Macartney Mission to China

Great Britain sent British diplomat Macartney to the court of the Qianlong emperor, who regarded Britain as a vassal state and its people as barbarians. Macartney was to establish diplomatic relations with mainland China and to open new trade opportunities. Although negotiations led to promises, none of them were put into effect, and historians have deemed Macartney’s mission a failure.

Summary of Event

Between 1662 and 1796, China had two rulers who served sixty years or more, Kangxi Kangxi and Qianlong. The extremely long reigns of these two emperors produced a monolithic sense of permanence in the empire, and the emperors themselves gained an aura of authority even beyond the typical Chinese emperor: They encountered great deference and little opposition. Functioning within strict rules of ceremony to preserve an agrarian Agrarianism in China culture and persistently avoiding the advances of the Industrial Revolution Industrial Revolution;China that European nations experienced, Kangxi and Qianlong also by and large avoided the warfare between nations that characterized eighteenth century Europe. Thus, China and its rulers felt themselves superior to the “barbarians” of the West and sought to prevent contact between mainland China and the Western world. Western traders, Trade;Western Europe with China known as “supercargoes” (merchants trading a ship’s cargo), were allowed access to the Chinese markets only through the hoppos (merchants) Hoppos (merchants) of the port of Guangzhou (Canton). [kw]Macartney Mission to China (1793-Jan., 1794)
[kw]China, Macartney Mission to (1793-Jan., 1794)
Chinese-British diplomacy[Chinese British diplomacy]
British-Chinese diplomacy[British Chinese diplomacy]
[g]China;1793-Jan., 1794: Macartney Mission to China[3070]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;1793-Jan., 1794: Macartney Mission to China[3070]
[c]Trade and commerce;1793-Jan., 1794: Macartney Mission to China[3070]
Macartney, George
Staunton, Sir George Leonard

In 1793, George Macartney embarked on a mission on behalf of the British government to seek an audience with the Qianlong emperor. The British were dissatisfied with their limited access to Chinese trade and to the Chinese government, both of which were filtered through Guangzhou. They sought, therefore, to expand both their commercial and their diplomatic contact with the Chinese Empire. Macartney was instructed to seek permission to establish a permanent diplomatic headquarters at the court of Qianlong, to be occupied by a British minister of state. He was also to seek access for British merchants to other ports—to northern ports, where they could trade woolen goods, as well as to centers of the trade in tea and silk. The British also sought access through China to the potential markets of neighboring countries, such as Japan. Most of these terms were transmitted to Heshen, grand secretary to Qianlong, who formed a buffer between Macartney and the emperor and prevented trading concessions or reforms.

Efforts to change Chinese trading habits were thwarted by the established Chinese system of commerce, which placed many layers of intermediaries between the Chinese imperial court and foreign traders. Members of each layer profited from their function within the system. Hoppos, regional governors, and the emperor himself all gained great wealth through the existing system. The emperor thus had little incentive to allow the British to circumvent the established system, and the hoppos and governors certainly would have resisted any change. Efforts to alter the system were thus doomed to failure.

As was traditional in diplomacy, Macartney brought gifts to the Chinese emperor. The emperor, however, regarded these offical gifts from the nation of Great Britain as tributes from a vassal, rather than gifts from an equal. Qianlong had only to look at a world map to understand that the small European countries that sought to deal with him should be regarded as vassal states, destined to pay homage to the larger, omnipotent Chinese Empire.

In Qianlong’s view, the barbarians of Europe could never achieve the high level of Chinese culture. Furthermore, he did not need the scientific or technological advances of the West, such as the steam engine or the spinning jenny, to sustain the culture over which he ruled. Meeting with Qianlong meant performing the kotow ceremony, which required kneeling before the emperor three separate times and, while lying prostrate, knocking the ground three times with one’s head. Macartney, accustomed to bowing only before the ruler of England, refused to participate in this ceremony, though his diary entry of September 14, 1793, records that he knelt on one knee before the emperor out of respect when he gave Qianlong a box encrusted with diamonds that bore the letter of George III to the emperor.

Trade between Great Britain and China was restricted to Guangzhou and carried out by the British East India Company. British East India Company Westerners were not welcome on the mainland. One exception was the presence of Jesuit Jesuits;China priests, who were permitted into mainland China by Kangxi’s 1692 Edict of Toleration. Toleration, Edict of (1692)
Edict of Toleration (1692) Their influence, however, was minimal. An estimated 200,000 Catholics resided in China by 1800; they appear to have offered the primary source of contact between the East and the West. Even had they been willing to offer their services, however, Great Britain would have been unwilling to depend upon Roman Catholics as formal or informal diplomatic links to the imperial court.

Macartney’s written record of his embassy included speculations about the meaning of his experience in China and extensive comments on all the phases of Chinese life that he observed firsthand. Macartney reported that British trade in Guangzhou in 1793, including both the British East India Company and private traders, amounted to £1,527,775. Trade through India on British ships amounted to another £943,632. He stated that trade between Holland, France, the United States, Denmark, and Sweden had declined, as the Danes and Swedes had given up trade with China, leaving a larger potential marketplace for the British. He felt that the balance of trade was unfavorable to Western merchants, since foreign nations desired Chinese goods, but the Chinese seemed uninterested in purchasing Western commodities. Indeed, they seemed to look upon English technological equipment as mere trinkets.

Macartney recorded his impressions of the imperial city of Chengde (Jehol) in his diary entries for September 14-18, 1793, when he met with the emperor on three occasions. He commented on the vigorous health of the emperor, who seemed to the diplomat to be about sixty years of age (he was actually more than eighty). The emperor presented Macartney with a scepter carved of greenish stone; Macartney presented the emperor with a gift from George III, consisting of a set of watches encrusted with diamonds. Macartney on that occasion likened Qianlong to King Solomon. On September 17, Macartney attended a birthday celebration in honor of Qianlong, including entertainments by acrobats and other carnival performers. The entire court prostrated themselves before Qianlong, whom Macartney then likened to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, though he was hidden behind a screen during the entire celebration. It does not appear that Qianlong himself, on any of these occasions, discussed official diplomatic business with Macartney, leaving such discussions to his state officers. Macartney returned to England in January of 1794, having accomplished very little.


Heshen had the task of sloughing off Macartney’s concerns about trade and commerce in his meeting with Qianlong, and he subverted promises made in negotiation with Qianlong’s appointees, including Sir George Leonard Staunton, secretary to the Macartney embassy. The Cantonese merchants at court sought to protect their interests and the lucrative profits they afforded the emperor. In one of his “speculations,” written upon his return voyage to England in early 1794, Macartney complains directly of the hoppos’ extortion.

It is the common consensus of historians that Macartney’s embassy achieved none of the goals it sought. The failure of the Macartney embassy meant that relations between Great Britain and China continued to be conducted mainly through the British East India Company and that they were therefore filtered through the interests of that company. The failure of the Qing Dynasty Qing Dynasty to deal with issues of modernization, meanwhile, and the growing corruption of the court led to a series of nineteenth century battles that saw the United Kingdom lay claim to Hong Kong in the Treaty of Nanjing (1842). Nanking, Treaty of (1842) The subsequent collapse of the Qing Dynasty Qing Dynasty (1912) may be related to the failure of Qianlong to recognize and respond to the world’s industrialization and to his inability to combat the corruption of his own court.

Macartney’s embassy returned to England with considerable information that had not been previously available in Europe, including topographical and geographical maps of the Chinese coastline and descriptions of key sites and “factories” (buildings housing merchants and traders identified as “factors”) that provided new insight into Chinese life and industry. The botanist on the voyage, David Stronach, compiled lists of Chinese plants and brought back with him tea plants in the hope of developing a British tea industry.

Further Reading

  • Macartney, George. An Embassy to China: Lord Macartney’s Journal, 1793-1794. Edited by J. L. Cranmer-Byng. Vol. 3 in Britain and the China Trade, 1635-1842, edited by Patrick Tuck. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2000. Macartney’s journal is supplemented by introductory essays on a wide range of topics.
  • Pritchard, Earl H. Anglo-Chinese Relations During the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1970. A history of the commercial development of English trade with China from 1497-1793; includes an account of the cultural differences between China and England and a comprehensive set of tables related to trade between the nations.
  • _______. The Crucial Years of Early Anglo-Chinese Relations, 1750-1800. Reprint. New York: Octagon Books, 1970. An economic history of the efforts of England to gain trading rights to mainland China, with a report and assessment of diplomatic relations, containing statistical appendices and a bibliography of manuscript and published sources.

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