Once an exotic novelty, the telephone has become a daily necessity in the last few decades

In 1876, the same year that Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the patent for his invention of the telephone, Li Gui, a Ningbo customs officer, became the first Chinese to see the contraption.

Sent by the Qing empire to visit the World’s Fair in Philadelphia, Li glimpsed the ground-breaking device, but didn’t get to use it. That honor was claimed in 1877 by Guo Songtao, the first Qing minister to visit Great Britain, who was invited to try a phone in an electronic appliance factory while his interpreter Zhang Deyi answered from another set downstairs. “Can you hear it?” began Guo. “Yes,” Zhang replied. “Can you understand me?” “Yes.” “Please count out some numbers.” “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven…”

A couple Tianjin women in a phone booth experiencing how to use a telephone.

Tianjin residents call friends and family in the US for free, as part of a 1993 event organized with AT&T

This simple conversation is believed to be the earliest record of Chinese people talking over the telephone. As Guo pointed out in his diary, however, the sound quality was not perfect: “Long sentences were mostly blurred. Only these few words were clear.”

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Ringing the Changes is a story from our issue, “Funny Business.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the App Store.


author Sun Jiahui (孙佳慧)

Sun Jiahui is a freelance writer and former editor at The World of Chinese. She writes about Chinese language, society and culture, and is especially passionate about sharing stories of China's ancient past with a wider audience. She has been writing for TWOC for over six years, and pens the Choice Chengyu column.

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