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  • Caterwauling Cataians:The Genealogy of a Gloss
  • Timothy Billings

Page. I will not beleeue such a Cataian, though the Priest o' th'Towne commended him for a true man.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, TLN 682–83

Mar. What a catterwalling doe you keepe heere? If my Ladie haue not call'd vp her Steward Maluolio, and bid him turne you out of doores, neuer trust me.

To, My Lady's a Catayan, we are politicians, Maluolios a Peg-a-ramsie, and Three merry men be wee.

Twelfth Night, TLN 771–75

Cataian . [The rendering of the word Cataian in the Chinese translation as "rogue" and "cheat" is quite good; were it to be translated directly as "a Chinese person," then it would surely lead to a misunderstanding.]

Zhou Junzhang1

I. The Nimble-Finger'd Tribe

In the long-standing editorial squabble over Shakespeare's two puzzling uses of the word Cataian, George Steevens triumphed over Theobald, Hanmer, Warburton, Johnson, and Malone by writing an annotation that has become the basis [End Page 1] for nearly all subsequent glosses—namely, "a thief," "a rogue," or "some kind of sharper."2 The word appears once in 2.1 of Merry Wives, when Page dismisses Nym's claim to have seen a love letter from Falstaff to his wife, and again in 2.3 of Twelfth Night, when Sir Toby doubts Olivia's order (reported by Maria) to have Malvolio turn Toby, Feste, and Aguecheek out of doors for their drunken "catterwalling." Most saliently, in his lengthy note Steevens writes: "The Chinese (anciently called Cataians) are said to be the most dexterous of all the nimble-finger'd tribe; and to this hour they deserve the same character."3 Steevens thus suggests that, in order to understand what Shakespeare meant here, we need only consider who the Chinese are—the most convincing evidence for which is that their thieving and cheating racial character obtains "to this hour." In fact, Steevens added that final phrase when revising the note for his second edition of 1778, as if a jocular appeal to the ethnocentric "common sense" of his readers could make a dubious annotation more persuasive. Although many later versions would cut that phrase, its assumption of a transhistorical cultural essentialism continued to inform the ostensibly rational, philological tone of subsequent annotations, such as the muchquoted entry in Robert Nares's influential Glossary: "CATAIAN. A Chinese: Cataia or Cathay being the name given to China by the old travellers. It was used also to signify a sharper, from the dexterous thieving of those people; which quality is ascribed to them in many old books of travels. See Mr. Steevens's note. . . ."4 Like Steevens, Nares first mistakenly equates the Elizabethan notion of Cataian with the modern Chinese, then posits that the dexterous thieving of "those people" (referring to both) explains why the term means "sharper", and only afterward, as if offering documentation, vaguely asserts that this characteristic thieving is also reported "in many old books"—a claim that turns out to be false. Half a century [End Page 2] and two opium wars later, James A. H. Murray adopted Nares's version of Steevens's gloss for the entry that remains in the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, from whence it continues to be cited by brave glossiators: "Cataian, a. Obs. A variant of Cathaian, a man of Cathay or China; 'used also to signify a sharper, from the dexterous thieving of those people' (Nares); ? a thief, scoundrel, blackguard."5 For sixteenth-century citations the OED offers the same two passages from Shakespeare and a sentence from Richard Eden and Richard Willes's 1577 translation of The History of Trauayle in the West and East Indies:"the Cathaian kyng is woont to graunt free accesse vnto all forreiners."6 (That thief, that scoundrel, that blackguard!) Thus in all of these explanations an ethnocentric assumption about the Chinese is used to produce a definition of the so-called "old word" for China that is supposed to be plausible in Shakespeare's two plays: Page, in his agitation, calls Nym a Chinese-style thief or sharper; Toby, in his cups, calls Olivia a...


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