Macartney Mission to China

Macartney Mission to China
Macartney Mission to China

China’s foreign relations with other peoples and states was shaped by centuries of tradition. Called the tribute system, the tributary or vassal state sent tribute to the Chinese court, and its representative performed the kowtow, or prostration before the emperor, according to Chinese ritual, which assumed cultural and material superiority to other nations.

In return he was bestowed with the seal of recognition and gifts. The system implied acceptance of Chinese superiority, regulated and maintained diplomatic relations, and sanctioned trade.

It was initially land oriented, but, with the expansion of Chinese naval power under the Ming dynasty, also included many states of Southeast Asia. When the Portuguese came to China by sea in the 16th century, they, too, were enrolled in the tributary system.

The Qing (Ch’ing) dynasty inherited the tributary system from its predecessor, the Ming, and expanded it to include other European nations that had begun to trade with China.

It opened the major port of Canton to ships of all Western nations and in 1720 organized and regulated the important merchant firms of Canton into a guild called the co-hong and gave them the monopoly in trading with the Western nations. Periodically, Portuguese and Dutch representatives had gone to the Chinese capital Beijing (Peking) and performed the prescribed rituals for tributary states.

By the late 18th century Great Britain had become China’s largest trading partner, underscored by the fact that of 86 foreign ships that came to Canton in 1789, 61 were British.

Dissatisfied with China’s restrictive and humiliating conditions for trade, Britain sent an experienced diplomat, George, Lord Macartney, as ambassador to China in 1792 to negotiate new terms and establish diplomatic relations.

Because his arrival in Beijing coincided with Chinese emperor Qianlong’s (Ch’ien-lung) 80th birthday when many tributary ambassadors were congregated in the capital to offer congratulations, the Chinese government assumed that Macartney was doing the same for Great Britain. Macartney and his staff were entertained with great pomp, and he was exempted from performing the kowtow when he presented his credentials.

However, China rejected all Britain’s requests—for more ports and other facilities to expand trade, and new tariff and transit schedules. Macartney was sent home with a condescending letter addressed to his sovereign, King George III, that commended him for his respectful behavior.

It stated that permanent diplomatic representatives in China were out of the question and reminded him that China did not need British goods and had granted trade with Britain as a favor. Although the mission was a total failure, Macartney’s report saw through the facade of Chinese power and predicted its impending collapse when Qianlong’s experienced guidance was gone.

British involvement with the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars would postpone the formal establishment of relations between the two countries until the 1830s. Due mainly to China’s disinterest in the outside world, it lost an opportunity to establish normal diplomatic relations with Great Britain.