The Mystery and Tragedy of the First Chinese Woman in England
The first Chinese visitors to England were probably seventeenth century sailors whose names have been lost to history. A Chinese scholar, Shen Fuzong, spent thirteen months in London and Oxford from 1687 to 1688. (Batchelor.) By the late eighteenth century, some Chinese people had settled in Stepney, East London, and an artist named Tan-Chet Gua had been admitted to the Royal Academy. (Benton and Gomez, 23; Kiernan, 41 and Pan, 84.) However, these are all references to men: there is nothing in the early records about Chinese women in England.
Then under the heading Death of a Chinese Lady on 13 July 1824, The Times of London published a lengthy obituary of a most unusual visitor to England.We read with interest as the writer for The Times struggles with cross-cultural comparisons and the Orientalising prejudices of his own era in describing this visitor from China.Yhou Fung Queon was described as a "remarkable foreign lady" from China who had "expired on Friday last, [9 July 1824] at her apartments, No. 94, Pall-Mall" in London's fashionable West End. She had travelled to England accompanied by male family members who, it appears, were not merchants or traders. Her visit was motivated purely by curiosity about England, a land so different from her own: "Considerable mystery hangs over the circumstances of her departure from the celestial empire; and this is not surprising, when we consider the strictness of the Chinese laws against expatriation. She, however, was accompanied to England by her husband, and also by her brother. The latter had previously visited this country, and resided several weeks at a hotel in London, wearing the costume and adopting the manners of an English gentleman; and it would seem that his report of a country so unlike their own had excited in his sister and her husband a desire to visit this distant region."
Sadly the husband and wife contracted a fatal disease shortly after arriving in England, and while their condition cannot be identified with certainty, tuberculosis is a possibility. (The death of the brother was not reported, so presumably he survived.) The writer for The Times believed that the main cause of their demise was the difference in air pressure between China and England.
"Unfortunately, they had not sufficiently calculated on the effect which might be produced by differences of climate, food, and habits of life, particularly by the different pressure of the atmosphere. This last cause appears to have operated very powerfully on the pulmonary system of both husband and wife. The husband was first affected with a spitting of blood, which was equally sudden and violent: and though it was stopped for a day or two by judicious remedies, it broke out again with a violence which no medicine could arrest, and put an end to the unfortunate Chinese gentleman in a very few days.
The lady became more gradually sensible of the penicious (sic—pernicious) effects of the climate. She, however, at length began to spit blood, and Dr. Webster, of Grosvenor-street, was called in; but he found her lungs already much affected; and the disease advanced with such rapidity as to baffle all medical art. The Chinese, it seems, do not rely solely on the skill of their physicians. They resort to the sacrifice of fowls and other small animals, and throwing the blood in the faces of their idols, collect from this, and from other superstitious ceremonies the omens of recovery or death. These omens varied, and hopes and fears of the Chinese lady and her friends varied with them, until the morning preceding her dissolution, when she awoke with a cheerful air, saying she had seen her husband, who had ordered her to come to him, and therefore she knew she must die---an event which accordingly took place not many hours afterwards."
Interestingly, the reporter for the English newspaper described her as a young and beautiful woman: "Yhou Fung Queon was about twenty years of age, rather fair, but with long glossy black hair. Her features were cast in the Tartarian mould, but were regular, and far from unpleasant. Indeed, she might be said to be beautiful, setting aside local prejudices: at least, the expression of her countenance was pleasing, and bespoke gentleness and courtesy, mixed with a modest reserve."
There was an attempt to identify Yhou Fung Queon's social situation in China, and in the beginning of the obituary she was described as a "female of distinguished rank in her own country, as must have been obvious to all who had the pleasure of her acquaintance, from her Lady-like manners and easy graceful demeanour."
Elsewhere she was described in terms suited to a courtier, one trained in social graces, dress codes and ceremonial functions: "There was an intelligence in her look, and she was extremely observant of every thing peculiar in the habits and manners of the individuals whom she had occasion to see, never failing to remark any little change in their appearance, dress, etc., and to inquire the cause of it. Thus, if a female appeared before her one day with, and the next without, a shawl, or if a gentleman had at one time a gold chain and seal to his watch, and at another time a mere watch-ribband, she would inquire what was the reason of these changes--- whether it was owing to any thing peculiar in the character of the day---if the individual had been at any ceremony which required a particular dress or the like. Her own attire was always neat and elegant, and in the fashion of her country; and many of the articles of it were elegantly embroidered by her own hand. She wore an under robe of the finest Chinese taffeta, a cloak finely ornamented with needle work under the collar and sleeves, and rich bracelets of gold with agate, cornelian, and other precious stones.Her nails (which is an indubitable mark of gentility in China) were suffered to grow to a most inconvenient length; and her foot was almost incredibly small."
Who interpreted for Yhou Fung Queon's various conversations with her guests is also not explained. Was she or her husband fluent in English, or did she somehow have the services of an assistant interpreter?
Another dimension of Yhou Fung Queon's short stay in London was that she was accompanied by attendants who could read Chinese: "She had the literary attainments of her country, and used to have Chinese books read to her by her attendants." These attendants are a mystery. Is it likely that a married lady such as Yhou Fung Queon had male attendants in her apartments at 94 Pall Mall? It seems more probable that these were literate female attendants; if so, then she travelled to London with an small entourage of well-educated Chinese women in 1824. Although The Times claimed that she was the first woman to visit England from China, it may, therefore, have overlooked the attendants. It was also assumed, perhaps for lack of any other information, that Yhou Fung Queon acted as a private adventurer. Yet there are some indications that she may have been a highly placed individual in Chinese society, perhaps a courtier, sent to make observations with some official support. In the conclusion to its obituary The Times noted the loss of cultural exchange between China and England with Yhou Fung Queon's death.
"Such were the personal appearance and manners of Yhou Fung Queon: It is much to be lamented that this accomplished and intelligent female did not live to carry back to her countrymen the result of her observations on English life and manners. She is the only one of her sex who has ever ventured on so distant a voyage, and she appears to have been remarkably well qualified for observing and communicating whatever she met with worthy of notice."We are left to wonder whether any record of her observations ever made it back to China. Possibly her female attendants or her surviving male relative returned with reports to her place of origin, so that the cross-cultural explorations of Yhou Fung Queon were not entirely in vain.*-- Fred Donnelly