The British Mission to China: Imperial Hubris in a Time of Agrarian Crisis

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Fall and Rise of China

By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

As the Imperial Chinese economy began to slide further into financial crisis, the British Mission of 1793 met with the Qianlong emperor. However, the emperor dismissed the requests made by the mission, still displaying the hubris of the Middle Kingdom. How did these events unfold?

Painting of the Qianlong emperor touring Chengde.
The Qianlong emperor ruled China when the official British embassy arrived in 1793. (Image: Giuseppe Castiglione/Public domain)

The Agrarian Financial Crisis

As the illegal trade in opium increased, the net flow of silver into China reduced. This meant its value on the domestic market increased proportionately. In the 1740s, well before the onset of the opium boom, one tael (or a little over an ounce) of silver had a market value of roughly 800 copper coins; by the 1820s, at the height of the opium trade, the value of silver had more than trebled, with one tael of silver now trading for 2,500 copper coins.

For China’s beleaguered farmers this rise in the market exchange value of silver presented a new and potentially crushing hardship. While farmers sold their produce in the market for devalued copper coins, they paid their taxes in silver, which was appreciating in value.

Caught in a classic, inflationary Catch-22, more and more peasants found themselves unable to meet their tax obligations. Increasing numbers of them were being either pushed below the poverty line or forced off the land altogether.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

A Tax Rebellion and a British Mission

Under the twin forces of a Malthusian-induced farm crisis and an opium-induced reduction of China’s favorable trade balance, by the end of the 18th century the Manchu dynasty exhibited the first clear signs of an emerging fiscal crisis.

One early symptom of this was the outbreak in 1796 of a massive tax rebellion among the impoverished settlers in the mountainous regions bordering on the three central Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Hubei and Shaanxi. Known as the ‘White Lotus Rebellion’, it took Manchu armies three years to suppress the rebellious tax protesters.

On the eve of this rebellion, with the Manchu Court in Beijing still basking in its traditional self-satisfaction, the reigning emperor Qianlong received a high-level trade mission sent by King George III of England. The year was 1793, and the occasion was the Qianlong emperor’s 83rd birthday.

Led by Lord George Macartney of Ireland, the British mission was tasked with negotiating a treaty with the Manchu government. The mission sought permission for a permanent commercial presence for British merchants in Beijing and freedom for them to engage in trade in other Chinese coastal cities.

The British envoy lavished a number of valuable tributary gifts upon the emperor, including ornate mechanical clocks, telescopes, cannon and assorted engineering instruments that were among the most prized fruits of the newly-blossoming English Industrial Revolution.

Learn more about the splendor that was China, 600-1700.

Lord Macartney’s Gaffes

The record shows that despite Lord Macartney’s lavish gifts, he got off on the wrong foot altogether with the Qianlong emperor. For one thing, Macartney insisted on being received with the august title of ‘imperial envoy’, while his Chinese hosts would only acknowledge him only as a common ‘bearer of tribute’.

For another thing, as a product of the European Enlightenment and an emissary of the British Imperial sovereign, Lord Macartney refused to perform the customary, self-deprecating ceremonial kowtow—consisting of three kneelings and nine prostrations—when he approached the emperor. Adding insult to injury, Macartney reportedly dismissed the Manchu emperor’s reciprocal gift of a large piece of Chinese jade as a “worthless rock”.

The Qianlong emperor in his study.
The Qianlong emperor received the British mission but dismissed their requests outright. (Image: Giuseppe Castiglione/Public domain)

The Qianlong Emperor’s Response to the Mission

Though admittedly amused by the English gifts, Qianlong was nonetheless skeptical of their importance. In a written response to King George’s request for “normalized” trade relations, the Son of Heaven noted, rather matter-of-factly,

The Celestial Court has pacified the four seas. … [T]he virtue and prestige of the Celestial dynasty having spread far and wide, the kings of myriad nations come by land and sea with all sorts of precious things. Consequently there is nothing we lack.

Qianlong also dismissed out of hand the British request for a trade mission. His rebuttal was cocky and condescending, to say the least:

Being so rich in products of all kinds, China has no need of foreign trade. Traditionally people of European nations who wished to render some service under the Celestial Court have been permitted to come to the capital. But after their arrival they are obliged to wear Chinese court costumes, [they] are placed in a certain residence, and they are never allowed to return to their own countries. This is the established rule.

Referring to Britain dismissively as a small island “far away in a remote corner of the earth,” the Chinese emperor scolded the British sovereign for his apparent ignorance of Chinese law, and for presuming to take advantage of the hospitality accorded by the Celestial Empire:

Your envoy’s extraordinary requests indicate clearly that  many of you Westerners have failed to appreciate our kindness and generosity. … Your envoy’s requests, if granted, would not only constitute a violation of Chinese law but [would] serve no useful purpose for England as well. Knowing how I feel about this, you must abide by my wishes without fail, so both of our peoples may continue to enjoy the blessing of peace. (Dun J. Li, ed., Modern China: From Mandarin to Commissar, pp. 41–44.)

Learn more about rural misery and rebellion, 1842-1860.

The Approaching End of the Empire

This remarkable imperial edict, with its veiled threat, written shortly before the close of the 18th century, at a time when Chinese imperial potency was already beginning to fray around the edges, was in many ways emblematic of China’s famous Middle Kingdom Complex. This was a constellation of attitudes marked by extreme cultural self-satisfaction, economic insularity, military complacency and, above all, a xenophobic contempt for all things foreign.

Though history records that Lord Macartney’s mission returned to Britain empty-handed, with precious little to show for having endured Qianlong’s humiliating imperial scolding, this was not the end of the story. With signs of peasant tax protest growing stronger, and with the illicit opium trade increasing unabated, the Manchu dynasty faced a dual crisis of fiscal liquidity and social stability.

Common Questions about the British Mission to Imperial China

Q: Did Qianlong accept the British request for a trade mission?

No, Qianlong dismissed out of hand the British request for a trade mission.

Q: What was the White Lotus Rebellion?

The White Lotus Rebellion was the name given to a massive tax rebellion in 1793 among the impoverished settlers in the mountainous regions bordering on the three central Chinese provinces of Sichuan, Hubei and Shaanxi.

Q: Why did Lord Macartney get off on the wrong foot with the Qianlong emperor?

Lord Macartney insisted on the title of ‘imperial envoy’, while his Chinese hosts acknowledged him only as a ‘bearer of tribute’. Additionally, Lord Macartney refused to perform the customary, ceremonial kowtow when he approached the emperor. And finally, Macartney dismissed the Qianlong emperor’s gift of a Chinese jade as a “worthless rock”.

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