George Macartney at Qianlong’s court

The Chinese tribute system did not only include Asian countries but a few European as well — Portugal, the Netherlands, Russia and Britain. After all, these Europeans all had an interest in trading with the East and they had a presence in Asia. The Portuguese had established a permanent trading port in Macao, close to today’s Hong Kong, already in the 1550s, and the Dutch started a colony in Batavia, in today’s Java, in 1619. As the Russian empire expanded eastward in the 17th century they too became an Asian power [Read more: Treaties with the Russians”] and the British, once the industrial revolution took off in the latter part of the 18th century, were always on the lookout for new markets. They all wanted to expand their trading network. This is why they came to China. Yet the Chinese were reluctant to give them access. The official Confucian view was that only farmers, not merchants, contributed to the wealth of a nation. Besides they worried about the social and cultural consequences of a foreign presence. Eventually trade was only allowed with one city, Guangzhou in the south, known as “Canton.”

To the British this was unacceptable and they dispatched a series of embassies to Beijing to try to convince the emperor to open China to international trade. The most famous such embassy was led by George Macartney in 1792. Macartney made the six months’ journey loaded with samples of British-made goods and with presents for the emperor. Their idea was to set up an exhibit at the imperial court where Chinese officials could learn about British achievements. It would even be possible to order more British merchandise from a catalog which Macartney planned to hand out.

Once they arrived in Beijing, however, the British were required to go through the same ceremony as all tribute bearers. This included the koutou, the “three prostrations and knockings of the head,” which was the traditional way in which visitors showed their submission to the imperial throne. Macartney refused to go through with the ritual. To him the koutou smacked of religious worship and he found it degrading to his country and himself. This, to the Chinese officials, made no sense. They could never understand why the British had made the long journey, and brought along all those presents, only to refuse to go through with the last formalities. The British were told in no uncertain terms that if they refused to koutou they might was well go home. They never got a trade deal with China.

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