Look! Land!

Centennial Photographic Co.. Chinese court-Main Building, 1876. [Stereoviews]. Retrieved from https://libwww.freelibrary.org/digital/item/1967

From May to November of 1876, Philadelphia hosted the Centennial International Exhibition, a world fair that attracted ten million visitors keen to marvel at the innovations, cultures, and achievements presented by thirty-seven countries. For China, this represented a unique opportunity to engage with the West, and to capture this historical encounter they asked 33-year-old Li Gui to maintain a comprehensive written record not just of the exhibition, but also of the long journey towards it, the encounters he would have, the contrasts he would observe between traditional Chinese culture and the surge of Western modernisation. On 11th June, after eighteen days at sea, Li Gui finally arrived in San Francisco, from where he was to slowly make his way to Philadelphia. This was his diary entry on that momentous day.

The Diary Entry

11th June 1876

I rose at dawn. The deckhands pointed to mountains all to the east and said: “Look! Land! That’s the Golden Gate ahead of us. We’ll pass through it to enter the bay, and put in shortly at San Francisco.” I asked why it is called the Golden Gate. They answered, “The name Golden Gate is taken from the impression made by the mountains on both sides of the entrance to the bay of a gate facing west. They are bare of any vegetation and so take on a golden color in the afternoon sun.” 

The fog was very thick after entering the bay, but I did catch a glimpse of some buildings. There were numerous merchant vessels of all sizes in the harbor, and there were seals swimming in the water about them as if they were totally unafraid of people. 

At 10:00 A.M., the ship fired two shots announcing its arrival in San Francisco. From Yokohama to here is calculated to be 17,480 li, and the ship’s passage took eighteen days and nights and three [Chinese] hours. The Chinese call this body of water the Great Eastern Ocean. During these eighteen days we saw not a speck of land, nor another ship, and this is the largest of the world’s oceans, covering about one-third of the globe. Mr. Knight calls it the “Pacific,” translated as Taiping Yang, because it does not have strong winds or big waves. But when the northwest winds rose, how could it really have been called “pacific” in the minds of the passengers? 

We saw two small boats coming with oars flying, which I took to be a customs patrol. On inquiry, they turned out to be connected with the hotels and were coming out in search of business. There is one called the Palace Hotel, a name I had previously encountered in China, and the best hotel in America. After talking it over with Mr. Knight, he explained to the staff that this is the hotel where we would be staying. 

Further Reading

Li Guin’s diary was first translated into English, in full, in 2004 by historian Charles Desnoyers, with the title A Journey to the East.

To learn more about the exhibition, visit Wikipedia.

The Free Library of Philadelphia website is home to hundreds of artefacts, pamphlets, photographs etc. related to the Centennial Exhibition of 1876.

Diary entry excerpted from A Journey to the East, published in 2004 by University of Michigan Press. Translated with an introduction by Charles Desnoyers. Reprinted with permission.

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