If one must examine Western bias, one can easily begin in a single historical moment of confrontation: In 1793, England sent envoy George Macartney to China. The mission was a failure of many disagreements and no agreements, and ultimately led directly or indirectly to the 2 Opium Wars.
The story goes (from the British perspective): China required the British personnel to perform the Kowtow to the Emperor, the British refused, the Emperor grew angry and thus refused all British requests in an angry letter to King George III.
How true was this story?
The parts that always troubled me about this episode was right at the beginning, the British assumption that kowtow was demeaning.
History records that indeed, other European traders and missionaries did not feel as the British did. Dutch merchants performed the kowtow when receiving imperial edicts in Canton. 1 year after the Macartney mission, a Dutch mission sent to China performed the kowtow multiple times in Beijing.
Macartney also objected to kowtow, because it was felt that the British must be presented as equal status as China, whereas kowtowing would imply England as subservient “tributary” of China.
This objection is also superficial and rather presents British insecurity, as China did not in any ways consider the Dutch to be a tributary of China, even after the Dutch performed the kowtow. If Qianlong really did consider England to be a tributary, then he could easily have ordered Macartney executed, or at least refused to meet Macartney. Yet, Qianlong allowed the meeting with Macartney over 2 days, and allowed Macartney to present the British missionary requests.
The context of that meeting and requests is also important. At the time, China was the most powerful economy in the world. British desired Chinese tea, silk, porcelain, as did other European nations. Britain had a huge trade imbalance with China.
Unlike popular misconception, China was not closed to trade. China had the extensive Canton trade system (with careful regulation of tariffs).
In this context, Macartney was the beggar sent to China to beg for favors from the Emperor. Britain wanted China to allow the British to build a mission harbor on a small island, so that they could more easily house permanent missions and repair ships (a foot hold). And they wanted China to open up more trading posts for British trade.
Another popular myth was that China banned Western goods from being sold. In fact that was not true. The British and others attempted to sell Western goods through the Canton system, but was not able to. Thus, Macartney was in fact trying to lobby Emperor Qianlong himself to buy more British goods (such as guns, etc.). Even if the British were allowed to open more trade posts, it was highly unlikely that the ordinary Chinese would be persuaded to buy more British goods. As other European colonial commerce showed in Americas and Africa, the Europeans at the time did not have any thing that suited the non-European markets. (hence, the British had to later impose the Opium trade on China. If China was suitable for British goods, then surely they could have made money without Opium?)
Yet, DESPITE all of that, Qianlong granted Macartney audience over 2 days. And DESPITE that, Macartney wanted to save the British face, by refusing to kowtow. That much only proves British Exceptionalism.
Of course, given that rather huge insult, Qianlong did write an angry letter to King George III, refusing every British request, and talked down to George III by telling him to “obey without negligence,” just to emphasize the point.
In comparison, Qianlong did not do so with the Dutch mission 1 year later. Of course, the Dutch made no extraordinary requests/demands. Qianlong gave the Prince of Netherland a magnificent scepter, decorated with jade.
* So who was right?
Both sides were ignorant about each other, but Qianlong’s point was a point of reciprocal respect. If the British assumed that the Chinese customs were insulting and demeaning, then he would take that as a sign of disrespect as well.
If the British insists to impose British customs on a Chinese Emperor in a Chinese court, then doesn’t that make China subservient to Britain?
While some may criticize Qianlong for his closed off business with the West, that he did not open up China to learn from Britain (as much as the Japanese Emperor did under the threat of American Gun boat diplomacy), I do not criticize him so.
Qianlong was speaking for the Chinese market. He simply stated reality, that the British goods could not find a good market in Canton system, then what’s the point of opening up more ports?
Qianlong was deeply suspicious of British motives. To put it simply, more ports doesn’t mean more commerce, only more corruption, where the British could smuggle goods and bypass tariffs. Indeed, the chief complaint from the British at the time was not any restriction on AMOUNT of trade, but rather how strictly the Chinese Imperial court was accounting for every transaction. (Chinese officials would watch over all of the merchants and every single shipment of goods in meticulous details). (And that the Chinese merchants refused to accept British goods as payment, and took only silver! Well DUH! China is not a pawnshop! Why the F would Chinese merchants take stuff you can’t sell?)
Qianlong reasonably suspected that the REAL purpose for the British request for more ports (and an island), is that the British wanted to smuggle stuff in and out of China more easily to avoid paying tariffs. It doesn’t take a genius (and Qianlong was renowned as a smart emperor), to realize that.
Afterall, it’s more expensive for British to ship stuff to multiple ports in China, and it would be more expensive for China to watch over foreign trade spread out in multiple regions. So why do it, when the British is not finding good market in the canton system?
* In the end, Macartney returned home, failing in the main purpose of his mission. Yet, the British PR’ed him (and Britain) as the hero-victim who refused to bow down to an ignorant unreasonable China (who naturally must be taught a good lesson from the British empire).
British newspapers wrote stories and drew stereotypical comic strips of that outrage done to Britain. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macartney_Embassy#/media/File:The_reception_of_the_diplomatique_and_his_suite,_at_the_Court_of_Pekin_by_James_Gillray.jpg
Where Qianlong was portrayed as a sloth of a man lazying about (when in reality, Qianlong was 82 at the time, and stood at 5 foot 10 inches, a very tall and slender man), and Macartney is shown as a hero on 1 knee with open arms (of friendship).
Note also in the picture, horde of other European diplomats shown behind Macartney performing the kowtow. (At least that bit stood as a mockery of other Europeans, even though no other European missions were in Beijing at the time of Macartney’s visit).
But failure is a failure, no matter how you explain it. And history eventually returns to question the failures for what they are.
England failed to beg/trick Qianlong (despite the fact that they sent a whole boatload of “gifts” as bribes). Part of this failure was power imbalance. China was powerful at the time. To beg China for something, saving face is not the way to do it.
The other part is England’s own simplistic expectations. England, I would say, expected China to be impressed by England, by British boats and technologies. Afterall, up to that point, the British Empire managed to awe (and shock) quite a few other nations. They didn’t expect China to be so stubborn. And they perceived China’s stubbornness to be ignorance and insult.
How dare China laugh at the magnificence of England?!
But in reality, it was not completely ignorance on the part of China. True, China was not completely aware of the West. But China was not stupid in the way of foreign commerce. They had it for centuries. China was not about to be impressed by beads and trinkets. They could see what the British really wanted from China, the WEALTH of China, and the influence of China in Asia. For years, China watched Britain (and other Western powers) encroach into China’s neighborhood, in India, in Malay, in Japan. Why would China not be suspicious of Britain?