Chinese speakers allowed on board for that purpose  — four Catholic priests on their way to Macao.

The mission was not successful basically because the Emperor Qianlong considered himself the unequalled master of the universe and the British considered their king his equal.

However Qianlong asked whether any of the diplomatic group spoke Chinese and was told there was only one, Thomas, now twelve. Qianlong was intrigued, spoke with him and gave him an embroidered purse he was carrying, an unheard of honour.

Thomas went on to be a successful translator and diplomat, his knowledge of Chinese was to define his life.

Today thousands of Irish students are studying Chinese both at home and in China. Whether they will learn much about Chinese culture and its humane attitude to life and relationships is another matter. In Ireland the economic expectations predominate and recently there were 98 jobs available for Mandarin speakers.

There is an increase both in secondary schools and private institutes teaching Chinese, and many young people avail of the Gap Year to take lessons. Yet it seems Ireland is lagging behind its European partners.  Even though travel time between Ireland and China is now closer to twelve hours than twelve months, the Irish seem to have lost the broad vision and curiosity of a George Staunton.

However, all is not lost. AITECE still sends volunteer English teachers to China, to share and learn, and maybe pick up some spoken Chinese on the way!

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