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Darwin Correspondence Project

From Robert Swinhoe   4 August 1868

British Legation | Peking.

4 August, 1868.

My dear Mr. Darwin,

Your letter of the 26 Jany reached me in April on my return from Hainan whither I had been sent on an exploring expedition on behalf of Government.1 I returned very sick and was ordered to Peking where I now am, attached for the present to the Legation, but preparing to start on an expedition on the lakes of the Yangtzy river.2 Sclater’s Peacock Pavo nigripennis appears to be the Bird of Confucius. It is brought from Cochin China to China, and is also said to be found in the S.W. Provinces of China itself.3 Another curious instance of breeding an allied wild form from a cognate form in domestication occurs in the Munia acuticauda of Japan—4 I have seen the varying offspring of this domesticated species identical in form & colouring with Munia striata of Malacca, and I think there is an instance of it among the caged specimens of the Japanese “Family Birds” in the Zoological Gardens.5 Munia acuticauda is found in abundance in ⁠⟨⁠a⁠⟩⁠ wild state in China & Formosa, and probably also occurs in Japan; but it is only in Japan that ⁠⟨⁠they⁠⟩⁠ are domesticated.6 I have never heard of M. striata ⁠⟨⁠oc⁠⟩⁠curring anywhere in the Eastern region of Asia.

Accept my best thanks for the copy of your last work which has reached me all safe.7 It contains such a fund of thought, that it will take some years to master its contents.

Your “Queries about expression” have bothered me immensely. I published them in “Notes and Queries about China & Japan”, a periodical published monthly in Hongkong, & have sought the opinions of all my friends, but have obtained very little assistance towards answering them.8 It must not be forgotten that the Chinese face has the skin tightly drawn over it and is not nearly so capable of expression as the skin of European faces; and again that it is a part of the Le or “rules of courtesy” studied by all Chinese from the highest to the lowest to hide emotions. A telltale face, such as you sometimes see among Europeans, is very rare among Chinese. You can nevertheless often read the face of a Chinaman, chiefly however when it expresses cunning or superior knowledge. After comparing notes with those friends who have been engaged in making observations with myself on this subject, I think that one can trace most of the expressions described in your queries, though for the reasons above given in a somewhat modified form.9

(1). Astonishment is certainly expressed as described. The Coolie shows the emotion in common with the Literati, but ⁠⟨⁠bo⁠⟩⁠th know too well how to feign it.

(2). The blush excited by shame I have noticed: but it is scarce, the Chinaman rarely allowing himself to be taken by surprise, and nearly always having an answer ready to repel your accusation. In young men I have seen it extend to the neck. They have the expression to “redden with shame”. The slightest approach to intoxication reddens the face of a Chinaman, & the colour then diffuses all over his head and neck.10

(3). Pretty much as described, except that, in cases where I have noted, he generally inclines forward towards the ⁠⟨⁠an⁠⟩⁠tagonist and pointing at him assails him with a volley of “dang” & then appeals ⁠⟨⁠to⁠⟩⁠ the justice of the fast-gathering crowd.11

(4). Precisely the same.

(5.) This I illustrate with a photograph.12 I think I have noticed this expression when a man was in grief & come to me for advice in his despair. But in hearing of some distressing case of death, or in telling the same to another, they often go into a hysterical fit of laughter.13 This in a less degree I have seen with English people, especially women, and indeed have felt myself a curious inclination to laugh on similar ⁠⟨⁠occa⁠⟩⁠sions.

(6). Just so.

(7). So.14

(8) So.

(9). By considerable protrusion of the lips & turning up of the nose, but this is due in a great measure to the form of those features. The expiration I have only noticed in those that have been much with foreigners. To shew a direction to go they sometimes protrude the lips and move the face forward in such direction.

(10) very much so.

(11). I find so.

(12) certainly.

(13) See further on.

(14) Yes!

(15). Decidedly, very strong.

(16) To induce silence the lips are generally pinched or contracted together, & the index finger of the right hand put against them. The hiss is not known. Silence is however oftenest ordered by the voice.

(17.) Precisely so.

(13). His eyebrows are raised, and with right elbow to the side the man holds up his hand, the palm towards you, an⁠⟨⁠d⁠⟩⁠ shakes it from right to left.15

These notes are after all very unsatisfactory, but I will bear your queries in mind and continue to observe till next spring, when I hope to return to England.16

The aborigines of Hainan17 have a very nervous expression about their faces, and appeared very easily frightened, but I was not long enough among them to remark any peculiarities of expression. Among the aborigines of Formosa18 I have not been since I got your queries.

I found no Pheasant in Hainan, but a species of Jungle-Cock apparently new— It was a small species with a small tail, and was most delicious eating.19

I shall be very happy to do anything I can for you previous to my returning home— Do not scruple to command me.

With kind regards, | I remain, | Your’s sincerely, | Robert Swinhoe.

CD annotations

0.3 My dear … China itself. 1.7] crossed blue crayon
1.8 occurs in … Munia striata 1.9] double scored blue crayon
1.8 Munia acuticauda] ‘Munia’ added above, ink
3.1 Your “Queries] after opening square bracket, blue crayon
23.1 The aborigines … command me. 25.2] crossed blue crayon
Top of letter: ‘Keep’ ink; ‘Law of Variation data’ blue crayon; ‘good’ ink; ‘China 27’ red crayon; ‘7’ after del ‘5’; ‘5’ over ‘(China)’ pencil
Top of second sheet of letter: ‘(27’ pencil
End of letter: ‘Swin’ blue crayon; ‘(No 27)’ pencil; ‘No 27 of MS.’ ink, circled ink


CD’s letter to Swinhoe of 26 January 1868 has not been found. In January 1868, Swinhoe had been sent to explore the island of Hainan in the South China Sea and ascertain its foreign commercial potential (P. B. Hall 1987, pp. 43–5). He published on the journey in Swinhoe 1870, Swinhoe 1872a, and Swinhoe 1872b.
The expedition to determine the possibility of steam navigation to ports in the upper reaches of the Yangtze river took place in early 1869 (P. B. Hall 1987, p. 45).
See letter from Edward Blyth, 20 July 1868. Pavo nigripennis is now considered a variety of P. cristatus, the common Indian peacock. Cochin China: south Vietnam.
Munia acuticauda is now Lonchura striata acuticauda, the Burmese white-rumped munia (Restall 1996, pp. 81–2). It is an introduced species in Japan (Avibase, internet resource, accessed 16 January 2007).
Munia striata is now Lonchura striata, the white-rumped munia. The subspecies of L. striata found in Malacca (or Melaka, a state and city in Malaysia) is now designated L. s. subsquamicollis (Restall 1996, p. 80).
The munia subspecies found wild in China is now designated Lonchura striata swinhoei; the Bengalese or society finch is a domesticated variety probably derived from this subspecies (Restall 1996, pp. 80, 83).
Swinhoe’s name appears on CD’s presentation list for Variation (see Correspondence vol. 16, Appendix IV).
CD sent a copy of his queries about expression to Swinhoe with a letter of 27 February 1867; both are now missing. Swinhoe had the queries published in Notes and Queries on China and Japan 1 (1867): 105 (see Correspondence vol. 15, letter to Robert Swinhoe, [27 February 1867], where the queries are reproduced from Notes and Queries, and letter from Robert Swinhoe, 5 August 1867).
For Swinhoe’s published version of the questions sent to him, see Correspondence vol. 15, letter to Robert Swinhoe, [27 February 1867]; for CD’s printed version from late 1867 or early 1868, see Correspondence vol.16, Appendix V.
CD quoted from Swinhoe’s answers to question 2 in Expression, p. 317.
CD paraphrased Swinhoe’s reply to question 3 in Expression, p. 248.
The photograph has not been found in the Darwin Archive–CUL.
CD mentioned Swinhoe’s observation in Expression, p. 208.
CD mentioned an affirmative answer from one observer in China to this question in Expression, p. 252, but added that as no details were entered into, he was afraid to trust it.
CD mentioned Swinhoe’s observation in Expression, p. 269.
Swinhoe spent from July to September 1869 returning from China to England via Japan and the United States (P. B. Hall 1987, p. 45).
Swinhoe refers to the Li people of Hainan.
Formosa: Taiwan.
Swinhoe discussed the junglecock in Swinhoe 1870, identifying it as Gallus ferrugineus, and not a new species after all. The junglefowl found in Hainan is now designated Gallus gallus spadiceus.


Correspondence: The correspondence of Charles Darwin. Edited by Frederick Burkhardt et al. 29 vols to date. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1985–.

Expression: The expression of the emotions in man and animals. By Charles Darwin. London: John Murray. 1872.

Hall, Philip B. 1987. Robert Swinhoe (1836–1877), FRS, FZS, FRGS: a Victorian naturalist in Treaty Port China. Geographical Journal 153: 37–47.

Restall, Robin. 1996. Munias and mannikins. Mountfield, Sussex: Pica Press.

Variation: The variation of animals and plants under domestication. By Charles Darwin. 2 vols. London: John Murray. 1868.


Discusses a domestic oriental fowl.

Is having problems getting answers to CD’s queries on expression as Chinese facial expressions are limited and controlled. Answers as well as he can. [See Expression index.]

Letter details

Letter no.
Robert Swinhoe
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
British Legation, Peking
Source of text
DAR 177: 331
Physical description
ALS 6pp damaged †

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 6303,” accessed on 17 April 2024,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 16