The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

On the 26th of September, 1792, an extraordinary diplomatic expedition set off from Britain. Its leader was George Macartney, a well-connected Anglo-Irish aristocrat. Macartney had already gained wide diplomatic experience in Russia, India and the Caribbean. He had even suffered the misfortune of being taken captive by the French. His task was to use diplomacy to prise open trade for Britain with an even bigger empire. He was to be the very first British ambassador to China.

It all boiled down to this. In the 18th century, a new craze for drinking tea had swept across Britain, starting in the fashionable drawing rooms of the aristocracy, where Chinoiserie was all the rage, and in the end becoming a beverage around which almost everyone shaped their day. The British national drink was made in China, and so, of course, was much of the finest china – cups and saucers and so on. None of these came cheap. By the 1790s, the British were drinking some £20 million worth of Chinese tea every year. The Chinese would accept only gold or silver in payment and the British coffers were running out.

To pay for the tea, Macartney’s task was to persuade the Chinese to open up their markets to British goods. The father of modern economics, Adam Smith, had written in his The Wealth of Nations in 1776:

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.

Trade was at the heart of British identity at the end of the 18th century. A rapidly industrialising and voraciously consuming nation, Britain was extending its reach across the world. Over the waves that Britannia ruled sailed merchantmen packed to the gunnels with goods and slaves. They sold in Cape Town what they had bought in Calcutta, and bought in Jamaica what they’d sell in Europe. Inspired by Adam Smith, Britain built an empire on the principle of mutually advantageous trade among nations.

But unfortunately for Macartney, Confucius had never read Adam Smith.

After nine long months at sea, the British mission finally reached China. Macartney was intrigued by all he saw, and told the mission’s own artist to sketch everything in sight.  The British were just as much objects of curiosity to the Chinese. They stuck out a mile in their tailored European trousers and were nicknamed devils by the locals, since in Chinese theatre, only devils wore tight clothes.

These days when a diplomat is posted to a new country, he is usually given sufficient time to learn all he can about his destination. Poor old Macartney didn’t get that opportunity. In 1793, there wasn’t a single person in all of Britain who could speak a word of Chinese. And the only Englishman who had tried to go on a diplomatic mission to China had died en route! So though he read as much as he could in preparation, Macartney was totally unprepared for the culture shock that was to await him. He might as well have come from another planet.

Qing dynasty China discouraged all contact with foreigners. There were no permanent foreign ambassadors, and trade with western merchants was tightly controlled and limited to the port at Canton. 

The Chinese believed that they were the centre of the world, and that foreigners were essentially lesser people who were barbarians.  They came to pay tribute, they were allowed to trade up to a point, but only up to a point. And Britain, becoming the biggest trading nation of the world, naturally believed in free trade, that all markets should be open, and that countries should deal equally with each other, and that we should have an ambassador in Peking whose main object would be to promote trade. And so there was a complete lack of understanding of the fundamental ideas. (Douglas Hurd, diplomat in Peking, 1954-56)

When at last Macartney’s expedition arrived in Beijing, they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. But their journey still wasn’t over.  Macartney must have felt the truth of the old Chinese saying heaven is high, the emperor distant, when he found that the Emperor Qianlong had decamped to his summer retreat in the cool mountains of the north. As the weary party travelled northwards, a row was brewing over a tricky question of etiquette.

Even in the age of globalisation, every country clings to its protocol, its rituals and rites, which foreign diplomats ignore at their peril. Get the protocol wrong, where to stand, when to speak, how to address the president or the monarch, and you can blight your mission even before it has started. And in China protocol really mattered.

Macartney had been informed that when he arrived in court, he must perform the Chinese kowtow, prostrating himself before the Emperor. But Macartney, a proud and haughty man, felt that kowtowing would be an intolerable humiliation for him and thus for his sovereign, His Majesty King George III. The arguments went backward and forwards. Macartney suggested, “What if I take off my hat and kneel, same as I would do to my own king?” “No way,” came the Chinese response. For a barbarian not to kowtow to their Emperor was an unthinkable insult. “Very well,” said Macartney, “I will kowtow before the Emperor if a Chinese official of the same rank as me kowtows to a portrait of King George.” 

This was considered an idea so outrageous that Chinese officials declined even to translate it for their superiors.

It was diplomatic impasse. Exasperated, Macartney noted in his journal, “The Chinese character seems at present inexplicable.” In perfect symmetry, Chinese officials dealing with him reported that “the barbarian nature is unfathomable.”

As Macartney reached his final destination, the argument over the kowtow was unresolved.

The unassuming town of Chengde is best known for the imperial mountain resort where the Qing Emperors would flee to avoid the summer heat. The Qianlong Emperor was over 80 years old and in the fifty-eighth year of his reign. To the Chinese he was the intermediary between Heaven and Earth. Macartney had brought with him what he had thought were suitably impressive gifts, from telescopes to clocks to a hot-air balloon, a dazzling display designed to wow the Chinese into opening up trade. But to Qianlong this was but a barbarian tribute, a sign of submission.

So much for Macartney’s gifts to the Emperor. They were intended to showcase British genius and prise open a new and valuable export market.  The notion of paying tribute to the Emperor never crossed the minds of red-blooded Englishmen. 

Gillray's 1793 cartoon 'Tribute from the Red Barbarians' shows the mutually xenophobic attitude between the Chinese and British during Macartney's Trade Embassy.

The night before Macartney was to meet the Emperor, he made his final preparations. But to kowtow or not to kowtow, that was the question. His instructions from London ordered him to “conform to all ceremonials of that court which may not commit the honour of your sovereign or lessen your own dignity.” But then again, they said, “While I make this reserve, I am satisfied you will be too prudent and considerate to let any trifling punctilio stand in the way of the important benefits which may be obtained by engaging the favourable disposition of the Emperor and his ministers.”

Behind the elegant ambiguity of the Foreign Office, the message was stark: Macartney was on his own, and he better not screw up. 

Dawn came, September 14, 1793. Macartney and his entourage arrived at the imperial compound to find several thousand people gathered to celebrate the Emperor’s birthday. Five thousand miles and a year since he had set off, it was the moment of truth. The Emperor arrived on an open palanquin carried by sixteen men clad in gold. As he passed, the Chinese crowds instantly fell prostrate to the ground in a kowtow. What did Macartney and his mission decide to do? They simply went down on one knee.

When he was called before the great throne, Macartney presented the Emperor with some of the British gifts, intending to provide an opening  for raising the question of trade. But Qianlong was not interested in engaging with these upstart barbarians who would not observe court etiquette. Over the following week, every time Macartney tried to raise the business of his mission, the Chinese officials would brush him off. Qianlong issued angry instructions. “Let us immediately order the envoy to return to Beijing. When Barbarians manifest sincerity and respect, I shall unfailingly treat them with kindness. When they are full of themselves, they do not merit the enjoyment of my favours.”

Macartney was sent packing in disgrace. There were to be no new trade privileges, no new ports opened to British merchants, and no resident British ambassador. The mission was a total failure.

You can’t conceive of them saying Yes to Macartney’s demands. After all, what did he want? He wanted not only trading posts, possibly an island as a base for trade, and above all, he wanted diplomatic relations on an equal footing, and this was quite unthinkable to the Chinese.  After all, there could only be one sun in the sky, and that, of course, was China. (Sir Percy Cradock, Ambassador to China, 1978-83).

Today a diplomat might very well say that, in Macartney’s place, he would have abased himself and kowtowed before the Great Emperor. His mission was to open up trade with China, not worry about the consequences to his own dignity. Macartney believed he was bringing something good to China and he was baffled by their rebuff. For the Chinese, though, it was less a matter of ceremony than hard economics. They wanted to maintain their own surplus, and so had little interest in importing British products.

Macartney brought back an edict from the Qianlong Emperor for King George III. “As your ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”

But the most devastating thing about Qianlong’s edict was that it had been drafted even before Macartney’s mission arrived in China. The sad truth is that the ambassador never really stood a chance.

(Text from the BBC Four programme Getting Our Way – Prosperity, presented by Christopher Meyer.)

See also: P. Gillingham, The Macartney Embassy to China, 1792-94. (PDF here.)


Veena said...

Wouldn't be surprised if this George M chap turns out to be ancestor of the other George M chap of a century later - the Kashgar Consul General who provided quite a bit of uncalled-for hospitality to the foreign devils setting out into the Taklamakan in search of Silk Road loot.

Fëanor said...

Veena: don't be surprised. :-)

Anonymous said...

Loved reading it!
Just a small note though."For the Chinese, though, it was less a matter of ceremony than hard economics"
- I guess you meant 'More'.

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