10 facts you might not know about Thomas Manning

Posted by rhiandavies - Wednesday, 5 Oct 2022

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Thomas Manning was part of the ‘first wave’ of English Romanticism but compared to his contemporaries such as Coleridge and Shelley, little is known about his life and work. However, his importance and the significance of his influence on the movement should not be underestimated.

Author, Edward Weech, writer of upcoming book Chinese Dreams in Romantic England, has shared 10 facts about Thomas Manning to explore the interesting life of a pioneer in Chinese studies.


Did you know, Thomas Manning…

…dedicated his life to learning about China

The French Revolution was in progress when Thomas Manning arrived in Cambridge as a student in 1790. Like many young idealists at that time, he hoped that the coming years would usher in a new dawn of progress and equality. It was a time when people were looking for new sources of cultural inspiration, and Manning had the original thought that Britain should look to Chinese civilization for clues to solving some of its social problems. This was a very radical idea. China was arguably the world’s most ancient and sophisticated culture, but hardly anyone in Britain knew anything about it; and for a long time, the only other people who were interested in learning Chinese were missionaries, traders, or diplomats. But learning about Chinese society would prove a lot more complicated than Manning expected.

…was involved in the Romantic movement

Manning’s best friend was the essayist Charles Lamb, who introduced him to Romantic literary circles at a key moment in history. Manning was part of the discussions about Lyrical Ballads, the volumes of poetry issued by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge that helped launch Romanticism in Britain. Manning was a big admirer of Coleridge, but he was sceptical about Wordsworth’s radical argument that poetry should use ‘the real language of men’. Disappointment with the French Revolution prompted other Romantics to dive deeper into literature and the imagination, but Manning instead looked outward, and wanted to see how people lived in China. He launched an ambitious project that was akin to an early form of anthropology or sociology.

…wrote poetry for fun

Unlike many of his friends, Manning was not a published poet. But writing poems was still one of his hobbies, and his archive contains love poems addressed to women he met in his youth and middle age (despite romantic interludes, he remained a lifelong bachelor). At Cambridge, he wrote poetry to distract himself from studying geometry and algebra. His poems ranged from ‘Revolutionary Song of Freedom’, celebrating the French Revolution, to ‘Epigrammata Necessaria’, which lampooned the unsanitary condition of the toilets at Caius, his college.  

…left university without a degree

Manning was a brilliant student and was expected to graduate as ‘Second Wrangler’ (second in his year). However, after five years at Cambridge, he was not allowed to take his degree. Manning refused to subscribe to the religious tests (oaths) which, at that time, were mandatory for all graduating students. This meant he couldn’t pursue a career in academia, and he went to work as a tutor for other students.

…was an expert in mathematics and ancient Greek

Manning would eventually become known as an explorer and scholar of Chinese, but he was also an accomplished mathematician. Although he left Cambridge without a degree, he still published numerous academic papers, starting with a textbook on arithmetic and algebra, and later writing articles on logarithms and geometry that were published by the Royal Society. He was also passionate about the study of ancient Greek, and he became obsessed with certain aspects of its grammar. He would later devote himself to comparing prepositions and particles in ancient Greek and Chinese, which he thought might help explain the hidden operations of the human mind. He was part of a dying breed – a genuine polymath.

…was a Prisoner of War

In 1802, Manning visited France to try and find someone who could teach him Chinese. He didn’t have much luck, but he did enjoy visiting fashionable salons and meeting literary and political celebrities like Thomas Paine, Helen Maria Williams, and Madame de Staël. He visited during the Peace of Amiens, a brief truce in the long-running wars between Britain and France. Unfortunately, he stayed too long, and was surprised when the resumption of hostilities led to him being detained as a prisonnier du guerre. This meant he was stuck in France for an extra two years, which delayed his plans to visit China at a crucial time.

…met the Dalai Lama

Manning finally arrived in Canton, on China’s southern coast, in 1807. But China’s borders were strictly closed to Europeans, and he wasn’t allowed to leave the port. Eventually, he decided to try and enter China via Tibet, attempting the journey in late 1811 with a Chinese assistant, Zhao Jinxiu. They got as far as Tibet’s capital, Lhasa: and Manning was the first Englishman to reach the holy city at the ‘roof of the world’. They weren’t allowed to proceed any further, but Manning was allowed to meet the Ninth Dalai Lama, Lungok Gyatso, a six-year-old child. Manning was profoundly moved by the experience, writing in his diary, ‘This day I saluted the Grand Lama!! Beautiful youth. Face poetically affecting; could have wept. Very happy to have seen him and his blessed smile.’ He made two pencil sketches of Lungtok Gyatso to help remember the occasion.

…served on the Amherst Embassy

Manning was still in Canton in 1816, when Britain sent an embassy to China. Manning’s knowledge of Chinese language and customs meant he was well-qualified to serve as one of the embassy’s interpreters. However, the British Ambassador, Lord Amherst, didn’t like Manning’s long beard; and he objected to Manning’s habit of wearing Chinese clothes. Manning was eventually allowed to accompany the embassy, but he had to agree to wear English clothes again. (He managed to keep his beard.) The embassy provided an opportunity for Manning to see the interior of China. But by the time the embassy reached Peking, mounting diplomatic controversies meant it ended in embarrassing failure for the British.

…was shipwrecked

Returning from China with Lord Amherst in 1817, Manning was on board HMS Alceste when it struck a coral reef in the Java Sea. The ship quickly sank, but most of those on board had time to find shelter on an uninhabited island nearby. The island had no drinkable water, so Manning joined Amherst and several dozen others who rowed a small barge hundreds of miles to the nearest port, Batavia, to arrange a rescue. It was a race against time: not only because of thirst, but also because the survivors were soon threatened by the arrival of hundreds of pirates.

…met Napoleon

As he continued his long journey back to England, the ship carrying Manning called at St Helena. The remote island was serving as the prison of Napoleon, following his defeat at Waterloo. In his youth, Manning had been an enthusiastic supporter of Napoleon, who he had witnessed during his early pomp in Paris in 1802. Napoleon’s imperialist ambitions made Manning reconsider his former adulation, but he was still curious to meet the fallen idol; while Napoleon was eager for the opportunity to learn about Manning’s time in Tibet and his meeting with the Dalai Lama.

…loved jokes

When he was a young man, Manning nurtured plans for ambitious studies of Chinese language and culture. For various reasons (explored in the book), these never materialized. Strangely enough, the only thing he ever published about China was a translation of Chinese jokes – the first such translation into English. He lamented that making the translations comprehensible to English readers, while still being faithful to the Chinese originals, was quite a challenge. But he also explained why he thought the task was important: jokes provide a window onto society, and they might help British readers get a glimpse of what life in China was really like. Towards the end of his life, Manning was still trying to promote awareness and sympathy about Chinese culture within Britain, even while attitudes were changing in the lead-up to the First Opium War of 1839-42.    

Chinese Dreams in Romantic England is available November 15th.

Edward Weech is Librarian at the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He is a
historian and heritage professional with special interest in how and why British people in the
past learned about other cultures, especially those of East Asia. His essays and reviews on history,
culture, and society have appeared in a variety of publications including the Times Literary Supplement, the Coleridge Bulletin, and the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.

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