Thomas Watters

The Personnel Files

British Consuls in South Formosa

The Takao Club

Thomas Watters


       Thomas Watters (1840-1901), who had joined the British Consular service in 1863, was Robert Swinhoe's Consular Assistant at Taiwan-foo and Takow in 1865, subsequently becoming Acting-Consul for the absent Swinhoe in 1866. Watters was later to return to Taiwan as Acting-Consul in 1876/7, and again as Vice-Consul at Tamsui from 1880 to 1883.

       Watters provided the naturalist Swinhoe with specimens after the latter had left Formosa in early 1866, eliciting these comments from Swinhoe in The Ibis of 1866.  'Through the kind assistance of Mr. Thomas Watters, who is Acting-Consul in my place at Taiwan, I am able to keep my hunters in Formosa still at work; and it is through his good offices that I have been able to procure the species that I have acquired since leaving Formosa.'

       His work in collecting specimens for Swinhoe was rewarded by having a sub-species of the Oriental Lark named for him as Alauda gulgula wattersi (Watters' Skylark) in 1871. The bird is shown on the right in an illustration from James Chang's 'A Field Guide to the Birds of Taiwan'.

       Thomas Watters combined his career in the consular service with research into Chinese and Korean culture that he mainly published as a Member of the Royal Asiatic Society. He produced a very interesting article on Chinese fox-myths and also donated the first collection of Korean art to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Early Life & Consular Career

       Thomas Watters was born on 9 February 1840 at Newtownards in County Down, Ireland, as the eldest son of Rev Thomas Watters, the Presbyterian minister of Newtownards, and his wife Elizabeth Marshall Clendinning. Taught by his father, who instilled in him a great love of books, Watters entered Queen's College, Belfast, in 1857.

Queen's University, Belfast

       His college career at Queen's was distinguished, and 1861 he graduated with first-class honours in Logic, English Literature, and Metaphysics. The following year he obtained an MA in the same subjects, with first-class honours again, but also adding a second-class in Classics.

       After being nominated by Queen's College and passing  a somewhat perfunctory Chinese Consular Service examination in December 1862, Thomas Watters was sent as a Student Interpreter to Peking in February 1863. After a period as Student Interpreter at Tientsin, Watters was promoted to Acting Interpreter and sent to the new British Consulate at Takow as an Assistant to the British Consul, Robert Swinhoe.

        The house where Thomas Watters lived at Taiwan-foo is shown in the 1860s photograph below from William Pickering. On the right of the photograph can be spotted a man, possibly the consular constable Alborado, holding a birdcage.

       After Consul Swinhoe's concurrent appointment to the Amoy (Xiamen) Consulate, Watters was left in charge of the Takow and Taiwan-foo Consulates as Acting Consul. He spent considerable time travelling between the two locations and left a map showing the journey, together with a descriptive account, among the Foreign Office files now held at Kew in London.
       A small portion of Watters' 1866 map is shown on the left. It can be seen that the Consulate was then at Chi-hou (Kiao, on today's Chichin Island). The route to the north leads to Taiwan-foo: the route to the north-east leads to Feng-shan.

       The journey up to the then capital at Taiwan-foo, which Watters took at least once a month, would begin by boat across the Takow lagoon, with its oyster-beds and mangroves, up today's Love River to the Hua-lung Temple at Lung-shui (see Link). From then Watters would proceed by chair, though often wading knee-deep through flooded coastal districts. 

       Upon reaching Taiwan-foo, Watters often faced impossible tasks. When sent to insist on the export of rice aboard British vessels, as provided for under the treaties, Watters was faced by the irate elderly Tao-tai (Intendant), who, after crushing his fan, bravely declared that the treaty provisions applied only to the mainland and that he would disobey any command from the Emperor in this matter. 

       Also at this time the missionaries began to proselytise, to the alarm of consular officials. The missionaries were accused of, among other things, poisoning children in order to make certain of their body parts into opium. This neatly linked the enmity and suspicion felt towards both missionaries and opium traders by the local populace. When Watters was sent up to Taiwan-foo to reason with the missionaries, he himself was pelted by stones, verbally abused, and even fired upon whenever he appeared on the streets. After surviving this, Watters shows his dry wit by laconically commenting to the Peking Legation after his return to Takow in 1876, that 'it is seldom indeed that any event transpires here of much importance either to us or to the Chinese'.

       For all his sufferings at Taiwan-foo in the service of the British government it appears that Watters was very poorly paid. After leaving Taiwan for Foochow, he reported that he 'had, after meeting outgoings for mess, servants, teacher, and miscellaneous domestic expenses, 2 (silver) dollars left over for medicine, clothing, and any other essential needs'. 

       He served at various stations under the Chinese consular service, notably as Acting Consul-General in Seoul, Korea (1887-1888). Korea had been 'opened' in 1886, and Watters was the second consular officer stationed there. The picture on the right shows the East Gate of Seoul in the 1880s. 

       Watters spent a further period as Consul at Canton (1891-1893), before ill-health forced him to retire in April 1895 at the age of 55. He had spent over 32 years in the consular service.

       Watters appears to have treated the Chinese in a very equitable fashion, maintaining early on his career 'that he knew some Chinese whose word he would prefer to an Englishman's oath'.  However, there is little doubt that the study of Oriental religions and metaphysics remained his chief distraction.
Literary Career

       Once Thomas Watters had achieved proficiency in the spoken and written Chinese he set about recording his observations. During the 1870s, 'the erudite Watters' was apparently travelling with a sizable collection of books, including many 'in Sanskrit and German'. Indeed, it appears from Consular records that he lost his Consul position during this period and was retained in the service as an Interpreter only. However it is certain that Watters sought always to understand the culture that he lived within, rather than to confront it.

       The first published work by Thomas Watters that I can find was entitled 'Chinese Notions about Pigeons and Doves', which appeared in the December 1867 (Volume 4) edition of the 'Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society'.

       The work is mainly a comparison between the Western and the Chinese division of the Columbidae [] (pigeon family).

      Much of his discussion relates to the Chinese notions about the medical values of the pigeon or dove, in terms of the ability of its various body parts to cure disease, for which the whiteness was a favourable sign.

       Watters also relates that the birds were seen as both libidinous and models of filial piety.

       Watters published another article in the 'Journal of the North China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society' in 1874, entitled 'Chinese Fox Myths', the first record in English about the myths and beliefs enshrined lying behind the popular Chinese folktales about foxes.

       According to Chinese folklore, the fox [狐狸, huli] is often the spirit of a dead person which has taken the form of a fox. This fox spirit can then metamorphose into the form of a beautiful woman who entices a man to become her lover.

       In Chinese tales, although the fox can sometimes be beneficial to humans if treated well, it was most often regarded as a parasitic force. According to the belief, some foxes lived for many centuries at the expense of a succession of human victims. The older the fox becomes, the more adept it becomes in the arts of magic and deceit. A thousand year old fox is said to be coloured gold or white when it appears in its fundamental fox form and to have become immortal.

       The charming picture shown on the left, from a recent Chinese edition of the Liaozhai (Liao-chai) Stories by Pu Songling, is of Yingning, the daughter of a fox-spirit. Watters was familiar with these stories, but cautions on how such a creature would extract the 'manly vigour' from her lover. This topic is fully explored by Rania Huntington in her book 'Alien Kind - Foxes and Late Imperial Chinese Narrative'.

For more on Chinese Fox Myths, see this Takao Club page. 

       On less sensational and more spiritual topics, much of Thomas Watters' more learned work remains buried within the columns of periodicals, such as the Chinese Review and the Chinese Recorder. As a result, many of his published books are partly reprints of his earlier articles.

       He published articles on the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu, that were later published in book form (1870); and an article on the 9th century Chinese poet and philosopher, Han Wen-kung, who had opposed the introduction of Buddhism into China (1871).

        This last title was ironic, as Watters subsequently published many articles on Buddhism in China. However, perhaps his major work was the two-volume book he produced on Yuan Chwang's 7th century travels in India (see cover on the right).

       This book, 'On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India', continues to be reprinted in India and is both an excellent source and easily available. In fact, the two-volume book was published posthumously, as Watters had never submitted the completed manuscript to press. 

       The introduction to the book gives a clear contemporary evaluation of Watters. The Preface states that 'Mr Watters probably knew more about Chinese Buddhist Literature than any other European, and had ...  a very fair knowledge both of Pali and Sanskrit'. 

The Collector

       Thomas Watters was also a collector. During his posting as Acting Consul-General to Korea during 1887/8, Watters was able to assemble a collection of Korean artifacts. Upon returning to England on home leave in 1888 he donated his Korean collection to the Victoria & Albert Museum and to the British Museum.

        On the right is shown a Korean inlaid iron and silver tobacco box from 1850 in the V & A Museum. The sliding lid of this example is decorated with the Chinese character for 'double happiness'.

Note: All three images shown are taken from Victoria & Albert Museum publications.

According to V & A records, Watters' 1888 donation was accepted with considerable reluctance. The reluctance arose partly because Korean art was then perceived as having little artistic merit.

The donation included a large document chest (shown above), lacquer inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and the tobacco box shown above right. Although Watters' Korean collection was modest, it was the first to be given by the V & A and served to start their study into Korean art.

Thomas Watters was not only a collector of Korean artefacts. In addition to his collection of German books and Sanskrit manuscripts mentioned above, Watters also collected fine Chinese ceramics.

On the left is shown an exquisite 18th century Chinese porcelain vase with white glaze, that Watters also donated to the Victoria & Albert Museum.

       Upon his retirement in April 1895, ironically the very month in which Taiwan was ceded to Japan under the Treaty of Shimonoseki, Thomas Watters returned not to Ireland but to the leafy suburbs of London.

       His house at No 2 Cleveland Road, in the now West London suburb of Ealing, still stands today (see picture on right). Given his interest in Chinese fox-spirits, it passes without mention that the house is now part of a rather exclusive school for young ladies.

       In the years following his retirement he took an active part in the proceedings of the Asiatic Society of London, on whose Committee he sat. Without his poor state of health, this learned man would probably been offered one of the Chairs of Chinese at Oxford or Cambridge, according to his obituary.

Thomas Watters died on 10 January 1901 at his home in Cleveland Road. He was 60 years old.

Sources used:

Wilkinson, Liz. 'Collecting Korean Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1888-1938'. Journal of the History of Collections, Vol 15, No 2 (2003), pp 241-256.

Coates, Patrick D. 'The China Consuls'. Oxford University Press, 1988.

Bushell, S W. 'Thomas Watters - Obituary'. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1901), republished in 'On Yuan Chwang's Travels in India (629-645 AD)'. Published 1904 and 1905, 2 vols.

Cordier, Henri. 'Thomas Watters - Necrologie'. Toung Pao, Serie II, Vol II (1901), pp 92-3.

Thomas Watters

The Personnel Files

British Consuls in South Formosa

The Takao Club