A Story Dated Back to 1877: recollecting the maritime nexus between China and Greenwich

In October 1877, six odd-looking young Chinese “clad in richly figured flowing garments” wandered in the streets of Greenwich, with their long pigtails swaying behind their half-bald heads. Their destination was the Royal Naval College (RNC).

The six Chinese soon left Greenwich in a year or two. The RNC itself was amalgamated into the Joint Services Command and StaffCollege in 1998, leaving GMI to continue its “maritime history of Greenwich and connections with the Royal Navy” on the same ground. The site is now renamed with an adjective “Old” put in front of “Royal Naval College”, suggesting a strong nostalgic aura. All visible or physical remainders of these Chinese visitors seem to have vanished in the abyss of centuries of history as if they had never been to Greenwich. But –

137 years later, four ordinary-looking Chinese came to the same place. They were so similar to other Chinese tourists now crowded around the World Centre that no one would ever pay them a glance, until they set up their tripod, raised their huge round reflectors and operated their shooting “cannons” (specialist cameras). They were a TV crew invited by Greenwich Maritime Institute (GMI) and China Maritime Centre (CMC) to retrospect the adventure of the six Chinese in the RNC. They were thus made explorers of a piece of long overlooked history of the Sino-Anglo maritime interactions.

The sky was unusually clear all the time – in late January. The tranquility of Greenwich campus was broken only by occasional cries of jolly seabirds. The sublime buildings of the ORNC, the thin prime meridian line between the east and the west hemispheres and the maritime tide regularly running through the Greenwich U-turn of the Old Father Thames idly enjoyed sunshine like taciturn aged sea dogs in the Greenwich Hospital. Veterans were reluctant to open their toothless mouths to strangers, especially after experiencing the vicissitude of the Royal Navy and the British Empire on which the sun never set.

But GMI and CMC knew their forefathers’ secrets behind the mist of history, – their ditty bags had been thoroughly searched for numerous times. They confirmed to the TV crew that the six young men from China were early foreign naval students trained in the RNC. Their names are Yan Fu, Fang Boqian, He Xinchuan, Lin Yongsheng, Ye Zugui and Sa Zhenbing.

They were also the earliest overseas students ever dispatched by Chinese government in the 5k-year history.

With the time-honoured centralised, self-sufficient, looking-inward, complacent Confucian social structure, Chinese authorities and commoners still took for granted in the mid 19th century that the Celestial Empire was the centre of the cosmos (interestingly Greenwich claims so now!) and that it would be a special bounty granted to its vassal states if their literati subjects were admitted to be fostered with and benefit from the unchallengeable superiority of the only civilised nation. Never had they considered from a reverse angle. They did not perceive how far they had been left behind by the achievements of the Industrial Revolution taken place in Britain until they were unexceptionally defeated by invading guns and warships. While the Qing government eventually suppressed the Long-haired Rebels sweeping more than half of China’s territories with the assistance of modern weapons mainly provided by British mercenaries, a maverick decision was immediately made to study the “sophisticated western science and techniques”. Imaginably this initiative greatly toppled Chinese people’s traditional confidence in their cultural supremacy and encountered fierce critiques. Nevertheless, a naval and shipbuilding enterprise (comprising a “ForeSchool” engaged in shipbuilding education, an “AftSchool” in naval navigation and associated shipyards to construct steamships) was founded in 1867 in Mawei, Foochow, Fujian Province. MaweiNavalCollege retained shipwrights from France and naval officers from Britain to teach its difficultly recruited students including the six ones.

With endeavours rendered by the “foreign” teaching staff, the new-fashioned education proved very successful. The Six graduated together with their fellow students to become the first-generation naval officers in modern sense in China. However, in an era of rapid naval development, Qing government soon realised that the capability to manoeuvre individual warships was far from sufficient. It needed naval officers with modern knowledge and global strategy to command its newly forged fleets and to protect its coastlines. After lengthy consultation between China and the British Admiralty and Foreign Office and subject to “preliminary exams”, the most promising six Chinese naval officers were accepted by the recently established RNC for further training in 1877. They were taught the subjects including mathematics, physics, steam and steam engine, field fortification, etc. In the following decade, more Chinese naval officers graduated from Mawei Naval College were sent to Greenwich for advanced training.

Again, in Greenwich, Royal Naval Officers demonstrated their enthusiasm and professionalism to the Chinese students. On 3 October 1880, a certificate of award was issued by the Qing government in the name of the Chinese Emperor Guangxu (at the age of 9) to compliment John K. Laughton (the then Naval Instructor at the RNC) for his significant contribution to the Chinese naval officers’ successful completion of training courses. People who are interested in the details can approach our neighbouring NationalMaritimeMuseum to see the original award, referring to the Object ID “AAB0519”.

All the earliest Chinese graduates from the RNC later played influential roles in different dimensions in the course of Chinese modernisation.

After transfiguring himself from the President of the later Tianjin Naval School to a great enlightenment thinker in China in the late 1890s, Yan Fu introduced, inter alia, Adam Smith’s leading work “The Wealth of Nations” and Thomas Henry Huxley’s “Evolution and Ethics and Other Essays” to Chinese readers. He stayed in the position of the first President of the “Grand Capital University” (a combination of Ministry of Education of the Qing Empire and BeijingUniversity) until November 1912. Yan Fu’s favourite pupils in Tianjin included a naval officer named Li Yuanhong, later becoming the second President of the Republic of China.

Sa Zhenbing, in his naval career, was promoted to the Commander in Chief of the Imperial Admiralty. He revisited Greenwich 32 years later in company of His Imperial Highness Prince Zaixun to discuss with Admiral President Sir John Durnford of the RNC a rehabilitation programme for Chinese navy. But this was not yet the culmination of Admiral Sa’s success. He was nominated the Prime Minister in 1920. After the Communists took power of China in 1949, Admiral Sa still enjoyed the new government’s respect in the last three years of his life. He was one of the exceptionally prominent statesmen that could have survived all upheavals of three reigns of different natures.

Ye Zugui and Lin Yongsheng were promoted to the rank of Admiral. However, Admiral Lin soon sacrificed his life for his nation in a decisive naval battle. Other RNC trainees later formed a reputable “Fujian/Mawei Alliance” consisting of admirals and senior naval officers tenaciously dominating Chinese Navy until 1945.

Tracing footsteps of these remarkable historic naval images, the TV crew from the other end of this continent arrived on 20 January 2014 at GMI, the successor of the RNC’s maritime history & policy research and education heritage in Greenwich. To make sure that the Chinese guests would be satisfied with the visit and filming, GMI/CMC staff had exercised considerable effort to obtain permits for their access to the Painted Hall and the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul (managed by the Greenwich Foundation), the National Maritime Museum, the National Archives in Kew, etc. Dreadnought Library’s specialist librarian of maritime knowledge arsenal Irene Barranco also extended her effective assistance on a very short notice.

In the interview with the director of the documentary programme Ms. Guo, GMI Director Professor Chris Bellamy briefly reviewed the early evolution of British naval education. Then he highlighted the British government’s key considerations to establish a new naval education institution in the home of the Royal Navy in the early 1870s. “Naval officers’ traditional knowledge of navigation and the skills in combating at sea were found not enough at this age”, Prof. Bellamy said, “when dramatic technical development and reshaping of the international political and diplomatic pictures demanded much more reflections of senior naval officers than ever.” Virtually Prof. Bellamy was explicating in his simplified language to Chinese audience the spirit of the RNC’s motto “Tam Marte Quam Minerva” (as much by wisdom as by war).

GMI’s naval historian Dr. Chris Ware was invited to depict, in the corridor in front of GMI’s classroom, the Windsor Castle, QA, a snapshot of major naval forces in the world at a time when steam-powered steel-hull warships were looming to overtake conventional sailing ships. The gross tonnage of steamships registered in the UK would soon surpass that of sailing ships in 1885. Emphasising the particular historic context, Chris continued to illustrate before the video camera the emerging notion of sea power, the interactions between naval force and seaborne trade, the importance of the Royal Navy in formulating new orders of the world after the Napoleonic wars, the influence of naval strategy on shipbuilding technologies, etc. Chinese viewers may particularly be interested in Dr. Ware’s analysis how a continental country could borrow the sophisticated expertise of great maritime power to protect its coastal interests.

Launched on 20 July 2012 in GMI in response to the recent surge of China’s maritime interest, CMC is keen to pull these two maritime powers closer to each other. Despite profuse preparations done for production of the programme, Dr. Minghua Zhao, the CMC Director, happened to be traveling back in China when the crew started their fieldwork in Greenwich. Therefore she authorised Yifan Liao (a GMI/CMC PhD student) to accommodate the crew on CMC’s behalf.

Yifan led a walk around the ORNC campus, showing to Chinese audience the east corner of the north pavilion of King Charles Court, where most lectures for the Chinese naval students were held. Yifan explained, “From the riverside windows of these classrooms, Young Yan Fu and Sa Zhenbing would be able to observe many ships running up and down the River Thames every day. Apart from the courses provided by the RNC, we can imagine how much the Oriental students were impressed by the Victorian achievements and prosperity represented by the powerful Royal Navy and Merchant Navy they saw in Greenwich.” While being asked why he was interested in the history of the RNC and Yan Fu (a domain seemingly irrelevant to his current research), Yifan replied, “The maritime heritage of Mawei and Greenwich is not ancient, remote legend to me. It’s living blood injected into my vein by my Fujian origin, my maritime family and education.”

After filming in Greenwich, the crew moved to Kew and Portsmouth to continue the exploration before they went back to China. It would take another half year to complete the postproduction. This series programme will then be shown by the end of 2014 on CCTV (China Central TV Station) with a nationwide coverage of billions of Chinese viewers. They will for the first time be able to see how the early Chinese naval officers were nurtured with modern science in Greenwich on the screen. GMI and CMC also expect that this documentary will help encourage more researchers and stakeholders to focus on this fascinating story linking Greenwich to China and the past to the future.

Yifan Liao, PhD Student

China Maritime Centre, Greenwich Maritime Institute

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