The Macartney mission to China 1793-94

‘And who are you’, the proud Lord said, ‘that I should bow so low?’

I left off my survey of early British contacts with China at 1793 because this was the date for the pivotal embassy of Lord George Macartney which was to mark a watershed in UK-Chinese relations. It also marks the start of a long decline in the Qing dynasty’s governance of China.

One of the continuing controversies is whether Lord Macartney performed the traditional kowtow or just a low bow to the Emperor. The subtitle ‘who are you that I should bow so low?’ is taken from Games of Thrones song ‘The Rains of Catamere ’ which tells of the Lannister’s revenge on a similar matter of pride as it is an echo of what happened to the embassy.

The Macartney embassy had such ramifications that whole books have pored over every detail of the ambitious project to open up China for trade. It gets a mention in nearly every history book. My main reference of 630 pages is aptly entitled ‘The Collision of Two Civilizations ’ by Alain Peyrefitte. Collision seems pertinent because an immovable object (China) was hit by an unstoppable force (Britain). The seeds of war were sown that came to fruition within fifty years.

The British delegation learned a huge amount about China at first hand. They found much to admire and much to scorn. First impressions do count. They noticed many things that confounded their expectations. History books often fail to put this event into its context. At the risk of setting out a history lesson I'll start by describing the state of play in 1793.

Macartney Embassy map,map of macartney Embassy
The route of the Embassy 1793-94. Some of the party remained on the HMS Lion at Zhoushan near Ningbo and did not go to Beijing or Chengde.

Background in Britain

Britain was now in the Age of Enlightenment where individual freedom to think and act was paramount. In religion Protestantism had finally supplanted Catholicism as the leading doctrine. The relationship with god had become personal, everyone was their own priest and there was a rejection of ritual, diametrically different to the situation in China. There was a strong antipathy to an autocrat based on ritual like the Pope. This was the time of the madness of King George III (1788-9) and open opposition to the royal family as shown by Charles Fox’s party of government was widespread. This lack of total deference would have been unthinkable in China where governance and leadership went hand-in-hand.

In Europe the admiration of everything Chinese was on the wane. The elevation of China as a superior civilization promulgated by the Jesuits, whose mission had ended in failure, was now openly challenged as a fabrication. The Jesuits in order to ingratiate themselves with the Imperial court had described the Chinese civilization with a rose tinted glow. Britain’s growing sense of superiority was tied to ruling both the waves and India. Britain had only recently achieved pre-eminence in world trade by sea. In terms of sea area controlled this was probably greater than China’s land area. Many major trading ports had become dependent on British trade. Even formerly hostile nations like Spain and Portugal earnestly entreated the British to come to their ports to trade.

Britain had embraced trade as the fundamental driving force of development. In 1776 Adam Smith’s ‘The Wealth of Nations’ had set the ground work for the foundation of the ‘consumer society’ which continues to the present day. To get on in life, the route was to make money through trade. However although the Industrial Revolution had begun in England its chief export at this time was still woolen cloth.

The English East India Company (EIC) had recently extended its control over India. It had, even though a private company, 60,000 soldiers to support its administration. The British judged China to be in a similar state to the crumbling Indian Mughal Empire that had been so easily overwhelmed. But the EIC had overstretched itself in India and needed rescue by the UK government from impending bankruptcy . The power of the EIC is rather like the Google of today - it touched the lives of an estimated fifth of the world's population with its trading influence. To many it was simply ‘The Company’. It had a motto ‘Where God leads, nothing harms’ which is rather like Google’s ‘Do no harm’.

Macartney, Alexander, funeral
A traditional funeral procession led by a priest. Musicians are a normal part of the long procession. Women, dressed in un-dyed cloth 'white' sit in the wagon. Macau. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

The company had to be very careful with its relations with China in case this would reflect badly in India. Any concessions to China might encourage Indians to seek the same. Recent famine in India and a revolt had shown the limitation of EIC as the de facto governance.

War with France was brewing, in fact hostilities broke out while the embassy was on the seas and the threat of naval attack by French ships curtailed the trip. The mission was timed to arrive for the Chinese Emperor’s 83rd birthday on September 14th 1793. The Macartney expedition hoped that the impending winter might force their hosts to keep them at Beijing until the following spring and so perhaps form a permanent embassy there.

Background in China

China had seen a perplexing parade of European powers each supplanting each other as the top one for a brief spell: Portugal, Spain, Holland and then France. Would Britain’s current supremacy be any different? When the US won independence in 1770 the Chinese often confused the US and Britain - were they really different nations? Many now take the view that the Qing had turned its back on expansion and only looked to resolutely maintain its current borders rather like Mao’s China in the 1970s. Emperor Qianlong had during his long reign expanded his empire and ruled over the greatest ever Chinese land area. China chose to ignore the seas, it had the Grand Canal for bulk transportation without sailing the tumultuous seas that were thick with pirates. Even though China had invented the compass it was not much used at sea and charts of the coastline were barely known. Local pilots relied on local knowledge to navigate the coastal waters.

Since the Manchu invasion of 1644 China had been wisely ruled by a series of Emperors: Kangxi (1661-1722), Yongzheng (1723-35) and Qianlong (1736-95). Emperor Qianlong had ruled well since taking the dragon throne at the age of 25 until 1780 when he fell under the spell of Heshen (1750-99). Qianlong believed Heshen was the reincarnation of a childhood sweetheart and showered him with gifts and titles. Heshen by the time of Macartney was the real power in China; he had become by far the richest man after the Emperor. Anyone could buy themselves a position in government with a suitably large ‘gift’ to Heshen. Many believe that his corrupt and sycophant actions were the rot that was to eventually destroy the Qing Imperial system. At 83 years old Qianlong remained active and competent but was growing rather hard of hearing. The Imperial court was understandably preoccupied with guessing his likely successor.

China had found that British missions like that of Captain Flint were particularly aggressive and arrogant - they were the most dangerous and hostile of all the Europeans. With some justification these far away nations were considered barbarian states and were treated with the same disdain as barbarians had always been. The correct behavior towards a dangerous uncivilized people was to minimize contact, so all contact had to be made through Guangzhou and then only under strict conditions. China feared hostile reprisals if the new British requests were turned down - as would be expected from a barbarian. The importance of managing the Macartney embassy can be judged the fact that more Imperial correspondence was written about it than any other mission.

Macartney, Alexander, shrine, temple, buddhism
A roadside Buddhist shrine. The temple was often erected at public expense and dedicated to the Emperor or senior officials. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

The Chinese court’s main source of information was from the few remaining Catholic ‘missionaries’ in Beijing. They were no longer permitted to proselytize the Christian faith and advised principally on mathematics and astronomy. However they did receive news from Europe, albeit six months out of date, and their deeply anti-Protestant view added to the Imperial court’s negative view of Britain. Portugal in particular spread hostile rumors about the British in order to protect its interests in Macau. China learned of the French Revolution when King Louis XVI was deposed 1792 and then executed. Something also may have already been heard of the furore caused by the publication of Thomas Payne’s ‘Rights of Man ’ - strange and barbaric actions for nations claiming to be civilized!

Although China did not fully appreciate the depth of Britain’s involvement in its neighbor, India, there were already rumblings on the border. In 1788 Nepalese Gurkhas had invaded Tibet. The 8th Dalai Lama fled Tibet and asked for Chinese aid; they duly came and defeated the Gurkhas in 1792. As this was on the Indian borders, the EIC had become involved, intervening to mediate between the two protagonists. Britain’s presence on China’s periphery was beginning to be felt and their motives were shrouded with suspicion of hostile intent. The fact that Macartney genuinely did not know of this contact made between British and Chinese in Nepal made him look mendacious. The embassy was closely studied during their whole visit. The British took to conversing only in English rather than Latin to avoid being eavesdropped.

China’s long reign as the top nation on Earth led it to have pre-arranged plans to meet all contingencies, all a ruler needed to do was consult the experts and follow the same trusted formulaic approach that had always be taken in the past. The Chinese saw nothing unprecedented in the British mission. The established rule was to shower embassies with gifts and treat them well but to formally concede nothing and limit contact as much as possible. It had served well over thousands of years and hundreds of such missions. The traditional approaches of Wen and Wu were still in place - treat your civilized friends with culture ( wén) but barbarians with military might ( wǔ). Barbarians by their nature could not comprehend culture and using military force was the correct approach.

The ancient model of society in China was to despise merchants; they were a parasite on the primary producers and the government. Merchants kept their wealth private and did not flaunt it. The route to wealth as a merchant was to move abroad. Luzon in the Philippines had become the first major Chinese center of trade but similar Chinese ports at Singapore and Jakarta were also developing rapidly.

It seems strange for the two countries to in any way consider themselves to be equal. After all the population of the UK at the time was 8 million and China 350 million, but what both protagonists had in common was the belief that they both possessed a superior civilization.

map, Qing, UK
Map of China, from: Johann Christian Hüttner: Voyage dans l'intérieur de la Chine et en Tartarie fait dans les années 1792, 1793 et 1794 par lord Macartney., Paris, J. J. Fuchs, (1798-1799). Available under a Creative Commons License

British expectations

Macartney, Alexander, apilou, architecture, arch
A decorative, memorial arch - pái lou. Often raised to commemorate virtuous people especially widows. The inscriptions detail the achievements of the deceased - a senior official. Near Ningbo 17th Nov. 1793. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

Britain was desperate to trade with China. The English India Company hoped that a grand trade mission would so impress the Chinese that they would acquiesce to their demands. Previous missions had been based on missionaries (Matteo Ricci) or governments. Although it was a government-backed initiative carrying a message from King George III, the huge cost of £78,000 was paid for by the EIC (maybe £50 million in value now). A delegation from a private company not a government was something incomprehensible to the Chinese.

What Britain sorely lacked was recent knowledge of the Imperial court and the language, their mission failed principally because they did not know the expected way of doing things or even communicate effectively. Britain wanted its own Macau port for trade. Portugal had been leased land and now Portugal was in steep decline, why couldn’t Britain have a similar arrangement? Eventually of course Britain was to take Hong Kong which quickly eclipsed Macau.

china, macartney, ship, hindustan
A scene showing the 'Hindustan' in full sail off the coast of China. A Chinese craft is sailing past on the left of the painting with a figure visible in the stern managing both the sails and the tiller. The junk is covered with a small awning. Another British ship can be seen in the far distance on the left. The painting is thought to commemorate the 'Hindustan's' first voyage for the East India Company to China at the start of 1790, returning just over a year later in January 1791. Image by Royal Museums Greenwich available under a Creative Commons License

Britain also wanted a permanent diplomatic mission at the capital Beijing. European nations had a long established tradition of exchanging ambassadors. A key objective was to open communications with the Imperial court so that grievances experienced at Guangzhou (Canton) could be escalated directly with the Emperor. Currently the decisions of the local hoppo were final. It is undeniable that British along with European traders were maltreated in Guangzhou. Macartney aimed to gain better if not equal treatment for its traders. However China had not permitted permanent missions in Beijing as it suggested other nations were on an equal footing and independent.

British expectations of success were actually low. Macartney was under instructions that he must at very least not make the situation any worse. This low hurdle was all he managed to achieve.

Indian production of opium had begun in 1780. Macartney was under instructions not to raise the issue at all. The embassy did however notice that opium smoking was rife among the better off as an expensive treat. They also saw that tobacco smoking was very widespread - even amongst children, this must have fueled the idea that cheap opium would find a ready market.

Britain wanted a fixed system of taxes (tariffs) because local administrators were free to impose as high a tax as they could get away with. So a British merchant could not calculate the profitability of a voyage to China. One of the reasons for these variable taxes is that transportation by sea was in a series of stages between Chinese ports and at each port some extra tax was placed on goods. There was no central tax authority.

The Macartney embassy planned to go on to Japan, Annam (Vietnam), Manila and Korea but the outbreak of war with France curtailed this. It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if these visits had gone ahead.

The Embassy

The Earl of Macartney. Image by Arnold Wright available under a Creative Commons License

Lord George Macartney (1737-1806)

Choosing a skilled diplomat to lead the mission was a change from the sea captains of previous encounters. Macartney had Irish roots in the minor nobility and was educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He went on the Grand Tour to Europe in 1759 and there he met and befriended Stephen Fox the son of Prime Minister Charles Fox . He was also on friendly terms with of Edmund Burke , Joshua Reynolds and Samuel Johnson . He met Voltaire in Europe and so impressed him that Voltaire wrote “How can you, sir, at your age have got so much knowledge on so many subjects”. He was said to have a photographic memory. He had read all he could about China including du Halde ’s epic book. He had served as Governor of Madras 1780-86 and went on an important diplomatic mission to Russia where he had impressed Catherine the Great . He was the most qualified and skilled diplomat that Britain could have sent. For all that is said of the mission, no fault can be attributed to George Macartney .

Sir George Leonard Staunton (1737-1801)

Macartney’s deputy was Sir George Staunton , a fellow Irishman and again a well educated man. He studied medicine in France but switched to law. He became firm friends with Macartney in the 1780s while serving in Grenada and was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1787.

He was accompanied by his son George Thomas Staunton (1781-1859) then 12 years old who was intended to serve as a general page boy. However young Tom Staunton quickly showed a great aptitude for learning Chinese while on the long outward journey and when the embassy lost its interpreters it was George junior who ended up translating and writing Chinese. On his return he became the leading expert on China and lived at Staunton Country Park , Hampshire where he landscaped the park in the Chinese style and filled it with follies.

The entourage

The full size of the embassy including the sailors was over 600 people. For the over-land mission there were two botanists, two artists, two interpreters, a musical band and servants numbering 95 in all. It is notable that for the first time for a European mission it did not include any clergy or missionaries.

As China had decreed it was illegal to teach foreigners the language, punishable by death, it was very hard to find fluent Chinese speakers to act as interpreters. The three interpreters were Chinese converts brought to the Naples College when young boys: 'An', 'Zhou' (known as Paulus) and Lǐ zì biāo (known as Mr. Plumb to the embassy). They spoke Latin but no English. Translating from Chinese to Latin and then to English was an error prone and slow process. What is more, Zhou and An once reaching Macau left the embassy no doubt fearing arrest and punishment should they set foot in China as part of a foreign embassy, however Zhou did later rejoin the embassy in Beijing

Macartney, Alexander, fort, Yangzhou
A brightly-colored temple is on the right. On the left soldiers salute the embassy from a fortification. In the distance are the city's walls. 4th November 1793 near Yangzhou, Jiangsu where the Grand Canal meets the Yangzi river. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

The Journey to China 1792-93

There is a huge amount of information about all the many incidents along the journey, I can only broadly summarize. For everyone who took part it was an incredible, once in a lifetime, experience.

The embassy left Southampton on September 26th 1792, it sailed south past Madeira and reached Brazil by November 30th, rounded the Cape of Good Hope on January 15th 1793 but it took until June 19th to reach Macau, a journey of nine months. Normally an embassy would disembark at Guangzhou and travel overland to Beijing. Macartney used the excuse of the delicate nature of his gifts to require transport by ship all the way to Tianjin, unprecedented for a European delegation. He sailed along the eastern coast of China making careful maps of the coastline all the way to the great northern port of Tianjin which they reached on August 11th.

Before disembarking Macartney gave a speech to the embassy laying out the rules - the delegation was to behave impeccably and give no cause for offense, and warned that they would be subject to Chinese not British law. The decision to remain calm and diplomatic at all times paid off, Macartney did manage to spend considerable time with senior officials. This would not have happened if he had displayed the belligerent behavior of British Captains Flint and Anson.

The plan was to lay out the gifts for the Emperor to view in Beijing but he was still at the Summer resort at Jehol (Chengde) and Macartney was told he must meet him there, so the embassy split into two groups. One party unpacked and prepared the heavy gifts in Beijing while the diplomatic party went on to Jehol to greet the Emperor on the occasion of his 83rd birthday.

They drew up a long and impressive display for their entrance to Jehol with a marching band and careful choreography. There was no welcoming party to greet them, only minor officials, the Emperor viewed them briefly from a distant hill.

It was not until September 14th that Lord Macartney met the Emperor in his grand tent. The embassy was then sent back to Beijing, the Emperor followed and saw the carefully prepared gifts on September 30th. The gifts and embassy did not impress and so they were ordered home on the following day. They left Beijing on 8th October and followed the Grand Canal all the way to Hangzhou on 8th November. Because their ships had left anchorage off Ningbo they then took the land route over the mountains to arrive at Guangzhou on 18th December, setting off from Macau 17th March and taking a faster journey over the seas to reach Portsmouth on 6th September 1794 - the mission lasted nearly two years.

That is a brief summary of their itinerary, did they achieve what they intended to achieve?

macartney, gifts
Framed K'o-ssu silk tapestry depicting the arrival of a planetarium and celestial globe at the Summer Palace of the Emperor of China, Ch'ien-Lung at Peking, September 1793. These items were presented by an Embassy from George III led by Lord Macartney. The artist has not depicted the scene from personal observation as the Europeans are shown in 16th century costume and the two instruments depicted were part of the equipment of the Jesuit Observatory in Peking. There is a Chinese poem in the top right hand corner. The tapestry presents a Chinese view of Lord Macartney's mission. Image by Royal Museums Greenwich available under a Creative Commons License

Tribute or Gifts?

The embassy brought an expensive range of gifts to lay before the Emperor. Most countries brought pretty luxury items to delight the eye, not so the British. This was a trade mission and so gifts included things that were more like trade samples. They must have thought that they would meet Chinese merchants who would see the commercial profits these goods could bring to them. They never met any merchants and so the 'gifts' were unsuitable for impressing senior Mandarins.

Following protocol all the goods were unloaded at Tianjin with a detailed inventory. There were 590 items but the descriptions, due to translation errors, were most misleading - they including rumors of an elephant the size of a cat.

Pride of place was given to the latest sprung carriage which made travel comfortable on bumpy roads. This was intended for the Emperor himself but it was inherently flawed as the driver had to sit higher than the passenger and this was unacceptable as no-one could ever higher than the Emperor. Also, the Emperor only drove on Imperial roads that were kept meticulously clear of any lumps and bumps and moreover, it also lacked the glittering decoration worthy of an Emperor. The whole 600 packages of gifts were carried on 90 wagons, 40 barrows with 200 horses and attended by 300 servants. The vast collection failed to impress the court even though a Korean ambassador did rightly describe it as the greatest western tribute ever sent. It was the Chinese description of ‘red barbarians bear tribute’ that riled Macartney, it suggested Britain was acknowledging fealty to China rather than ‘gifts’ for a nation negotiating a trade agreement. 'Tribute' was what minor kingdoms offered to their overlord to keep the relationship sweet. Chinese national pride would not admit that these foreign goods and inventions were in any way superior and as for knowledge of scientific instruments they chose to hide their ignorance.

The most expensive gift was a large planetarium that mechanically modeled the motion of the planets over the next thousand years. It demonstrated the European understanding of the solar system at a time when the Chinese still considered the Earth was flat. There was little interest in astronomical study apart from the Imperial court which was headed by Europeans. It was perceived as a large mechanical toy not a state of the art scientific instrument. However the Chinese did note that the planetarium was second hand - the cogs showed sign of wear and this rather dimmed the magnificence of the gift.

The Kowtow dispute

macartney, embassy
Emperor of China receiving Lord Macartney. Drawn 1908. Image by Arnold Wright available under a Creative Commons License

One particular issue has dominated the historical record - did Lord Macartney kowtow to the Emperor? Imperial records show that he did but the British side recorded that he only bowed low.

First of all the kowtow must be explained (we have a separate, detailed article all about the kowtow). It was an everyday event in everyone’s life and not just a special form of the obeisance to the Emperor. Children would kowtow to their parents, schoolchildren to their teacher and to the great sage Confucius. It defined the Confucian social order and there were multiple grades. The highest was a series of three kneeling and at each kneeling the head is bent right down to the ground three times. A proper kowtow was indicating by hearing the head knock the floor.

All other European embassies to the Emperor had performed the full kowtow but the British had a history on this issue. In Macau it has been the practice for some years to evade the ceremony by leaving the room during the genuflection. They considered that a grovelling obeisance to a barbarian ruler was inappropriate. Britain was not about to demonstrate a subservient position, fueled no doubt by the attitude taken in the conquest of India. This was not a vassal state sending tribute to the acknowledged high king of all mankind, the Son of Heaven, it was a mission between two rulers seeking treatment on equal terms. Macartney offered a compromise, he would kowtow if an official kowtowed to a portrait of King George, this was understandably rejected - the sovereigns were not considered to be at all equal. The Emperor wrote ‘we must impose our will on these Englishmen, demonstrating to them the effectiveness of our system and the superiority of our civilization’. The British did not know that the first Portuguese ambassador had died in prison for refusing to show due respect with a kowtow.

Why then do the Chinese Imperial records state that he did kowtow? The simple answer is that recording such a refusal would have created a dangerous precedent. The senior official Zhengrui (a Manchu) had reported to the Emperor that they had kowtowed. In fact Zhengrui lied and had not been at the meeting where this kowtow allegedly took place, the Emperor found this out and Zhengrui was punished.

On 14th September the embassy was formally to greet the Emperor in his tent. They started preparing at 4am and then walked three miles in the dark before waiting another three hours for an audience. He did not even have a one-to-one meeting as other ambassadors were also greeted at the same time.

What Macartney went down on one knee and bowed in time with others performing the full kowtow. From a distance it must have looked similar. The refusal to kowtow did not come as a surprise to the Emperor who had been informed in advance and had instructed Qiao and Wang to demonstrate to the British how to perform the kowtow. This difficulty confirmed the barbarian status of the British - refusing to show due respect was an affront that must not go unpunished. A Chinese explanation was that Macartney did not intend to kowtow but when he saw the magnificence of the Emperor he involuntarily fell to the floor. The truth about the refusal is most clearly demonstrated by the change of the Emperor’s attitude - it quickly became one of anger and wanting the embassy gone as soon as possible with the minimum of expenditure. Macartney recorded in his journal that the meeting was like ‘King Solomon in all his glory’ but this was a backhanded compliment as he was referring to a puppet show he played with as a boy - it was all very grand but totally ludicrous.

Macartney, embassy, kowtow
William Alexander's drawing of the reception of the Macartney embassy to China. Young Thomas Staunton (kneeling not kowtowing) receives a gift from the Emperor. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

But why did the British refuse to obey the command to kowtow? The well known adage ‘When in Rome do as the Romans do’ should surely apply. If a foreign dignitary refuses to bow to the Queen or kiss the hand of the Pope this is still taken as an affront, surely a visitor should obey local customs out of politeness?

Macartney in his journal admits that the embassy should have shown more flexibility to traditional local customs and dressed in a more Chinese fashion, however on the kowtow he remains firm that such a grovelling obeisance would have sent the wrong message. This appreciation of the issue is supported by what happened soon after. The Dutch sent an embassy led by Isaac Titsingh in 1795 and wanted to teach the British a lesson. Although not as grand as the British he made the strategic decision of doing whatever the Chinese demanded, including kowtowing whenever requested. The result was greater humiliation than Macartney ever received. The refusal to kowtow was emblematic but not the root of the problem.

The Emperor’s response

pagoda, Alexander, Macartney
A pagoda near Suzhou, 1794. The roofs are ornamented with small bells. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

The formal response waited until the mission had left Beijing. This was not a negotiation, an embassy set out their requests and then the Emperor wrote out his final judgment to be sent to King George III. The response was carried in a five feet gold cylinder and opened on October 3rd. Every British request was declined in a patronizing tone mainly on the premise that this is not how foreign relations had ever been done. Translators conspired to water down the language to make it a little less disparaging. Statements such as ‘You, Oh King, should simply act is conformity with our wishes by strengthening your loyalty and swearing perpetual obedience so as to ensure that your country may share the blessings of peace’ were not going to be well received.

What Macartney did not realize was that the response had already been formulated in advance, in early August before the formal audience. In essence the embassy was doomed before it had arrived. The efficient Imperial government were well prepared and just followed ancient precedent, it did not need to look seriously at the unreasoable British ‘demands’.

Macartney was disheartened and quickly wrote a more detailed list of requests and sent them via Heshen; these too were summarily dismissed. Macartney could only take solace from being treated with respect. All that he could hope to do was to negotiate with the senior officials who accompanied the embassy on the long overland journey home.

Chinese reaction

Although the Emperor was flattered that an embassy had traveled so far to bring ‘tribute’his world view had not changed, China was the center of the civilized world and rumors of his eminence had reached yet farther, Qianlong wrote a poem about the embassy after their meeting:

“Formerly Portugal presented tribute, now England is paying homage.
They have traveled further than Shu Hai and Heng-zhang ;
My ancestors’ virtue must have reached their distant lands.
Though their tribute is nothing special, my heart approves sincerely.
Curios and their ingenious devices I do not prize.
Though what they bring is meager, in my kindness to men from far away I make generous recompense -
Wanting to preserve my good health and power.”
Macartney, Alexander, mandarin, house
The courtyard house of a senior official. The flags display the rank of the official. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

The Emperor saw it as a mission no different from previous ones. If the Emperor had given way to Britain then all foreign countries would seek similar concessions, a recipe for chaos. If Napoleon had prevailed in the conflict at the time no doubt France would have sent a similar embassy to China. The Emperor feared British reprisals and even put trained divers on alert to sabotage the British ships but this fortunately proved unnecessary.

Both cultures viewed anything foreign as inferior. Carl Jung in 1951 wrote “Among the primitive, ‘foreigner’ is synonymous with ‘enemy’ and ‘evil’. Everything our nation does is good; everything other nations do is bad”. Macartney himself noted that the British air of vanity/superiority to all other nations was a valid cause for the Chinese to find this ‘foible’ a source of discomposure and disgust.

The return journey

bridge, Suzhou, Macartney, Alexander
A bridge near Suzhou. The Emperor commanded all bridges to give the embassy a military salute. The horseshoe shape was quite common around Suzhou. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

Crestfallen, Macartney set off on the Grand Canal to Hangzhou. He was accompanied by Songyun 松筠 Sōng yún (1752-1836) a senior Mongol prince and grand councilor. Songyun had also visited Moscow and the two shared reminiscences of Russia. Songyun traveled with a mobile library and got on very well with Macartney who was given verbal assurances that traders at Guangzhou would receive better treatment.

At Hangzhou they joined the major overland route to Guangzhou and Songyun was replaced with Changlin (1745-1811), a Manchu prince, who was traveling to take up the position of governor of Guang (modern Guangzhou, Guangxi and Hainan). Changlin continued Songyun’s attitude of friendliness but refused to commit formally to any agreements.

On reaching Guangzhou (Canton) on 18th December 1793 the British were amazed to find the shops were full of European wares. They saw shop signs in Chinese and English (more strictly Anglo-Portuguese pidgin) with many paintings for sale in the English not Chinese style. It was a city rather like Venice that was built on trade. Macartney regretted not visiting the city before he had headed north.

Macartney, Alexander, fishing
Fishermen at work with a net held by a framework of bamboo. Near Poyang Lake, Jiangxi. The mounds of brown earth in the middle distance are in readiness for repairing breaches in the banks of the canal. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License


The British perspective on the state of China is neatly summarized in Macartney’s words:

“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 150 years past, and to overawe their neighbors merely by its bulk and appearance, but whenever an insufficient man happens to have the command upon 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.”

It was a perceptive summary and formed the bedrock of future British policy. Chinese society could not continue in its present form, what was needed was revolution. It took until 1949 for Mao Zedong to found China on a ‘new bottom’.

Macartney, Alexander, Qinghai, gate, town
The southern gate of the city of Zhoushan a port near Ningbo. The city walls were 30 feet high hiding the buildings within except the pagoda. The guards used the tents illustrated. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

China had an ancient civilization that had stagnated. In Europe there was an immense feeling of rapid change. Stability and regularity were not marks of what was seen as the inevitable march of progress civilization. The maxim ‘he who does not advance, retreats’ was applied to anything that was not moving rapidly forward. The British acclaim for chinoiserie soon faded and the philosophy of Confucius once much admired was now regarded as 'primitive'. All the good work done by Lord Macartney in China quickly unraveled. Although he came away with no official agreements he had hoped that his personal audiences with key people would have left a favorable impression that would gradually improve the position of the British traders.

His hopes were quickly dashed. Emperor Qianlong retired in 1795 but remained the power behind the throne until his death in 1799. On his death Emperor Jiajing moved quickly to remove the corrupt Heshen, who took the option of suicide rather than torture and execution. Jiajing took an even tougher line with foreign embassies than his father had. The officials that Macartney had cultivated most notably Changlin who, as governor of Guang fell foul of Heshen, served just 15 months. Wang Wenxiong (1740-1800) who accompanied Macartney for the whole trip died in military service putting down a rebellion in Shanxi. Qiao Renjie (1745-1804) was moved to become a judge in Beizhili province. Lord George Macartney became seriously ill in 1798 and died in 1806 and Sir George Staunton died in 1801. Within ten years of the mission all the key people were dead or no longer in positions of influence. Things may have turned out differently if people with firsthand experience had remained in power. The relationship soon went back to how it had been before - disparaging contempt for an inferior civilization on both sides.

macartny, gillray, Emperor Qianlong
James Gillray, published 14 September 1793. "A caricature on Lord Macartney's Embassy to China and on the little which the Ambassador and his government are presumed to have known of the manners and tastes of the people they wanted to conciliate (the purpose of the visit was to propose the creation of a permanent English mission to the court of Peking). Chinese etiquette is, that extreme prostrations should be made before the Emperor, which it was intimated Lord Macartney would not conform to. The whole contour of the Emperor is indicative of cunning and contempt and his indifference to the numerous gifts displaying the skill of British manufacturing, is evident. The German face bringing in the cage is Mr Huttner of the Foreign Office, who acted as an interpreter and published his own account of the visit. As soon as Lord Macartney had declined to make the required prostrations, only going down on one knee, he was dismissed from the presence of the Emperor. He was later ordered to quit Peking within two days and was given a letter addressed to George III wherein the Emperor states that,'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'. An attache, Aeneas Anderson, later recalled that "we entered Pekin like Paupers, remained in it like Prisoners and departed from it like Vagrants". Image by James Gilray available under a Creative Commons License

Garbled news of the fate of the embassy had reached Britain ahead of the returning ships. The national press turned very hostile to China and lampooned Macartney for groveling before a corpulent and slothful Emperor. British pride was hurt by being treated not as equals but inferior barbarians. Calls for a boycott of Chinese goods ensued. The journals of key people were quickly published and they sold very well. The general tone can be summarized in a couple of quotations: “the permanence of their institutions is no evidence of their superiority, for it prevents all progress” and “The world’s greatest sovereign is deceived by courtiers just like elsewhere”. Other reports termed the country ‘backward’ and ‘degenerate’; the mystique and glamor of China had vanished.

The Macartney embassy had cost millions of pounds and there was a death toll: 90 seamen and 7 officers died of disease during the trip.


Macartney, Alexander, tracker, food, meal
A group of trackers having a meal break. These laborers hauled the boats along the canals and rivers. Each boat may need 20 trackers. The main food is rice but sometimes fried vegetables. Their shoes may be made of straw. They frequently smoked tobacco. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

There is only space here to pick out a few key impressions that the Macartney mission made particular note of. They went to gather information at first-hand and this they achieved. Everything from military readiness to tea cultivation was duly noted. Britain also wanted to find out the secrets of silk production. Tea plants were collected and ended up in India to eventually build up the Indian tea industry. They studied the agriculture intently and noted the low use of mechanization that was revolutionizing yields in the UK. They were kept away from Jingdezhen with all its important secrets about porcelain manufacture.


The mission was astounded by the sheer number of people they saw. A burgeoning population was at the root of the Qing dynasty’s woes, it had doubled and only improved agricultural practices and new crops kept the people from famine. Beijing was then the largest and most populous city in the world. When Macartney first saw this mass of humanity he turned to Shakespeare’s Tempest “O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How bounteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in it!” An estimated 2 million people saw the embassy leave Tianjin.

Macartney, Alexander, gambling, watermen
A group of boatmen taking the opportunity of a rest fro a spot of gambling. In this case a game of dice is being played. Note the queue hairstyle imposed by the Manchus. In the foreground is a gong used to warn other boats of approach and to order the trackers pulling the boat to stop. Each gong has a slightly different note so individual boats can be distinguished. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

The Great Wall

The rather neglected ruin of the Great Wall greatly impressed the party. The wall had ceased to hold any strategic value after the Manchus had subdued Mongolia. The mission clambered over the wall and took measurements and notes. The Chinese were concerned that this amounted to spying and tried (unsuccessfully) to prevent access to the Great Wall on their return visit.

Macartney, Alexander, wheelbarrow
A Chinese porter with traditional wheelbarrow. The barrow has a central wheel so it can take greater weight. It also has a 'sail' so that the wind can assist its motion. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

Dress and deportment

Macartney had stressed the importance of dignified behavior and smart appearance. They had expected some interest in these strange barbarian people but the main reaction was of derision. Ordinary Chinese people greeted them with guffaws not hurrays. The tight trousers and powdered wigs made them look ridiculous to Chinese eyes; such attire was only seen among clowns and devils on the stage. They should have gone some way to adopt Chinese ways while in Chinaas the Jesuits had done. The African boy servant they had hired at Manilla was a particular cause of astonishment.

Imperial communication

The embassy was bewildered by the speed of the Imperial postal service. In Europe a letter would take about ten times longer to travel the same distance. In China specially bred horses were held at stations, up to 100 at each one. Horses had small bells in their harnesses so the next station was in readiness before arrival. An Imperial letter could travel at 150 miles a day - so it only took ten days to go all the way from Beijing to Guangzhou. It was this efficient and world-beating communication system that kept the vast Chinese Empire together.

Macartney, Alexander, warship, boat
A warship at anchor near Ningbo. It was used to garrison soldiers to defend a town. The apparent gun ports are not used - they do not conceal a cannon. The magnetic compass was little used for navigation at this time. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

Military readiness

The embassy was amazed by the sheer number of army/militia personnel that they saw. China’s military preparedness was studied and recorded. The Emperor had issued a command that every bridge they passed under should have military personnel on display. The effect did not stand up to close scrutiny, some of the ‘armor’ was just painted wood and discipline was lacking. The cannons were particularly poor, no match for improved European versions. Their weaponry was considered little better than pitchforks. As for the navy, Macartney was confident that just two frigates could pulverize the whole Chinese navy, and so it was to prove. China would be easy to conquer but hard to hold due to the sheer numbers of people.

Macartney, Alexander, military post, army
A military post that was common along the canals and roads in China. The stone building supports up to 10 soldiers. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. The white objects are gunpowder alarms to notify adjacent stations of attack. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License
Macartney, soldier, tiger
A Chinese soldier in standard tiger uniform. The soldier is armed with scimitar and a shield. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

Chinese landscape gardens

jehol, chengde, Hebei, Macartney
Lake and Park in the imperial gardens, Jehol (painting by Alexander from a sketch by Lieutenant Parish). Macartney embassy to Beijing 1793. Image by Parish available under a Creative Commons License

Macartney was blown away by the beauty and taste of both the Old Summer Palace and the park lands at Jehol. These extensive areas were carefully landscaped with various buildings at the best possible position. Chinese garden design was already influencing style in Europe and this trend continued. Macartney wrote:

“[To] the garden appearance of those parts near where we lodged... hill, dale, diversified with wood and lawn... [the Chinese] add the very great advantage of abundance of canals, rivers and large sheets of water whose banks, though artificial, are neither trimmed nor shorn nor sloped liked the glacis of a fortification, but have been thrown up with immense labor in an irregular and, as it were, fortuitous manner so as to represent the free hand of nature. Bold, rocky promontories are seen jutting into a lake, and valleys retiring, some choked with wood, others in a state of high cultivation. In particular spots where pleasure houses or places of rest and retirement are erected, the view appeared to have been studied. The trees are not only placed according to their magnitude but the tints of their foliage seem also to have been considered in the composition of the picture... Nothing that I saw could be considered and offense to nature.”


Macartney, Alexander, Tibetan monk, Buddhism, Chengde
A Tibetan lama as seen at Chengde with a copy of the Potala palace in Tibet in the background. The monastery housed 800 Buddhist monks. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

They saw a good deal of superstition. When traveling by boat the river gods had to be placated by sacrifices of cockerels and little ceremonies before the boats attempted anything remotely perilous. The working people of China they found very hard-working and cheerful. The mission was impressed by the level of intensive rice agriculture they saw on the return trip through China. They witnessed cormorant fishing, orange tree, tea and silk cultivation.

Key mistakes of the mission

In retrospect much more could have been achieved. The stance taken by the embassy removed any chance of success. Here is a list of how they could have improved their chances.

Macartney's Achievements

Macartney, Alexander, barge, boat
The river barge of mandarin Wang Wenxiong who accompanied the embassy. The triple level umbrella denotes his high rank. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

While China learned very little from the embassy many in Britain pored over the many published journals of all the first-hand witnesses. Macartney’s journal even gets a mention in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park - his journal was a best seller. The philosopher and writer Goëthe avidly read the book and became fascinated by China. Charts of the previously unknown Bohai Bay north of the Shandong peninsula were made. These would become invaluable when the Opium Wars brought the British warships to Tianjin in 1860.

The customs and traditions were noted and discussed. The inflexible workings of the Imperial court were now understood. The Emperor had not shut out the possibilities further embassies; it was the war with France that prevented a return trip in the following few years, indeed Lord Amherst’s embassy set out in 1816 as soon as this war was won.


Macartney, Alexander, mandarin, Wang Wenxiong
Portrait of Wang Wenxiong (1740-1800) who accompanied the embassy. He is described as a bold, generous and amiable character. He was a military commander and is shown with a bow and sabre. he wears boots of satin with thick paper soles. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

The collision between the two, very different, civilizations of Britain and China is usually recorded in totally negative terms. Britain was arrogant, bellicose and was nurturing a developing superiority complex. China did not know it then but its long supremacy as the most populated, richest and most civilized nation was rapidly coming to an end.

It is wrong to consider that the whole mission was clouded by mutual hatred that could only find an outlet in the war that was to come. The Chinese interpreter Li Zibiao stayed on in China and continued to write to his British friends.

The two Chinese officials Wang Wenxiong and Qiao Renjie who accompanied the mission for the whole five months were the people who saw most of the British visitors. They showed no sign of despising their guests, quite the contrary. When the party reached Guangzhou and was soon to part, Sir John Barrow was invited to accompany Wang and Qiao on a visit to the pleasure houses for a night of booze and prostitutes. Barrow was just implored not to tell anyone of the trip; such was the level of trust that had developed. Macartney was impressed by the dignity and kindliness of the two mandarins. He records that on their parting: “They shed tears at parting and showed such marks of sensibility and concern as could proceed from none but sincere and uncorrupted hearts. If ever I could forget the friendship and attachment of these two worthy men, or the services they rendered us, I should be guilty of the deepest ingratitude.”

Macartney, Alexander, Qiao Renjie, mandarin
Portrait of the mandarin Qiao Renjie (1745-1804) who accompanied the mission for all its time in China. He was a man of grave deportment, strict integrity, sound judgment and great erudition. A former tutor to the Imperial family. His hat bears a blue stone and peacock feather to denote his high rank. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

One member of Sir George Macartney’s family took this friendship with China even further. This was Sir Halliday Macartney (1833-1906) who trained as a doctor. He went to China as part of the British forces in the Second Opium War. He then joined General Charles Gordon in supporting the Qing side in the Taiping Rebellion. He went on to marry the niece of leading figure Li Hongzhang. In one of the strangest symmetries in history he acted as counselor for the Chinese government when the first Chinese legation was opened in London. He was even involved in the notorious kidnap of Dr. Sun Yatsen in 1896. He was awarded the Chinese Imperial Order of the Double Dragon in 1906.

macartney, ship, lion
Hand-colored soft-ground etching. A view from the bow of Lion, a three-masted third-rate ship of the line, sailing before the wind in a gentle breeze. The ship carries royals and topmast studding sails which are designed for use in lighter winds. In the background are four other vessels. H.M.S. Lion July 1794. Available under a Creative Commons License The H.M.S. Lion was the ship that took Macartney and some of his party to China and back.

The Lion’s claws

The lion, the emblem of England, and the name of one of the Macartney's ships, returns us to the ‘Rains of Castamere ’ where two proud houses came to conflict just as Britain and China were soon to do. The full lyrics of the song bear repeating: “‘And who are you?’ the proud Lord said ‘that I must bow so low?’ ‘Only a cat of a different coat, that’s all the truth I know. In a coat of gold or a coat of red, a lion still has claws, and mine are long and sharp, my Lord, as long and sharp as yours.’ And so he spoke that Lord of Castamere but now the rains weep o'er his hall with no one there to hear.

The destruction of the Emperor's Old Summer Palace, Beijing that ended the Opium Wars came to pass in 1860.

Macartney, Alexander, manchu, soldier
A Qing dynasty soldier. The color of the tassel determines the Manchu banner army to which he serves. The uniform is designed to look like armor from a distance but only the helmet is iron. Painted by the official artist to the Macartney British Embassy to China 1793-94. Image by William Alexander available under a Creative Commons License

See also