Macartney and the Emperor

Introduction for Teachers

It is highly recommended that this unit be used with the teaching unit on The Opium W ear and Foreign Encroachment. Once students have read about China's negative response to Great Britain's aggressive demands for the expansion of trade and exchange of ambassadors, they will be prepared to appreciate more fully the Chinese perception of the Opium War and the conditions imposed upon the country in the "unequal treaties" that followed. China's experience of Western aggression in the 1800s continues to be an important factor shaping both the nation's foreign policy and its drive for modernization.

Reading for Students:
Macartney and the Emperor

Many Europeans had contact with China over the centuries. When Marco Polo traveled to China in the thirteenth century, he found European artisans already at the court of the Great Khan. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, priests such as the Italian Matteo Ricci journeyed to China, learned Chinese, and tried to make their religion more acceptable to the Chinese. These contacts were made usually by individual entrepreneurs or solitary missionaries. Although some Western science, art, and architecture was welcomed by the Qing court, attempts to convert Chinese to Christianity were by and large unsuccessful. More importantly, the Chinese state did not lend its support to creating a significant number of specialists in Western thinking.

Direct oceanic trade between China and Europe began during the sixteenth century. At first it was dominated by the Portuguese and the Spanish, who brought silver from the Americas to exchange for Chinese silks. Later they were joined by the British and the Dutch. Initially trading took place at several ports along the Chinese coast, but gradually the state limited Western trade to the southern port of Canton (Guangzhou). Here there were wealthy Chinese merchants who had been given monopoly privileges by the emperor to trade with foreigners. Merchant guilds trading with foreigners were known as "hongs," a Westernization of hang, or street. The original merchant associations had been organized by streets. The merchants of the selected hongs were also among the only Chinese merchants with enough money to buy large amounts of goods produced inland and have them ready for the foreign traders when they came once a year to make their purchases. The Chinese court also favored trading at one port because it could more easily collect taxes on the goods traded if all trade was carried on in one place under the supervision of an official appointed by the emperor. Such a system would make it easier to control the activities of the foreigners as well. So in the 1750s trade was restricted to Canton (Guangzhou), and foreigners coming to China in their sail-powered ships were allowed to reside only on the island of Macao as they awaited favorable winds to return home.

For many years this system was acceptable to both the Chinese and the Europeans. As the demand for tea increased, however, and the Industrial Revolution led them to seek more markets for their manufactured goods, the British began to try to expand their trade opportunities in China and establish Western-style diplomatic relations with the Chinese. This brought them immediately into conflict with the Chinese government, which was willing to allow trade without diplomatic relations, but would only allow diplomatic relations within the traditional tribute system that had evolved out of centuries of Chinese cultural leadership in Asia. In exchange for trading privileges in the capital and recognition of their ruler, neighboring states would send so-called tribute missions to China. These envoys brought gifts for the emperor and performed a series of bows called the "kow-tow" (koutou). Aside from a handful of foreigners who lived permanently in Peking (Beijing) and served the emperor, foreigners only visited the capital on such tribute missions. Therefore, when British citizens came to Peking in the late eighteenth century, their purpose was misunderstood. When they refused to follow the centuries-old system of tribute relations and began demanding both expanded trade and the establishment of embassies in the capital, they were immediately resisted and seen as challenging the Chinese way of life.

One of the most famous British attempts to expand trade with China demonstrates the miscommunication between the two nations. Lord Macartney (George Macartney, 1737-1806) led a mission in 1793 to the court of the Qianlong emperor (1711-1799; r. 1736-1796) of China. This emperor reigned over perhaps the most luxurious court in all Chinese history. He had inherited a full treasury, and his nation seemed strong and wealthy enough to reach its greatest size ever and also to attain a splendor that outdazzled even the best Europe could then offer.

King George III (1738-1820) of England sent Macartney to convince the Chinese emperor to open northern port cities to British traders and to allow British ships to be repaired on Chinese territory. Macartney arrived in North China in a warship with a retinue of 95, an artillery of 50 redcoats, and 600 packages of magnificent presents that required 90 wagons, 40 barrows, 200 horses, and 3,000 porters to carry them to Peking. Yet the best gifts of the kind of England had to offer — elaborate clocks, globes, porcelain — seemed insignificant beside the splendors of the Asian court. Taken on a yacht trip around the palace, Macartney stopped to visit 50 pavilions, each "furnished in the richest manner . . . that our presents must shrink from the comparison and hide their diminished heads," he later wrote.** Immediately the Chinese labeled his mission as "tribute," and the emperor refused to listen to British demands. He also ordered Macartney to perform the kow-tow and dashed off the following reply to the British king.

**From Frederick Wakeman, Jr., The Fall of Imperial China (Free Press, 1977), 101.

Acknowledgments: The consultants for this unit were Drs. Madeleine Zelin and Sue Gronewold, specialists in modern Chinese history.

| back to top |

Two Edicts from the Qianlong Emperor

The primary source reading Two Edicts from the Qianlong Emperor on the Occasion of Lord Macartney's Mission to China, September 1973 [PDF] provides students with an eloquent statement by the Chinese emperor of how the Chinese view their civilization and position in the world. (Please remind students that King George III of Great Britain, who dispatched Lord Macartney to China, was the same king against whom the American colonies rebelled in 1776.)

Discussion Questions and Suggested Activity


  1. Locate specific phrases in the two edicts that show how the Chinese perceived the British.
  2. Did the Chinese think all states were equal in international relations?
  3. What did the Chinese emperor think China had to offer England? What did he feel England had to offer China?
  4. Why do you think it is important for diplomats to understand the world view of the other party? Would it have been possible for the British in 1793 to change their request in order to get more of what they wanted? If so, how? If not, why not?


After the class has read this selection, have two students volunteer to put on a skit, one playing the role of Macartney and the other the role of the emperor, each proclaiming his opinions on and interests in the situation.

As a variation, choose two students to enact a skit before the students have read the selection. To emphasize the differences in worldview, both should be briefed on their side's perception of the world at the time. After each has acted out the situation from that point of view, discuss the skit with the whole class, trying to understand what went wrong in the attempt at communication.

| back to top |

© Asia for Educators, Columbia University |