On the occasion of President Xi Jinping’s visit to the United Kingdom and his resistance to be lectured on democracy, here’s an article about the Macartney Embassy, the first diplomatic exchange between the two states which ended with the Qianlong Emperor resisting British demands.
By the time envoy George Macartney famously refused to kowtow to the Chinese emperor in 1793, the British had already been trading with China for several decades but were subject to strict limitations by the Qing government. The purpose of the mission was to seek “the opening of new ports for British trade in China, the establishment of a permanent embassy in Beijing, the cession of a small island for British use along China’s coast, and the relaxation of trade restrictions on British merchants in Guangzhou.” The emperor rejected all the requests. His reasons, explained in a letter to King George III, are based on the view that the British overreached their position as a tribute state to the Chinese empire.
As Wikipedia explains, “[t]he Macartney Embassy is historically significant for many reasons, most of them visible only in retrospect. While to a modern sensibility it marked a missed opportunity by both sides to explore and understand each other’s cultures, customs, diplomatic styles, and ambitions, it also prefigured increasing British pressure on China to accommodate its expanding trading and imperial network. The mutual lack of knowledge and understanding on both sides would continue to plague the Qing dynasty as it encountered increasing foreign pressures and internal unrest during the 19th century.”
Roughly 50 years later, the First Opium War began and concluded with the cession of Hong Kong to the British in perpetuity, the opening of five treaty ports, and the exemption of British subjects from local laws.
Nevertheless, the mission allowed the opportunity to visit Beijing, which was typically off-limits to foreigners, and other parts of the empire Among the people who helped produced detailed records of the trip was painter William Alexander. He accompanied the mission and documented his observations in sketches, engravings, and watercolors. His 1805 Costumes of China was so popular that in 1814, he published a second book of engravings entitled Picturesque Representations of the Dress and Manners of the Chinese.
Lead image: The Reception, a caricature of the reception that Lord Macartney received from the Qianlong Emperor by James Gillray