The Folger Shakespeare Library Presents A Manuscript Miscellany

A Summer 2005 Institute
Directed by Steven W. May

“The Emperor of China His Letter to Queen Elizabeth” (1600)

Timothy Billings
Middlebury College

When Queen Elizabeth dispatched Benjamin Wood to China in 1596 in command of a small merchant fleet with a letter in Latin addressed to the Emperor of China, she may well have wondered whether she would be able to understand the reply. Considering that there was apparently no one in England at the time who could read an official Chinese document, her only hope would have been to rely on one of the Jesuit missionaries resident in China both to interpret her letter and to translate the response—someone like the famous Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci who had founded the mission there. As unlikely as that scenario might sound, whoever wrote the response copied here probably had just such a story in mind when he or she chose to write it in Italian, thus lending an air of comical plausibility to the sophisticated jest.

This letter—which was most certainly not written by the emperor of China—appears in Folger MS V.a. 321, an English letterbook; collecting letters in letterbooks was an extremely common practice in this period, and a great many examples survive. This letterbook is particularly important both for its fine script and extremely good condition as well as containing several unique copies of letters to and from such notable figures as Elizabeth I, Robert Cecil, Ben Jonson, George Chapman, and William Strachey, among others. It also contains variants of letters known to be of general interest (such as those related to the Essex affair) currently in scribal publication. Of the 140 letters in the letterbook, all but two are in English and copied in a professional English secretary hand. This is the only letter in Italian, and it is written in an italic hand.

In his critical edition of this letterbook, A. R. Braunmuller concluded that the Italian letter must be a forgery on the grounds that Benjamin Wood never made it to China. Historians have traced the little English fleet on their way to Canton as their ships dwindled from three, to two, to one, and then evidently disappeared off the coast of modern-day Myanmar, still a great distance even from reaching the South China Sea. Yet there is ample evidence within the letter itself that points to the same conclusion—so much so that the letter appears to be an obvious forgery: a sort of literary joke that circulated in the letter-writing and letter-copying culture of the period somewhat the way a fake email might circulate today pretending to be from a president or a prime minister about some silly or scandalous matter. (Insert your favorite names.)

Nothing about the form of the letter conforms to Chinese practice, from the titles and the dating formulas to the diction and the figures of speech: the author seems not even to know the current ruling dynasty in China, let alone the reign name and reign year of the Ming Wanli Emperor Shenzong. Rather, the whole composition smacks of having been conceived as an amusement on the model of an English letter and then rendered into Italian. Moreover, it would have had a topical appeal since the queen's original Latin letter to the Chinese emperor appeared that very year in the third volume of Richard Hakluyt's The Principal Navigations...of the English nation (London, 1598–1600). Along with an English translation of the letter, Hakluyt included a headnote remarking that there had yet been no news from Benjamin Wood and his company, and that they "may be arriued vpon some part of the coast of China, and may there be stayed by the said Emperour, or perhaps may haue some treacherie wrought against them by the Portugales of Macao, or the Spaniards of the Philippinas."

The most pointed jest in the letter is the subtle implication that a Jesuit like Ricci would have had to translate, to his own disadvantage, the phrase describing the queen as "the most chaste among all the Gentlemen [Signori] who follow Jesus, as uniquely chosen from the most powerful of the Christian law." (Braunmuller suggests that the appearance in the letterbook of another letter known to be a Jesuit forgery may indicate Catholic sympathies, but this letter at least seems to turn on a queen-flattering, Jesuit-mocking conceit.) The punchline of the letter is its date, set apart at the end and emphasized with underlining. Long before Archbishop Ussher's famous calculation, it was well known to any Elizabethan who ever glanced at an almanac that the world was not quite 6,000 years old, as had already been established by the early Church fathers. (See, for example, the first page of the Trevelyon Miscellany in the Folger collection, which copies a page from Edward Pond's almanac of about the same time, giving the age of the world as 5,570 years.) The Chinese emperor, however, dates his letter with an absurd formula: "the Year of the Creation of the World / 25,000." (See the notes below for a passage in Hakluyt that tells of a Chinese tale of a 90,000-year cycle of creation.) Considering how outrageous this must have sounded to Europeans, and how controversial the Chinese historical chronicles would soon prove to be in challenging the accepted biblical chronology, this ending may have been punchline enough to carry the whole jest.

Another possibility is that the letter was never intended as a self-contained entertainment for general circulation, but rather as a very specific amusement addressed to a particular person. The letter refers to an accompanying but unnamed gift. If that gift had Chinese associations, such as porcelain or silk, it could explain the whole conceit of the letter. The receiver would presumably know the sender by the messenger, whom the author of the letter explicitly requests be sent back. After having served its initial function, the letter may then have been circulated for the amusement of others. Indeed, although we can be sure that the emperor did not send this letter, we cannot be sure that the queen did not receive it, for the letter makes most sense as a clever composition attached to a gift sent to Elizabeth herself. Until the author of the playful letter is positively identified, it will be impossible for us to know whether certain otherwise conventional phrases—such as praise for the queen's person and sincere wishes for her good health—may not also be private sentiments expressed to the ailing Elizabeth from a witty courtier like John Harington, or whether they are simply part of a fictional exchange between monarchs concocted for sport to embellish a gift between friends.

Primary Texts:

John Florio, A Worlde of Wordes, Or Most copious, and exact Dictionarie in Italian and English. London, 1598.

Richard Hakluyt, The principal navigations, voiages, traffiques and discoueries of the English nation, 3 vols. London, 1598–1600.

Juan González de Mendoza, The Historie of the great and mightie kingdome of China, trans. Richard Parke. London, 1588.

Transcription, translation, and other textual notes

Suggested Reading:

Braunmuller, A. R. A Seventeenth-Century Letter-Book: A Facsimile Edition of Folger MS. V.a. 321 with Transcript, Annotation, and Commentary. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1983.

Stewart, Alan and Heather Wolfe, Letterwriting in Renaissance England, The Folger Shakespeare Library. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2004.