In Europe, people loved to read books about faraway places. New travelogues about foreign parts of the world, preferably illustrated with maps and beautiful copper engravings – publishers couldn’t go wrong with that. And people were particularly fond of reports on China. The exotic “Middle Kingdom” fascinated the Europeans, who romanticized China to an earthly paradise. Among European aristocracy, China was in vogue for more than 100 years: products from China such as tea and porcelain were coveted status symbols in the 18th century. Galleries with Chinese furniture as well as Chinese gardens with pagodas and tea-houses were designed for European palaces.
Since access to China was extremely restricted for Europeans, there was still comparatively little known about the country around 1800. When British envoys returned from China in 1795 and published an account of their journey shortly after, the book quickly became a bestseller. It was translated into various languages and published throughout Europe. Our book bears witness to this. Des Grafen Macartney Gesandschaftsreise nach China (Count Macartney’s Journey to China) of 1798 is one of a whole series of German-language versions of the report. Unlike other editions, this two volume copy was embellished with original copper engravings that are based on drawings by the expedition painter William Alexander. A fold-out map of China was added too – everything was set for the book to become a bestseller. The work describes the expedition route through the country leading to the summer palace of the Emperor. We read about towns along the way, about people and customs, technology and botany – and about the encounter with the Emperor since this was the purpose of the journey.
For today’s readers, the report is exciting because it documents an event that is considered a turning point of the relation between China and Europe. For, of course, the purpose of the journey was not to deliver a pleasant read about the country and its people.
On Behalf of the King
It was the first time that Great Britain sent an official envoy to the Empire. The delegation was led by a lord: Earl Macartney, an experienced diplomat and colonial governor. From this fact alone you can tell: the trip was not a friendly visit for the British. It was about the highest interests of the British people.
Britain’s enormous demand for tea from China could hardly be satisfied anymore. Since the 16th century, European trade with China had been subject to strict regulations, which became even stricter in 1760. Europeans were only allowed to do business in the harbour of Canton, under restrictions and at fixed prices. The British found the situation unbearable. They had become an undisputed trading and naval power, their empire stretched across the globe – and yet China treated them as supplicants.
Therefore, Macartney’s expedition had a clear purpose. The envoys were supposed to make China open its ports to British trade. In addition, the government in London wanted an independent British trading post on China’s coast under British rule and an ambassador to the imperial court. Thus, the fleet set sail for China. On board were 600 boxes with gifts for the Emperor. The selection had been made with ulterior motives: scientific equipment was to demonstrate Europe’s progress; goods and raw materials of various kinds were carried in the hope of finding something that would interest the Chinese, making them want to trade with Britain, which would result in a profitable business for the British.
They had already overcome the first obstacle when they were permitted to set foot on Chinese soil: the envoys said they wanted to bring gifts on the occasion of the 80th birthday of the Qianlong Emperor. By land and water, the expedition traversed China for weeks, stopping at many places and finally reaching the Emperor’s summer palace in Jehol via the Great Wall.
When Worlds Collide
The expedition’s chances of success were slim from the start. But when they met the Emperor, they squandered any chance of agreement: Macartney, being a British lord and the direct representative of the King, refused to kowtow – to prostrate himself in front of the Emperor with the forehead touching the ground. Macartney explained that he would only agree to such a humiliating gesture if a similarly high-ranking Chinese would to kowtow in front of a painting of George III at the same time. The Chinese considered that unacceptable, and they agreed that Macartney would go down on one knee, as he would have done when meeting George III – a compromise that left both parties unsatisfied. This scene illustrates how little understanding there was between both sides. Macartney felt he was acting as a representative of the most powerful nation of the world. The Chinese, on the other hand, considered other states to be tributary and inferior; after all, the Emperor was the son of heaven and the master of the world, according to their world view. In the end, the delegation departed without having achieved a single of Britain’s wishes.
A Change in Mindset
Unlike the travel report, the Macartney mission was a failure – and an expensive one. Power-conscious Great Britain had a hard time being turned down this way. In the following period, views of China changed, partly as a result of this dissatisfaction and statements made by the envoys. It appeared that not much had happened in China since the epoch-making, universally known travel report by the Dutchman Nieuhoff – and that was 130 years ago. People began to regard China no longer as a superior empire and criticised its stagnation and inflexibility. China’s image became increasingly negative.
A Colossus with Feet of Clay
Some years later, the British finally found a good that could profitably be sold in China, although not officially: opium. The British cultivated it in India and distributed it through smugglers at great profit in China. The resulting tensions led, 40 years after the Macartney mission, to the Opium Wars. In these conflicts, Great Britain imposed its trade interests by force and effectively took control of China’s trade. To many, China had turned out to be a colossus with feet of clay. The fascination for China faded away. Today, the West looks at China again with increasing fascination – but that is another topic.
Other Things You Might Be Interested in:
You can find not this but another German edition of the account of Macartney’s journey published in the same year on the website of the Munich DigitiZation Centre.
We also dealt with Europe’s fascination with China in our exhibition Our Journey Into the Unknown: How we came to discover the secrets of our world.
In the aftermath of the expedition, the Emperor of China wrote what was probably the first letter ever to a European monarch. The letter to George III was perceived as incredibly arrogant and snubbed the British. You can read it here.