Thursday, April 4, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 15: Lord Macartney and the British Arrive

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7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff chronicles the next step in the decline of China’s last dynasty: Rejecting trade overtures from Europe.

The Qianlong emperor receives the Macartney Embassy
So far we’ve discussed the peak of China’s last dynasty, the Qing, and the problems that signified the start of its decline in the late 1700’s: massive corruption within the government that literally bankrupted the treasury even as rebellions sparked throughout the country’s periphery.

As the Qing’s domestic problems surfaced a seemingly unimportant meeting occurred with a small delegation from Great Britain. The short diplomatic visit was considered insignificant by both the Qing court and the aging Qianlong emperor, but its conclusion would lead to large conflicts decades later, compounding China’s domestic challenges with new foreign ones.


During the late 17th century the great Qing emperor Kangxi opened four coastal ports for trading with foreign merchants: in Xiamen, Songjiang, Ningbo, and Guangzhou (known then to westerners as Canton).

By 1720 frictions between China and the Vatican over missionaries and Confucian rites frustrated Kangxi and he began limiting interaction with the west. In 1757 his grandson, the venerable Qianlong emperor, closed all the trading ports except one: Canton, ushering in the “Canton System” of protectionism.

The Canton System quickly proved a giant bottleneck for western trade. Business could only be conducted with a Qing-licensed guild of Chinese merchants who, wielding the power of the city’s trade monopoly, routinely squeezed Europeans for subsidies and bribes.

Western traders complained in turn to their governments about corruption in the Canton System and petitioned them to file diplomatic complaints, but the great European powers were distracted by more pressing matters. Great Britain and France were at war (1756-1763). Then Britain found herself at war with the breakaway American colonies (1775-1783). Shortly afterwards France overthrew its monarchy and plunged into the chaos of its own revolution (1789-1799).

When things settled down Great Britain dispatched a mission to China to not only address the Canton System but also to establish an embassy, formal diplomatic relations, and a free trade agreement. The Macartney Embassy (named after its leader George Macartney) departed for China in 1792 carrying gifts of friendship including telescopes, artillery pieces, air pumps, pottery, chandeliers, watches, clocks and other specimens of western technology including a planetarium.

After the long journey by sea, anchoring off the coastal city of Tianjin, taking leased boats upriver to Beijing and caravan trekking by land, Macartney’s mission arrived in September 1793 at Chengde, the Qianlong emperor’s summer resort in Manchuria.

The opening chapter of what would become decades of awkward interaction between east and west—full of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and clashes of culture—was about to begin.


Right from the outset the British reception hit a diplomatic snag. The Manchus insisted the delegation kowtow before the emperor (kneeling on all fours and touching their foreheads to the ground three times) which the British viewed as humiliating. After many restive back and forth negotiations—complicated by translators—Macartney agreed to kneel before Qianlong on one knee in the same manner he would kneel for his own king.

Sino-British relations were not off to a good start.

In fact historians view the much-discussed kowtow impasse a microcosm of differing worldviews that would frustrate both empires for decades to come. Britain believed itself now the most powerful nation on earth but, in the name of diplomatic courtesy, was offering to establish relations among equals with China. The Chinese believed they were the supreme power on earth—their emperor being the only “son of heaven”—and Britain just another second-rate state journeying to exhibit their deference to the emperor.

Worsening matters for the British was the presence of several other countries’ delegates at the same meeting, making the British seem (in Chinese eyes) like one vassal state among many coming to pay their respects. Granted, the westerners differentiated themselves by traveling a greater distance, but the Chinese also viewed them as tall, big-nosed, red-haired barbarians.

Despite the clumsy precession Macartney still had a mission to accomplish: to establish formal diplomatic relations, to open a British embassy in Beijing, to ink a free trade agreement, and in doing so address the Canton System’s corruption that had irked British traders.

Qianlong abruptly swept Macartney’s requests aside and sent him home packing. The British were told politely but firmly that China had no need for and no interest in diplomatic relations or trade. The Qing court considered the British visit a demonstration of tributary states prostrating themselves before the emperor, nothing more.

Even the complex mechanical devices and modern weapons the British brought were not enough to convince Qianlong he had anything to gain from intercourse with the west. While the Chinese were somewhat impressed by western devices, both the emperor and his court considered them also to be tribute and feigned complete disinterest. Besides, a few mechanical curiosities were hardly worth humiliating themselves by treating these primitive foreigners as equals. Qianlong, in what the Correspondent views as a shortsighted error (perhaps the result of his growing senility which Macartney noted in his journal), wrote to George III on western technology:

”I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”

As the story of Qing relations with the West deteriorates the Correspondent will repeatedly point to Chinese attitudes of superiority with “nothing to be learned from the west” as a crucial mistake that would cost them, while benefiting a future arch-enemy—Japan, down the road.


Macartney would leave the meeting empty handed other than a diplomatic letter from Qianlong to King George III. A link to the full text of the letter is included at the end of this article, but some of the passages reveal two key Qing attitudes, both of which would prove strategic mistakes.

1) The emperor’s tone was that of a supreme heavenly figure addressing a hoard of inferior barbarians. For example, Qianlong wrote to George III that:

”Hitherto, all European nations, including your own country's barbarian merchants, have carried on their trade with our Celestial Empire at Canton… … But your Ambassador has now put forward new requests which completely fail to recognise the Throne's principle to ‘treat strangers from afar with indulgence,’ and to exercise a pacifying control over barbarian tribes, the world over.”


“England is not the only barbarian land which wishes to establish trade with our Empire: supposing that other nations were all to imitate your evil example and beseech me to present them each and all with a site for trading purposes, how could I possibly comply? This also is a flagrant infringement of the usage of my Empire and cannot possibly be entertained.”


”In that event your barbarian merchants will have had a long journey for nothing. Do not say that you were not warned in due time! Tremblingly obey and show no negligence!”

Fortunately the British did not overreact (this time) to Qianlong’s belligerent tone, something we’ll discuss more in another column.

Meanwhile western science and machinery were riding high on the wave of the First, and later Second, Industrial Revolution and the Correspondent considers it a blunder for the Qing to adopt so dismissive an attitude towards a technologically superior power requesting friendly relations.

2) The Qing clearly wished to keep trade largely closed off from the west. In the spirit of mercantilism, which by this point Britain had thrown off in favor of Smithian free trade, China insisted on a fundamentally protectionist policy: happy to sell its goods to the barbarians while closing off its own markets to western products.

Sound familiar?

In the Correspondent’s opinion this was also a major misstep as western technology was already advancing rapidly beyond Chinese capabilities. By refusing to import western goods and ideas the Qing condemned China to fall hopelessly behind Europe and America in the ensuing decades.

A famous passage from Qianlong’s letter to George III reveals his position:

”Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce. But as the tea, silk and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces, are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves, we have permitted, as a signal mark of favour, that foreign hongs [merchant firms] should be established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence.”

Rejected and disappointed, Macartney began the long trip back to England. However he took the land route to Beijing, through the Grand Canal to the Yangtze river, and then again over land to Canton. During the long journey he recorded observations on the standing of the Qing dynasty which proved prescient:

“The Empire of China is an old, crazy, first-rate Man of War, which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers have contrived to keep afloat for these hundred and fifty years past, and to overawe their neighbours merely by her bulk and appearance. But whenever an insufficient man happens to have the command on deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship. She may, perhaps, not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom.”

Some historians speculate Macartney wrote his words out of bitterness, lashing out at an empire that had sent him home empty-handed. Others argue during his mission Macartney did not limit himself to diplomacy alone and also practiced shrewd firsthand scrutiny.

The Correspondent believes the latter story is more convincing. Even as a visitor Macartney detected early cracks in the Qing’s foundations—before even the Qianlong emperor himself did. Today we know Qing officials were already robbing the imperial treasury blind during Macartney’s visit, and the first of many domestic rebellions began just one year after he left.

Macartney reported back that the majestic and imposing Qing dynasty had already peaked and was embarked on a downward trajectory. His mission returned home a diplomatic failure, but Britain would try again several years later.
Full text of Qianlong's letter to George III available at:

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