“Sleeping China” and Napoleon

Author(s) : HICKS Peter
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Napoleon liked a good apothegm. Bourrienne recorded (almost contemporaneously) how the First Consul liked the expression “England is a nation of shopkeepers” – a bon mot snitched from Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”. Much later, the Abbé de Pradt noted the Emperor’s predilection (in 1812) for the maxim “from the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step” – which Napoleon must have heard (or read) but not invented, since that wise old saw had been current in France since the 1760s. Other folk too around him appreciated his curious ability for striking turns of phrase. And fascination for the great man’s pearls of wisdom carried on beyond the glory years, as the St Helena literature shows. Indeed, a selection of more than three hundred quotes were to be published in English in 1820, supposedly found amongst the papers confiscated from Las Cases in 1816. And Balzac would famously go so far as to invent some remarks that Napoleon probably should have said, and in an edition of those maxims the Russian revolutionary, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, would make annotations… but I am getting ahead of myself.

“Sleeping China” and Napoleon

This piece concerns my search for the source (not of the Nile…) but rather of the recently celebrated, and supposedly Napoleonic remark, “Let China sleep. For when she wakes, the world will tremble”.

The Dictionnaire Napoléon, published by Fayard (most recent edition dated 1999 and edited by Jean Tulard), notes that the expression was probably not uttered by the Emperor. In other places, Jean Tulard (not just the founder of modern Napoleonic studies but also a published film specialist) remarked that, as far as he knew, the first occurrence of the words was in the 1963 Allied Artists film, “55 days at Peking”. There, the actress Elizabeth Sellars asks David Niven (who plays the British ambassador in China during the Boxer Rebellion (1900)) if he remembers what Napoleon said about China. Niven then quotes the now-famous phrase that when China rouses from its slumber, all hell will break loose. The quotation is specific to the screenplay by principle scriptwriter, Bernard Gordon, since the remark and attribution do not appear in either the English or French versions of the 1963 book by Noel Gerson (written under the pseudonym Samuel Edwards). One would have thought they ought to since, as the front cover of the book proclaims, the book was “based on the screenplay”.

So, 1963 is a first occurrence of the quotation attributed to Napoleon.

Where did scriptwriter Bernard Gordon get his quote from?

The waters were significantly muddied ten years after the film, when the French political commentator, Alain Peyrefitte, made the prophetic remark the title of his book (Quand la Chine s’éveillera… le monde tremblera, Fayard, 1973, written in French). In this book, Peyrefitte claimed that Lenin had quoted it (attributing it to Napoleon) in the last text the Russian ever wrote (published in 1923) entitled “Fewer but better”, the implication being that, since it is earlier than the film and Lenin quoted the remark in 1923, it must be earlier than Lenin and so possibly authentic. And in addition to the reference to Lenin, Peyrefitte also proposed the possibility that Napoleon had said it on St Helena: either after reading the French translation of Lord Macartney’s description of his visit to China in 1792-1795; or during Lord Amherst’s visit to Longwood in 1817 – the British diplomat was coming back from his embassy to China in 1816. In 2012, in a special issue of the Revue du Souvenir Napoléonien, Jacques Macé (building on Peyrefitte’s conclusions) imagined that Lenin had been ferreting around at the British Library (London) in “the 1890s” [sic] and had dug up the quotation in Lord Amherst’s private journal (now lost). Unfortunately for the French writer, he placed Lenin’s visit a decade too early – still existing reader tickets for the library prove that the Russian’s work sessions there date from 1902 to 1911… Worse, Lenin could not have consulted Amherst’s journal at the British Library since the text was never held by that institution – the five volumes are listed as missing from the British National Archives. In an Edinburgh PhD thesis (2013 – available online), Hao Gao surmises that the five volumes of Lord Amherst’s private journal were lost when the ship, Alceste, carrying Lord Amherst’s baggage ran aground and was pillaged by Malay pirates on the return journey from China in 1817. Worse still (if possible…), the quote does not appear in Lenin’s 1923 text…[1]

Since Lord Amherst’s private journal was available neither to Lenin nor (probably) to anyone else, it is unlikely to be the source for the quotation.

What, then, about Lord Amherst’s companions, also present at the 1817 meeting with Napoleon and who also published their accounts? Did they mention the quotation?

In 1818, Henry Ellis, later principal librarian at the British Library, not only published an account of the 1816 delegation to China, but also included at the end of his book an account of the interview with Napoleon – he alas, does not mention the Emperor’s notable remark, despite noting that Napoleon had the habit of expressing himself ‘epigrammatically’, perhaps so that people might quote him later! Ellis’s private papers (not published in 1818) included a more personal account of the interview. This was to be brought out ten or so years later as an appendix in Sir Walter Scott’s great biography of Napoleon (1827) – still however without the quote. Three other members of the delegation, John Macleod, Clarke Abel, and Basil Hall, also published (in 1817, 1818 and 1826, respectively) accounts of the 1817 meeting with Napoleon, none of which mentions the China remark.

Did Napoleon ever say anything about China?

We do know, however, that China was the subject of imperial conversation at St Helena. With Lord Amherst and his companions (and indeed Las Cases and O’Meara), Napoleon’s remarks were largely related to Amherst’s well-known diplomatic faux pas of refusing to perform “ko to” (an extreme form of obeisance from which the verb ‘to kowtow’ comes) before the Chinese Emperor. However, the French Emperor did discuss China in other ways. Las Cases notes for 3 November 1816 in the recently published proto-version of the Mémorial: “During and after his bath, Napoleon had me talk a great deal about Lord Macartney, China and England”. No details transpire unfortunately regarding the conversation. The day before, the Emperor had been reading parts of Macartney’s five-volume account that had been translated into French, the last volume appearing in 1804.

That being said, not all Chinese-related events elicited a response from Napoleon. When the Chinese fleet arrived at St Helena seven months earlier in March 1816, Las Cases records no remarks of Napoleon’s regarding China.

As for something like the “Let China sleep…” prediction, amongst the texts from St Helena, only Barry O’Meara’s notes come anywhere close (and even then, not very). The Irish doctor recorded Napoleon doubting the wisdom of going to war with China as follows:

  • “It would be the worst thing you have done for a number of years, to go to war with an immense empire like China, and possessing so many resources. You would doubtless, at first, succeed, take what vessels they have, and destroy their trade; but you would teach them their own strength. They would be compelled to adopt measures to defend themselves against you; they would consider, and say, ‘we must try to make ourselves equal to this nation. Why should we suffer a people, so far away, to do as they please to us? We must build ships, we must put guns into them, we must render ourselves equal to them.’ They would,” continued the emperor, “get artificers and ship-builders from France and America, even from London; they would build a fleet, and, in the course of time, defeat you.”[2]
  • “Now great commercial advantage may be lost to England, and perhaps a war with China be the consequence. If I were an Englishman, I should esteem the man who advised a war with China to be the greatest enemy to my country in existence. You would in the end be beaten, and perhaps a revolution in India would follow.”[3]
  • “You ought to monopolize the whole China trade to yourselves. Instead of going to war with the Chinese, it were better to make war with nations who desire to trade with them.”[4]

In a similar vein, Napoleon spoke to Las Cases of invading Mongol hordes, supposedly on 6 November 1816 (published in 1823 in the Mémorial): “He [Napoleon, ed.] also believed the descriptions of the armies of Gengiskan and Tamerlane, however numerous they are said to have been; because they were followed by gregarious nations, who, on their part, were joined by other wandering tribes as they advanced; ‘and it is not impossible’, observed the Emperor, ‘that this may one day be the case in the Europe. The revolution produced by the Huns, the cause of which is unknown, because the tract is lost in the desert, may at a future period be renewed.’” No real sign of this all too famous quotation.

So, if Napoleon didn’t say it, did someone else?

Whilst we have no proof that Napoleon actually explicitly came to this (in the end, logical) conclusion, there were others who in fact did, and furthermore in print. Towards the end of the 19th century, in the wake not only of the opening up of Japan to the world and Siamese attempts to avoid invasion, but also the Franco-British Second Opium War in 1860, the idea of China awakening from its (conservative) slumber seems to have become (relatively speaking) a commonplace amongst English speakers talking about China, as the following randomly found passages (arranged chronologically from 1877-95) would imply:

  • “unless indeed China awakes from her secular sleep and becomes a great power, which is not impossible”;[5]
  • “when at length the conservatism of China awakes from its sleep of ages”;[6]
  • “When China awakes and commences railway building in earnest”;[7]
  • China must awake from her sleep of ages”.[8]

Even French speakers were getting in on the act. In 1904, in a posthumously published article, the Marquis de Nadaillac noted:

  • “Maybe she [China, ed.] can emerge from this quagmire, maybe she can wake up, under leaders who are more energetic, who are more able. If this huge body, today inert, is not dead, then let the world tremble, for the yellow peril is huge, and vision in the mind’s eye of millions of Huns descending as conquerors upon Europe has nothing delightful about it. This was one of the predictions of Napoleon on St Helena.”[9]

And here Napoleon is, tantalisingly, added to the mix. It does however look more likely that the Marquis was referring to Napoleon’s ‘Hun’ remarks of 6 November 1816, already noted above, and not referring to the apparently spurious quotation.

Can we draw a conclusion?

The idea that China at some point might wake up and cause the world to react was current from at least 1877 and possibly earlier. However, that the Emperor drew the same conclusion 60 years earlier, though possible, is not proven. In the end, it just looks like Bernard Gordon (or even Elizabeth Sellars, since the words do not appear in the screenplay) simply made the attribution up…


The American scriptwriter Bernard Gordon lived in Vaucresson (near Versailles) and also in the 16th arrondissement in Paris in the 1960s. In his autobiography, Hollywood Exile,[10] there is one real Napoleonic reference. He notes that his apartment near Boulevard Suchet belonged to the Count and Madame de Bearn, and that it contained “a unique, original crayon portrait of Napoleon” […] “a gift from Napoleon to an ancestor who had been a lady-in-waiting for Napoleon and Josephine”. Shortly after moving into the apartment, Gordon wrote with Philip Yordan the screenplay for “55 days at Peking”. According to Gordon, that title was seen by Yordan’s second wife, Merlyn, in a bookshop in London in the 1960s – Gordon had initially chosen “Boxer Rebellion” as a title. Despite several other screenwriters being brought in to help Gordon finish the script, their input (according to Gordon) was minimal. That being said, two other names do appear on the poster. Gordon himself was to claim the sole credit for the screenplay in 1997 – his name had not appeared as principle on the poster since he had been blacklisted in the US during the Macarthy era.



Thank you to Charles W. Hayford (see also his letter, “Wake-up call” (Letter to the Editor),” Economist  (2 August 1997):  8) for the following further information (I quote from an email from him to me):

“However, it doesn’t turn out that its earliest appearance was through [Elizabeth Sellars’] lips in 55 Days at Peking. The screenwriters could have seen it on the cover of Time in December 1958.

The earliest use that […] Google found in English was in 1911, but there must be earlier ones:
• “Napoleon is reported to have said: ‘There sleeps China! God pity us if she wakes. Let her sleep!’ The commonest figure of speech concerning the Empire has been that of a sleeping giant: ‘the awakening of China’ is a stereotyped phrase.” William T. Ellis, “China in Revolution,” The Outlook (28 October 1911): 458″

[1] The word “Napoleon” or “Bonaparte” received 44 entries in the 45-volume French translation of the works of Lenin, Oeuvres de Lénine, (Editions Sociales, 1976), vols. 1, 9, 10, 13, 14, 24, 25, 27, 28, 31, 33, 38, 39. At no point does Lenin mention this Napoleon quotation.

[2] B. E. O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile or A Voice from St Helena, London: Simpkin and Marshall, 1822, vol. 1, 26 March, 1817, p. 472.

[3] O’Meara, op. cit., vol. 2, 27 May, 1817, p. 68ff.

[4] O’Meara, op. cit., vol. 2, 22 September 1817, p. 234.

[5] The Nineteenth Century, vol. I, March July 1877, p. 306. For a modern discussion of the birth (at any rate, in English- (and not French-) speaking lands), see Rudolph Wagner, “China ‘Asleep’ and ‘Awakening’:  A Study in Conceptualizing Asymmetry and Coping with It,” Transcultural Studies  (2011):  https://heiup.uni-heidelberg.de/journals/index.php/transcultural/article/view/7315/2920, esp. pp. 58 ff. Thanks to Charles W. Hayford for this reference [added in June 2020].

[6] In Peterson’s Magazine, Volume 92, C.J. Peterson, 1887, p. 92.

[7] In Public Opinion, Volume 9, 1890, p. 138.

[8] In The Gospel in All Lands, Methodist Episcopal Church. Missionary Society, 1895, p. 237.

[9] In Le Correspondant, vol. 217 (ed. Charles Douniol), 1904 p. 329: « Peut-elle [La Chine, ed.] sortir de ce marasme, se réveiller sous des chefs plus énergiques et plus capables. Si ce grand corps, aujourd’hui si inerte, n’est pas mort, que le monde tremble, le péril jaune est immense et la vision des Huns, se précipitant en conquérants sur l’Europe, avec leurs millions d’hommes, n’a rien d’agréable à envisager. C’était une des prédictions de Napoléon à Sainte Hélène. »

[10] Bernard Gordon, Hollywood Exile or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999, p.138.

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