Wang Tao (nineteenth century)

From New World Encyclopedia
This is a Chinese name; the family name is 王 (Wang).
Wang Tao

Wang Tao (Chinese:王韜 Pinyin: Wángtāo; November 10, 1828 – April, 1897) was a Qing dynasty translator, reformer, political columnist, newspaper publisher, and fiction writer. He was born as Wang Libin in Puli Town (甫里)[1]in Suzhou (蘇州) prefecture. After failing the civil service examination in 1848, where he was offered a job at the London Missionary Society Press, helping Walter Henry Medhurst, William Muirhead, Joseph Edkins, and William Charles Milne translate the New Testament and a number of Western science texts into Chinese. In 1862, Wang was threatened with arrest for writing a letter to the Taiping rebels, and took refuge in the British Consulate, from where he was evacuated to Hong Kong. There he assisted James Legge his Chinese Classics translation series. In 1867, he followed Legge to Britain to continue with the translation work. On the way, he traveled around France and England and took notes for his travel books.

In 1870, he returned to Hong Kong and founded the Zhong Hua General Printing House and the Tsun-wan yat-po (1874-1947) Universal Circulating Herald), the first Chinese daily newspaper in history. In 1884, the Qing government, impressed by his work, pardoned him. He returned with his family to Shanghai, founded Tao Garden Publishing House and became the head of Gezhi College, where he promoted Western style education. Wang's travel writings include his diary Jottings of Carefree Travel, A History of France, The Franco-Prussian War and Travels in Japan. Besides scholarly work, he also wrote a large number of classical poems, essays, letters, an autobiography and a collection of stories.


Wang Tao was born November 10, 1828, as Wang Libin in Puli Town (甫里) in Suzhou (蘇州) prefecture, Jiangsu province. After failing the civil service examination in 1848, he went to Shanghai to visit his father. During his stay in Shanghai, Wang Tao visited the London Missionary Society Press. He was warmly greeted by Walter Henry Medhurst and his daughters Mary and Ellen.[2] Wang Tao also met missionaries William Muirhead, Joseph Edkins, and William Charles Milne, all well-versed in spoken and written Chinese language.

Work with the London Missionary Society

In 1849 Wang Tao's father died, and Wang Tao was looking for a way to support his family. He was offered a job by Walter Henry Medhurst at the London Missionary Society Press in Shanghai, assisting in his translation of the New Testament into Chinese. Wang Tao worked at the London Missionary Society Press for the next 13 years. During this period, he also translated many English books into Chinese, in collaboration with missionaries Alexander Wylie and Joseph Edkins. These included Pictorial Optics, An Elementary Introduction to Mechanics, Concise History of Sino-British Trade, and A History of Astronomy of the Western Countries.

Refuge in Hong Kong

The middle of the nineteenth century was a period of turmoil in China. In 1860, the Taiping Rebellion had captured Suzhou, Changzhou, and was threatening Shanghai. During this period, Wang Tao was in contact with the leaders of the Taiping Kingdom. In 1862, he even wrote a letter, under the pseudonym Wang Wan, to a Taiping leader, proposing tactics against the Qing military and suggesting that Westerners were not the enemy of Taiping. He stated that the real enemy was the Qing government; if the Taiping army could achieve victory over the Qing army led by Zeng Guofan (曾國藩), then the Westerners might side with the Taiping Kingdom. When the Qing army captured Shanghai, this letter fell into the hands of the Qing government, and Emperor Tongzhi (同治帝) ordered the arrest of Wang Tao. Medhurst’s son, the British Consul, gave him refuge in the British Consulate, where he remained for more than four months. In October, 1862, a disguised Wang Tao, escorted by several people from the British Consulate, boarded an Ewo (怡和 )[3] ship for Hong Kong. This is how he left the homeland to which he was not to return for 22 years. In Hong Kong, he changed his name from Wang Libin to Wang Tao.

In Hong Kong, James Legge, the principal of the Anglo-Chinese College invited Wang Tao to assist in the translation of The Thirteen Chinese Classics. By 1865, Legge and Wang had completed the translation of Shang Shu and The Bamboo Book Annals.

Move to Scotland

In 1867, James Legge returned to his native Scotland, settling in the small town of Dollar in Clackmannanshire. He wrote a letter to Wang Tao, inviting him to come to Scotland to continue assisting in the translation of more Chinese classics. Wang Tao boarded a ship and departed from Hong Kong, stopping over in Singapore, Ceylon, Penang, Aden, Messina, and Cairo before reaching Marseille.[4] The voyage from Hong Kong to Marseille took more than 40 days. Wang Tao took the opportunity of sightseeing in all the ports of call. From Marseille, he took a train to Lyon, then to Paris. He visited the Louvre, and also visited the sinologist Stanislas Julien at the Sorbonne. After a short stay of a little under two weeks, Wang Tao crossed the English Channel from Calais to Dover and rode a train to London. After sightseeing in London (The British Museum and other sites), he headed to Scotland and settled down in Dollar.

During his journey Wang Tao jotted down his impressions of the places he visited. He later collected part of this material into his travel book, Jottings from Carefree Travel (1890), the very first travel book about Europe by a Chinese scholar.

In 1867, Wang Tao was invited by the Chamberlain of Oxford University to deliver a speech in Chinese, the first ever speech delivered by a Chinese scholar in Oxford. He talked about the importance of cultural exchange between east and west, and claimed that the whole world was heading toward a common datong (大同, great unity - a utopian concept used by Confucius). [5]

By the Spring of 1870, the translations of various classics such as The Book of Songs, I Ching, (Dao De jing) and The Book of Rites were completed. During the period from 1867-1870, Wang Tao traveled to many places, including Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Huntly, Dundee and Glasgow,or took short trips to Rumbling Bridge Park, Castle Campbell, Tillicoultry, Alva and Stirling Castle; sometimes accompanied by James Legge and his third daughter, Mary.

The travel notes about these places were also included in Jottings of Carefree Travel.

Return to Hong Kong

Having finished his part in the translation of the Chinese Classics, Wang Tao returned to Hong Kong in the winter of 1870. In Hong Kong, he wrote two influential books: A Brief Introduction to France and Report on the Franco-Prussian War. The latter was highly regarded by high mandarins of the Qing government, including Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang (李鴻章), and paved the way for his later pardon by the Qing government.

In 1872, Wang Tao bought the printing press of London Mission in Hong Kong and founded the Zhong Hua General Printing House. On February 5, 1874 [6] Wang Tao founded Tsun-wan yat-po (1874-1947; Universal Circulating Herald), the first Chinese daily newspaper in history. Lin Yutang called Wang Tao the 'Father of the Chinese Newspaper.'

During his ten-year career as editor in chief of Universal Circulating Herald, Wang Tao penned close to a thousand editorials calling for the reform of the Chinese political system, proposing the adoption of a British-style parliamentary monarchy. He also called for reform of the educational system by the introduction of Western science to the curriculum; he called for the establishment of textile, mining, railway, machinery and mining industries. His reformist editorial articles reached a wide audience. He became the de facto forerunner of the reformist movement in China. Many of his reformist articles were later published as a volume: Collection of Essays from The Tao Garden.

Visit to Japan

In 1879, at the invitation of Japanese literati, Wang Tao spent over four months in Japan. He visited many cities such as Nagasaki, Nagoya and Tokyo, and notes of this journey became one of his books: Japan Travel. [7]

In Japan, wherever he went, he was surrounded by literati, and sometimes rode in sedan chairs carried by eight men.[8] As a scholar who had lived in Europe and who had an in-depth understanding of European politics and culture, he enjoyed very high esteem in Japan. His travel needs were taken care of by the Qing Embassy in Japan.

Wang Tao was apparently quite moved by his warm welcome in Japan; he wrote that when he left Japan, he was treated with a grand dinner party attended by more than one hundred celebrities, and that he never thought he could become so famous and important, because during his youth at Puli township, he was a nobody. "How lucky I am to get such welcome by foreign scholars several thousand miles away."

Return to Shanghai

The fame Wang Tao enjoyed overseas must have had an impact on the Qing government. In 1884, the influential Li Hongzang sent a letter to the governor of Shanghai, writing: "That gentleman from Kunshan (昆山)[9] is a rare genius with encyclopedic knowledge. It is a pity he took exile in Hong Kong; if it is possible to get his service for us, we don't mind a king's ransom." [10]

In the spring of 1884, Wang Tao and his family returned to Shanghai and settled down in Wusong district, where he founded Tao Garden Publishing House. He nicknamed himself "The Recluse of Tao Garden."

In 1886, Wang Tao became the head of Gezhi College in Shanghai, where he promoted Western style education.

In 1890, Wang Tao published his travelogue, Jottings from Carefree Travels. He also worked part-time for Shen Pao and the International Tribune as a special columnist; he wrote almost two hundred short stories for Shen Pao, China's most important journal of the age.

In April, 1897, at the age of 70, Wang Tao died in Shanghai.


Many Chinese literati before Wang Tao had introduced Western ideas and translated books into Chinese. Wang Tao was the first Chinese scholar who participated in a two-way cultural exchange: he worked with W. A. Medhurst, A. Wylie and J. Edkins to translate Western religion books and Western science texts into Chinese; he also played an important role in assisting James Legge in the translation of a large number of important ancient Chinese classics into English. Wang Tao thus forged an important bridge between China and the West.

Wang Tao Memorial Hall is located in a Qing style house at No 6. Zhongshi Street, Luzhi township, Suzhou city, China.


Translations by James Legge assisted by Wang Tao

(The list below is incomplete)
  • James Legge: The Sacred Books of China. The Text of Confucianism. (Oxford 1885)
  • The Book of Change ISBN 0883560003
  • Shu Ching Book of History
  • Lao Tsu
  • The Hsiao King Or Classic Of Filial Piety ISBN 1419166875
  • The Chinese Classics: Confucian Analects, the Great Learning, the Doctrine of the Mean, the Works of Mencius. (reprint), Oriental Book Store, ISBN 0899863531

Some of the above listed translations are available as ebooks for as little as $2 each, because no one holds the copyright. However some of the original books are now rare collector's items, with prices as high as $4500.

Wang Tao's works in English

  • My Sojourn in Hong Kong. In John and Kirstin Miller, Hong Kong. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994.
  • Selections from Jottings from Carefree Travels. [Man you sui lu], Tr. Ian Chapman. Renditions 53/54
  • Writings of Wang Tao. [excerpts]. In Ssu-yu Teng and John K. Fairbank China's Response to the West: A Documentary Survey, 1839-1923. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, [1954] reprinted 2007, 137-142. ISBN 0674120256
  • McAleavy, H. Translation of 'Mei-Li Hsiao Chuan. 媚丽小传,a Short Story by Wang T'ao. 1953.

Translations from English into Chinese

  • A History of Astronomy of the Western Countries. (Xiguo Tianxue Yuanliu), translated with A. Wylie in 1858
  • W. Whewell's An elementary treatise on mechanics. translated with A. Wylie

Books and articles in Chinese

  • 普法战纪 Pu Fa Zhan Ji (Franco-Prussian War)
  • 法国志略 Brief History of France
  • 《淞滨琐话》 (Song Bin Shuo Hua) (Stories from the Shore of Wushong) ISBN 7536631979. A collection of short stories written by Wang Tao after he returned to Shanghai, one story a time in the newspaper, then collected into book form. The style of this story book was inspired by Pu Song Ling's Liao Zhai Zhi Yi Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, hence this book was also renowned as Liao Zhai Zhi Yi—The Sequel. The translation of "Song bin" as Shore of Wushong is an interpretation; in his later years, he lived at Wushong district at the north part of Shanghai.
  • 漫游随录图记 : Man Yiu Shui Lu Tu Ji ("Jottings and Drawings from Carefree Travel") ISBN 7806039562, 山东画报出版社 2004/2006. This book was first published in Shanghai in 1890, text by Wang Tao, drawings by Zhang Zhi Yin: 50 of the 51 illustrations in Wang Tao's book "Man Yiu Shui Lu" were drawn by Zhang Zhi Yin before 1887 C.E. It is quite clear that these drawings were not life sketches of real scenes.
  • 韬园文录外编 : (Collection of Essays from The Tao Garden) ISBN 7806227873, 上海书店 2002
  • Jing Shu Jie Chun (A Collection of Studies in Classics)
  • Xi Shu Jie Chun (A Collection on Studies in Western Ideas.)
  • Biography of Stanislas Aignan Julien
  • Biography of Dr. Benjamin Hobson.


  1. The water town 甫里 Puli was the named after Tang Dynasty poet Lu Puli; Puli Town is now Luzhi township.

    Water town Luzhi is 18 km east of Suzhou city, now on UNESCO'S list of World Cultural Heritage, also a four A tourist site

    Almost all references about Wang Tao mentioned that Wang Tao was born in "Wu county"; only Wang Tao himself pinpointed his birth place as PULI township in his 漫游随录 Man Yiu Shui Lu. Encyclopedia Britannica has the birth place of Wang Tao transliterated incorrectly as Fu-li-chen. 甫 indeed can be pronounced as fu, but (甫里 ) is Pu-li, not Fu-li; one syllable wrong caused Encyclopedia Britannica to move Wang Tao's hometown from Suzhou to Manchuria.

  2. The names of W.H. Medhurst's daughters were given by Wang Tao in Chinese as Ma-Li and Ai-lun in his book: 漫游随录 Man Yiu Shui Lu Tu Shu. Chapter 8, "Sails and Masts on WangPu River."
  3. Ewo, the Chinese name of Jardine Matheson. The name of the ship was called "Lu Na" in Wang Tao's book. Was it Luna? No list of Jardine Matheson ships in late nineteenth century, running between Shanghai and Hong Kong has not been found to confirm the name.
  4. The names of all the port of call on Wang Tao's voyage from Hong Kong to England can be found in Wang Tao's Man Yiu Shui Lu. Vol 1, Vol 2.
  5. For more detail about Wang Tao's speech at Oxford, see the chapter "Lun Dun Xiao Yie" (Stop Over at London) in the book Man Yiu Shui Lu by Wang Tao.
  6. Paul Cohen cited Hummel in "The Eminent Chinese of the Ch'ing Period" (1943-44), stated the date of the first issue of Tsun wan yat Po was January 5, 1874. However Chinese researcher located the second issue of the said newspaper, the date was Feb 5, 1874, also located a reduced sized reproduction copy of the first issue of this newspaper, the date was Feb 4, 1874.
  7. This list of Japanese cities Wang Tao visited is an incomplete list from Wang Tao's preface to his book Man Yiu Shui Lu.
  8. Carried by eight-man sedan, see Wang Tao. "Preface" to Man Yiu Shui Lu.
  9. Kunshan is a city east of Luzhi town. When Wang Tao was 16 years old, he attended an examination at Kunshan prefecture. See his book Man Yiu Shui Lu, article "Deng Shan Yian Tiao" ("View from the Hill")
  10. See "Introduction" by Wang Jia Ju to Man Yiu Shui Lu Tu Shuo. Li Hongzhan's statement was originally in Chinese.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cohen, Paul A. Between tradition and modernity Wang T'ao and reform in late Ch'ing China. Harvard East Asian series, 77. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974. ISBN 9780674068759
  • McAleavy, Henry. Wang T'ao the life and writings of a displaced person. China Society, 1953. Occasional papers series, no. 7. China Society. A lecture delivered at The China Society of London on May 22, 1952.
  • Miller, John, and Kirsten Miller. Hong Kong, edited by John and Kirsten Miller. Chronicles abroad. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1994. ISBN 0811806804


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