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The Macartney mission: dispelling the myth of Chinese arrogance

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Europe and the Western World has long considered China to be somewhat of a mystery: a self-isolated giant, shrouded in thousands of years of rich history which the West for centuries knew little about and still to this day is attempting to de-mystify. China, even in modern times, tends to be viewed as hostile to western ideology and diplomacy, and above all, as arrogant. A great deal of our understanding and perception of European-Chinese relations, perhaps more specifically regarding pre-modern China, comes out of a highly pivotal point in history: the Embassy of Lord Macartney and his Mission to China in 1793 during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. The Macartney Mission represented the first true example of large scale, nation-to-nation, sovereign-to-sovereign interaction between the Chinese and Europeans. That is not to say contact did not already exist between China and Europe. As Marco Polo arrived in the Far East in the 13th century, he discovered European artisans already working in the royal court of the Great Khan and the 16th and 17th centuries saw the rise of Jesuit-Missions in China, most notably that of the Italian priest Matteo Ricci. However, as oceanic trade between China and Europe began in the 16th century and increased throughout the 17th and 18th centuries as Europe became more industrialized, the terms of Chinese-European interaction would change drastically. Missionaries, explorers and artists were individuals or small groups, but international trade involved entire trade companies and governments – and therefore diplomacy. As Macartney and his Embassy ventured into China to negotiate diplomatic terms, both Britain and China were entering truly unknown territory in their relations with one another, or more generally, the relations between Europe and China. No prior European mission had reached this scale or entered in such close contact with China on a political/economical level.

From the British perspective, the mission failed to negotiate trade agreements as all requests were denied by the Qianlong Emperor. Much has been said of what went wrong during the Macartney Mission and many have speculated over these points of failure. Most commonly is the failure of the Macartney mission blamed on cultural misunderstanding and the arrogance of the Chinese Imperial court. The Macartney Mission represents in fact a major turning point in how the West would regard China going forward. Voltaire once echoed the romantic, mid-18th c. European notions of China when he wrote in admiration of the Celestial Empire in his 1756 Essai sur les m’urs et l’esprit des nations. Historian C.P. Fitzgerald summarizes Voltaire’s view of China – A magnificent spectacle: an empire far larger than any Europe had known since the fall of Rome, governed by a central administration through officers appointed, removed, transferred, or dismissed at the pleasure of the Throne, unhampered by feudal privileges or local powers. However, this admiration and wonderment would change to contempt as Fitzgerald writes that following the Macartney Mission, the Chinese Empire was then viewed in Europe as, weak, corrupt, ill-governed, racked by rebellions, swept by famine, ignorant of science, indifferent to progress, and still pagan. What caused this notion of Chinese arrogance to emerge and why is it so fundamentally inaccurate? These are questions I would like to answer in this Hausarbeit. Furthermore, much has been speculated over cultural misunderstanding and ignorance from both sides as leading to the Macartney Mission’s failure. I would like to point out through Chinese primary sources that this simply is not true and that both the British and the Chinese were aware of the other’s customs, but simply neglected them for other reasons.

As I have stated, I wish to dispel the notions of Chinese arrogance and cultural misunderstanding, which have so long been the simple explanations for the failure of the Macarntey Mission. Rather I would argue that the interaction between the British and Chinese Imperial court was much more about strategy and conscious, logical decisions than it was about ignorance and ritual. Furthermore, I would argue that most of the speculation regarding British failure and mistakes in their handling of the Macarntey Mission, notably the failure to Kowtow which I will discuss later, are in a sense futile because I believe the mission would have never succeeded from a diplomatic standpoint under any circumstances given Chinese, Confucianism social ordering and its moral-centric mode of governance.


Firstly, I will speak to the British perspective and what led Britain to send Lord George Macarntey to the court of the Qianlong Emperor seeking diplomatic negotiations. In response to the desire of Europeans for trade with China in the 17th and 18th centuries, the ruling Qing Dynasty developed, over the course of two centuries, an extensive set of trade regulations and practices known as the Canton System which would govern European-Chinese trade. In the early 18th century, the Yongzheng Emperor established the thirteen Hongs which had legal control over the commerce in southern China’s busiest port city Canton (Guangzhou), but as demand for trade from the Europeans grew (trade was growing at roughly the rate of 4% per year at that time), the Qing Dynasty became increasingly conservative, applying restrictive reforms to the Canton System. In 1757, the Qianlong Emperor reformed the Canton System as to confine all European trade to the port of Canton. This proved unfavorable with European nations, particularly the British who felt restricted by these very intricate and strict trade agreements. Britain’s East India Trade Company in the mid-18th century was accruing a trade imbalance with China that was growing rapidly out of hand (mostly as a result of Britain’s insatiable appetitive for tea, silk and porcelain) and the taxes imposed by the hongs was proving unbearable. At this time, European economies were expanding rapidly and the need for hard currency was constantly increasing, particularly the need for silver and other precious metals to make the currency. This meant that there was less bullion available for trade with China, which in turn, further increased the cost of trade in Canton. Inspired by the notions of Adam Smith-economics and the inherent good of open markets and barrier free trade, Britain was convinced to free itself from the suffocating stipulations of the Canton system and open up greater trade with China.

At the urge of The East India Trading Company and Prime Minister William Pitt, the British government established an embassy which was to be led by English statesman and diplomat, George, Earl of Macartney. Preparations for the Embassy’s arrival in China were being made as early as the summer of 1792. The goal of Macartney’s Embassy in China was to receive an audience with the Qianlong Emperor where they would offer their requests of negotiation. Of these requests, the most significant were: to reform or abolish the Canton system and open trade at multiple ports across China including Ningpo, Chusan and Tientsin; to establish a permanent British ambassador in Peking; and finally, to secure the grant of a small island off the coast of China were British merchants could operate in accordance with British law and practice British, Christian religion.

In June of 1793, Macartney is memorialized in Chinese imperial correspondences as approaching the port city of Macau and upon arrival immediate dispute entailed between Macartney and the hong in Macau. As stipulated by the Canton System, no Europeans should be allowed to land anywhere other than Canton or Macau and they most certainly were not allowed to dictate whether they would receive and audience with the emperor in Peking or not. However, the Embassy had brought many intricate and large gifts with them such as elaborate clocks and a Planetarium developed by William Herschel and therefore, were granted special permission that they can personally travel with their gifts to deliver them to the emperor. By late-August, the Embassy had reached Peking and were then escorted north, overland to the emperor’s summer palace in Jehol. On the 14th of September 1793, nearly a year after the embassy embarked from England, Lord Macartney received an audience with the Qianlong Emperor, however, after three days of ceremonies and gift exchanging, Macartney and his embassy were dismissed from the Imperial Court and escorted, with haste, back to their ships and out of China. According to Macartney’s account of the events, not a single matter of diplomacy or negotiation was discussed during his audience in Jehol. Then on the 23rd of September 1793, the Qianlong Emperor of the Manchu-Qing Dynasty issued a royal edict addressed to King George III of Great Britain rejecting all requests and proposals offered by the British. The edict serves as one of the most significant pieces of Chinese primary source material to ever emerge and it has been crucial to historical work and public thought regarding the late Qing Dynasty. However, I would argue that it is a highly, and often, misinterpreted document. By examining the edict, as well as the Qianlong Emperor’s second edict to King George III and a personal poem written by the emperor himself, I will first highlight what many of Lord Macartney’s contemporaries in 18thc. Britain, as well as many historians of the 20th c. have called Chinese Arrogance and the immobility of the Qing Dynasty. However, I will then try to discredit these claims of arrogance by examining the decisions and rhetoric of the Qianlong Emperor through a more nuanced consideration of the Chinese perspective.

Upon reading the English translation of the manuscript of the first imperial edict, what strikes one immediately is the tone of the rhetoric used by the Qianlong Emperor. It reads as rather pompous and presumptuous to an English-speaker and historian J.L. Cranmer-Byng even notes that the original Chinese characters used in the edict have a slightly haughty and condescending sense, sighting historical usage of certain characters as being used in imperial documents from the Middle Kingdom when senior officers addressed junior officers or anyone of lesser status. Furthermore, the Qianlong Emperor appears to belittle the British diplomatic efforts by insisting that the Embassy was only a tribute mission to show him sincerity. In a poem written by the Qianlong Emperor in memory of the Macartney Embassy he writes, in my kindness to men from afar I make generous return, wanting to preserve my good health and power. Furthermore, regarding the extravagant gifts brought by the British and also regarding British imports into China, the Emperor wrote, I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures. In his poem he conveys the same message: though their tribute is commonplace. Curios and the boasted ingenuity of their devices I prize not. Furthermore, the emperor writes that he allows European trade as a concession out of his own kindness, and that China does not have the slightest need for European trade and products: Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders.

Such passages have been taken by a particular camp of historians to be evidence that China, or more specifically Qianlong and the Qing Dynasty, was utterly arrogant and ignorant in regard to foreign relations. Although the emperor clearly conveys the China-centric worldview and Chinese self-sufficiency, this has been taken by some to be evidence of a truly ignorant rejection of the benefits of western trade principles. By calling the British gifts as strange and ingenious, the emperor seems to renounce the fruits of the Industrial Revolution and the great technological progress of Europe and therefore, has been viewed by some as proof of the Qing Dynasty’s crippling intransigence and blind arrogance. Alain Peyrefitte in his work The Immobile Empire is representative of this particular camp of historians who have put a disproportionate amount of weight on the principles of free trade and Smithian economics when examining the Imperial Court of the Qianlong Emperor. Peyrefitte argues that the Qing Dynasty’s adherence to ritual and rejection of British trade negotiations exemplify how the cultural conceit and arrogance of the Chinese imperial court kept China immobile and feeble, particularly in light of the later Opium Wars. Historian James L. Hevia in his work Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793 disagrees with Peyrefitte’s notion of Chinese ritual and conservatism as being the failure of the Macartney Mission, but rather he believes the Mission failed because both the Chinese and the British were equally more concerned with ritual and the two cultures inevitably clashed. However, I find that both of these perspectives observes the Chinese position from a highly superficial level and put far too much weight on cultural difference and ritual. Where both Peyrefitte and Hevia fall short is in their inability to consider the ration, practicality and strategy involved in the actions of the Qianlong Emperor in the context of the Macartney Embassy in 1793: the logic that lay behind the facade of ritual. Therefore, we must examine Chinese arrogance in a different context – the context of the Chinese perspective.

I believe we must first rethink the term Chinese Arrogance’ along two frames of thought: Chinese arrogance as a sign of strength and in response to blatant British arrogance, and also the misinterpretation of Confucianism values as arrogance. Much is spoken about Chinese arrogance in the 1793 Macartney Mission, but one must also consider the interpretation of British behavior and actions during the Mission from the Chinese perspective. In considering the Chinese perspective, we can see how truly arrogant and boorish the British were in their interaction with Chinese authorities. Nothing represents this better than the infamous Kowtow Issue. The Kotow was a highly important honor ritual in Confucian, Chinese culture in which one would kneel before men of high authority and rank, and in a display of honor, touch the forehead to the floor multiple times. It was not simply a sign of respect, but rather a form of maintain social order in the hierarchy of Chinese society. Failure to perform the action was feared to cause great natural disasters, but from a more rational standpoint, it could destabilize the Confucian, hierarchical social order which Chinese society operated under. As early as one month prior to Macartney’s audience with the Qianlong Emperor, a letter from the Chinese Grand Council to the official Chinghai who was accompanying the Macarntey Embassy, expressed concerns about the failure of Macartney to perform the kowtow ritual before provincial officials along their journey. The letter furthermore supplied detailed instructions on how the kowtow was to be performed and even arranged specific days so that he may carry out rehearsals (of the kowtow). Macarntey was well informed and well aware of the significance of the kowtow and its importance if the British were to be taken honorably by the Imperial Court. Regardless, Macartney blatantly continued refusing to perform the kowtow as he saw it to represent the inferiority of his own King George to the Qianlong Emperor. During his audience in Jehol, Maccartney once again refused to kowtow, an action that was interpreted as an egregiously dishonorable and arrogant affront to the Chinese Emperor: they are ignorant barbarians…they are not destined to receive our favor.

Macartney’s refusal to kowtow is representative of the British haughtiness and arrogance sensed by the Chinese during the Macartney Mission of 1793. Throughout the journey they refused to honor the Chinese bureaucratic process or Chinese authority and determined their own rules, such as sailing north directly to Peking without official permission. There brashness and arrogance was rather shocking to Chinese authorities and it was righty met with strong words in the emperor’s edict. In failing to kowtow or follow the proper historical precedent in their conduct with the Imperial Court, Macarntey and the British had proven themselves to be rather dishonorable, and unfitting of the emperor’s favor, never mind his respect. W.E. Soothill writes regarding Lord Macartney, envoy and his staff were totally ignorant of the normal methods of approach. They carried no presence; they failed to do the obeisance (kotow), without explaining the reason; their dress was unimposing; they buttered no paws; and had neither style nor tone to impress the court. What has been labeled arrogance in Qianlong’s handling of the British Envoy in 1793 was that to be expected when dealing with.

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