China and East Asia

George Macartney at Qianlong’s court

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The Chinese tribute system did not only include Asian countries but also a few European — Portugal, the Netherlands, Russia and Britain. After all, these Europeans all had an interest in trading with the East and and a presence in Asia. The Portuguese had established a permanent trading port in Macau, close to today’s Hong Kong, already in the 1550s, and the Dutch 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 for their goods. They all wanted to expand their trading network and this is why they came to China.

The Chinese, however, were reluctant to let them trade freely. The official Confucian view was that traders were useless and only farmers contributed to the wealth of the nation. Besides they worried about the social and cultural consequences of a foreign presence in the country. Eventually trade was only allowed with one city, Guangzhou in the south, known as “Canton,” and only for part of the year.

To the British this was unacceptable and they dispatched a series of embassies to Beijing to try to convince the emperor to open China up. The most famous such embassy was led by George Macartney in 1792. Macartney made the six months’ journey loaded with examples 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 they were going to hand out. The present for emperor Qianlong all emphasized British advances in astronomy and technology.

Once they arrived in Beijing, however, the British were required to go through the same ceremony as all tribute missions, and 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. This Macartney refused to do. 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 all the 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.