Patrick O'Brian imagines a conversation between an elderly Chinese sage and his six-year-old grandson (described with typical flair as 'a child destined, it may be added, for a public death by boiling just forty years on'), as they behold the European crew of the Royal Navy's far-wandering ship HMS Centurion, travelling with palanquins along the banks of the Pearl River in Canton in 1742:
'There is a foreign devil marching by the nearest palanquin, grandpapa'
'A barbarian, my child. The educated man does not say "foreign devil"'
'A barbarian, grandpapa. Pray, grandpapa, tell me about the barbarians?'
'They are engendered by the apes of the farther western deserted regions, and by certain unclean spirits of those parts, my child : they are covered with hair, but they are capable of a rude speech for their simple communications among themselves : and they have, from the very supernatural side of their ancestry, a curious ability to travel in very large sea-going machines, which waft them up and down. They first had the happiness of finding the Celestial Empire in the reign of Sun Chi, when it was reported that they were capable of domestication and responsive to kindness ; and it was ordered that they should be regarded as neutral monsters of the third class, neither benign or malignant, to be officially preserved as curiosities and allowed suitable nourishment, but to be shunned by unauthorised persons'.
'What is suitable nourishment for a monster of the third class, if you please, grandpapa?'
'A small brick of a very hard farinaceous substance will sustain one for a week,' replied the sage. 'They are not costly to maintain : but neither are they pleasant, having the hairiness of the one parent joined to the intractability of the other, together with the unbelievable lack of polish of both, doubled'.
- Patrick O'Brian, The Golden Ocean, London, 1956, p.228.
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Books: A little light blasphemy, 18 October 2014
Books: Crafted with all the skill of the shipwright's art, 21 January 2013