Home > Uncategorized > Re-Examine a Historical Moment of Western Bias: Emperor Qianlong vs. Macartney Mission 1793

Re-Examine a Historical Moment of Western Bias: Emperor Qianlong vs. Macartney Mission 1793

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?

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  1. April 23rd, 2015 at 09:44 | #1

    In many ways, Qian Long is the luckiest emperor of China. He became an emperor when he is 25 years old, and go go on to reign for 60+3 years which is the longest and he also lived to be 89 years old, another record. His grand father Kang Xi has to deal with rebellions and extreme fiscal difficulty, his father Yong Zhen cracked down hard on corruption and passed a treasury with ample surplus to him. At his time the Qing dynasty reached the height of its power and wealth. However, his later years were plagued with increased corruption and the growing incompetence of the noble class, the bannermen. Unlike contemporary European government which borrowed money to cover deficit (a precursor to modern finance), the Qing sell mandarin positions to cover financial shortfall. It was a vicious cycle and within a generation the Qing dynasty would be severely weakened by quasi-religious uprisings and foreign invasions. The western view of China pretty much date from this chaotic period.

  2. Black Pheonix
    April 24th, 2015 at 07:55 | #2


    Also important to realize that at the time, Britain actually was not a great power, and had very little to offer China.

    England just lost her American colonies, with the formal recognition of US independent in 1783, just 10 years before the Macartney mission.

    In 1793, the steam railroad has not been invented yet, steam engine was merely a toy.

    The British ships were still small wooden sailing vessels. Qing China actually inherited some much larger warships from Ming dynasty China, which they did use to retake Taiwan just a few decade earlier.

    Thus, the British appearance was not nearly as impressive as the British made it sound like.


    However, what I could criticize Qianlong is his inability to see the bigger geopolitical picture.

    Yes, China didn’t really know much about the West at the time. But China was not new in the game of geopolitics.

    Qing China had to deal with resurgent Mongolian power in the North several times. It did so by playing the various Mongol tribes against each other, and selectively carefully granting favors, etc.

    This is simply good old fashion “leveraging” in geopolitics.

    Yet, when it came to the European powers, Qianlong hesitated to play that game, for no good reason.

    Qianlong, in essence, was TOO fair to the Europeans.

    One could easily see that though the British was still a puny power at the time, it was visibly ambitious. It even dared to challenge the Chinese customs in the Imperial court! If nothing else, Qianlong saw this, and yet, he did not see the need to counter-balance the British in Chinese sphere of influence.

    On the contrary, despite his angry letter to King George III, Qianlong allowed the British to carry on trade in China as if NOTHING happened. Britain was not in the slightest way punished or disfavored. British were allowed to continue to trade.

    While the Dutch came to China to pay much higher respect to Qianlong, Qianlong did not see a need to reward them either (other than a few symbolic trinkets).

    I think this was Qianlong great mistake in his diplomacy. By doing so, the British was essentially given a free hand to continue to challenge China, while China showed no slightest way of reacting.

    While China slept, the British managed to drive out their European competitors from India and Malay, consolidate their position as the head of European Colonial powers in Asia. (Others, including US, had to go through the British to trade in Asia).

    Which ultimately culminated in the British led “8-nation” invasion of China.


    At a minimum, China should have counter-balanced Britain, by using other European nations as Proxies.

    I.e. reward those nations that helped China’s interests, and offset British interests.

    Which is somewhat similar to how modern China is dealing with Europe and US, engage indirectly to counter-balance, without direct confrontations.

  3. April 27th, 2015 at 17:41 | #3

    However, we must remember that in about fifty years the Qing would almost be totally destroyed by European invasions and the Taiping rebellion. In contrast, Britain would ushered in the industrial revolution and become the premier economy and empire in the world.

    Of course, history is just a cycle, China, UK would be in another footing now and a different one the next fifty years.

  4. raffiaflower
    April 29th, 2015 at 10:43 | #4

    Britain is back at China’s doorstep, as a supplicant for the AIIB and One Road One Belt goodies that Beijing is dangling with its ambitious development initiatives.

    Despite American orders, the potential rewards are too tempting to resist; indeed Whitehall was the first Western government to deliver The Slap Heard Around The World in Washington’s face, followed in quick succession by the G7 claque in the rush to join AIIB founding ranks. Take that, Yankee!

    The rapid turn of events is like a bizarre riff on Agatha Christie’s Murder On the Orient Express, where assorted plotters come together to bump off their common hate figure on a train.
    Goodbye Uncle Sam, nobody misses you much. Well, maybe, except Shinzo Abe, but he’s not getting much love either – except from Japanese right-wing nutters.

    Author Martin Jacques in a Global Times editorial points to a simple reason for Britain’s volte-face: the British economy has barely grown since 2007 and a charter role in AIIB also gives it back a measure of clout in East Asia. Indeed, the British were hoping to maintain a post-colonial role in Hong Kong in the negotiations running up to 1997 – certainly not the table for China then since the return of Hong Kong was (and is) a defining moment of pride in modern Chinese history.

    But times have changed, especially as Washington and Tokyo continue jointly to undermine and provoke China; this is like a redux of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance where British Empire depended on Tokyo to keep Russia out of Asia and China down.

    China can encourage British ambitions (even South Korea) in Asia, to frustrate and diffuse American and Japanese aspirations. China is strong enough now never to fear Britain, on its own, again – and can still divide the Western powers, if need be, in AIIB from acting against her interests.

    After all, even at the weakest hour of Qing empire, the self-absorption of competing Western imperialists prevented them from `carving up the Chinese melon’. History has, in a fashion, come a full circle.

  5. April 29th, 2015 at 21:09 | #5

    Many people remembered Napoleon calling the UK “England is a nation of shopkeepers.”

    Although, technically it was Adam Smith who first made that characterization in his book, The wealth of Nation:

    “To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.”

    In my view UK is one of the most astute trading nation, and also one time leading imperialist power. We must understand that it is the colonizing and trading activities of the UK that planted seed for nations such as the US, Canada, Australia, NZ etc.

    Although in the opium wars the UK has caused tremendous suffering to China and the world we still must learn from their strong points, however some might argue that they have lost those advantages. We must remembered that it is in the UK that modern industrialization started and they set the standard for many administrative and education practices. At one time, British scientists also dominates the Nobel prize list. The UK is a nation with a complex history, the British Isles were initially settled by Celtic people, it has been successfully invaded by the Roman, then by Anglo-Saxon, and eventually by the Norman. So they have quite a few historical heritage to draw on. For a small islands state they have done remarkably well by any standard.

    In case you guys don’t know, UK is actually the first western European state to have diplomatic relationship with the PRC, they recognized the PRC in 1950. An even little known fact is that Communist forces engaged and fought British naval forces in China as early as 1949. And as such they are the first western government to deal first hand with representative of the CPC. Although the Korean war of 1950-1953 soured relationship, by 1954 Sino-British Trade Committee was formed. In the same year a British Labour Party delegation including Clement Attlee visits China at the invitation of the then Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai. They are also among the first western power to break US embargo on mainland China. In 1961, the UK begins to vote in the General Assembly for PRC membership of the United Nations. It has abstained on votes since 1950. By early 1970s, they were selling advanced jet and machinery to China. So this not the first time that UK is dealing with China against the wishes of Washington. The fact is, the UK need to watch out for its own interest. It seems very likely that London would be the first European hub for Renminbi exchange.

  6. Black Pheonix
    April 30th, 2015 at 18:48 | #6



    I have to disagree somewhat with Ray’s characterization that Britain is one of the “most astute trading nation”.

    I think that’s one of the biggest PR myths Britain used to explain their achievements by thievery. (which is something that many great Empires tell themselves). Romans used to explain their own greatness by suggesting that they invented things like concrete to build roads and tall buildings, which actually was a lie. Romans learned those things from their former masters, the Etruscans (who also gave the Romans their Senatorial system, and their early legal system).

    Back to Britain, the reason I say the “astute trading nation” is a MYTH, is that the historical data showed that the British were no better at trading in China than the other European nations.

    The only thing they actually managed to eventually make a profit on in China, was Opium.

    Well, that would be to say that any drug dealers are “astute business people”. That’s just non-sensical.

    Any idiot willing to throw away morality can do that.

    Perhaps the British were more astute than the Dutch or the Americans, or the French. But that’s not saying much.

    What’s more, the British and the Americans were just as willing to protect their business monopolies via restrictive trading practices as other Europeans. Trade is not what they are “astute” at, they know that. That’s why they fear the rise of China.

    we Chinese have to be careful, and not allow the British or any Western power to trick China into positions of weakness.

    If the British come to beg China with deals, China should see it not as either weakness or strength in the British, but to simply RECOGNIZE the British ambition (as they showed in the past).

    They beg, because they have great ambition. (As the Chinese say, one who is willing to endure great humiliation has no limit in their ambition).

    Once we recognize their ambition, we must counter-balance them. Not for their current state, but to balance them because of what they desire.

    Britain is one of the “little men”, who have little ability, but dangerous because of their ambitions.

    When great ambitions do not match their puny abilities, that’s why their are dangerous, because they are unpredictable and may not have any qualms about sacrificing morals and principles to get what they want.

  7. May 1st, 2015 at 09:26 | #7

    @Black Pheonix
    I don’t think my conclusion is that different from yours:

    “In my view UK is one of the most astute trading nation, and also one time leading imperialist power. We must understand that it is the colonizing and trading activities of the UK that planted seed for nations such as the US, Canada, Australia, NZ etc.”

    I never deny the suffering of those who were oppressed by so-called British imperialism, my point is the British introduced some successful system and innovation to beat their imperialist opponents and also their victims. I am not white washing their crimes. Although one might say that the success of Roman empire was based on their ruthlessness, we must remember their efficiency as well, and learned from them.

    I am not suggesting that imperialism should be tolerated, but as historian I make comparison. Even you yourself did so, comparing the British to Dutch or the Americans, or the French. The hardest comparison for historian to make is actually those that transcend extreme time span and geography. How does one put the ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, Roman, Mayan, Qin, Han, Mughal, Islamic, Spanish, Portugese, Dutch, French empire ect? It is through these comparison that I made the statement that the British empire was founded on astute mercantilism, the British empire started off with a privately owned East India Company! Of course one can also make similar conclusion for the Dutch East Indies Company, which started in 1602 and ended in 1799.

    There are many faces of entrepreneurship. Everybody, including the Chinese stressed hard work, innovation, ambition etc as essential for success. The less talked about essential are connection, monopoly, ruthlessness etc which you have pointed out. Being astute means encompassing all those qualities. Even today Exxon, Shell, Microsoft, Intel, Paypal all used their monopolistic position to great advantage. To counter them China used monopoly as well, without monopoly or protection the SOE wouldn’t have survived. Chinese companies like Alibaba, Baidu, Huawei etc might be built up from the ground but they eventually have to use monopoly to generate profit and maintained their position. The British was also not the only people to push opium which is illegal in Qing China, they are just the biggest who managed to elbow out their competitors.

    Here’s the scary fact that the democracy zealot like to preach but does not happen in real life: The good always triumphed over evil. They assume because they are rich and powerful, they are the good guys. Their wealth could be built up by imperialism or other illegal mean. I believe this is what you are pointing at here. To me, the most efficient party always end up as the survivor. I don’t believe in the victor mentality, only survivor. Empire comes and go, people also comes and go in history. I also don’t believe simply being “good” and “noble” would guarantee survival. A nation and people has to build up a workable system to survive and thrive in the world. To the Chinese that argument has been settled during the spring autumn and warring state period.

    The British are descendants of Celt, Anglo-Saxon, Norman etc. You must understand that when I say they are one of the most astute trading nation, they are just one of the many. They wouldn’t have survive without that.

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