Modern History Sourcebook:
The Reception of the First English Ambassador to China, 1792
[Tappan Introduction]: For many centuries China had little intercourse with other
countries. Various European nations tried to form commercial relations with her, and there
was buying and selling between them, but it was most unsatisfactory. The rules made by the
Chinese were as fickle as the wind. Often the merchants, or "foreign devils," as
the Chinese called them, were in danger of their lives. Several nations had sent
representatives to China, and in 1792 England decided to send Lord Macartney as an
ambassador to the emperor in the hope of establishing safe and reasonable relations of
trade. Even before the ambassador landed, the Chinese contrived to run up a flag on the
vessel that bore him up the Peiho, whereon was written "Tribute-bearer from
England." This was quite in accordance with the Chinese custom of claiming all gifts
as tribute. Another custom of theirs was that whoever approached the throne of the emperor
must perform the kowtow, that is, must kneel three times, and at each kneeling must bow
three times till his head touched the floor. This was the way in which the greater idols
were approached and signified that the emperor was a god. Lord Macartney told the Chinese
legate that he would not perform the kowtow unless a high officer of state would kowtow
before a picture of the King of England. The emperor finally agreed to admit the
ambassador, who bent his knee, as he would have done before his own sovereign. The next
English ambassador, Lord Amherst, who came in 1817, refused to kowtow, was told that he
was a very rude man who did not know how to behave, and was bidden to go home at once.
On the day of audience the ambassadors were ushered into the garden of Jeho. Tents
had been pitched; the imperial one had nothing magnificent, but was distinguished from all
the others by its yellow color. The imperial family, as well as mandarins of the first
rank, had all collected. Shortly after daylight the sound of musical instruments announced
the approach of the emperor. He was seated in an open chair, borne by sixteen men, and
seen emerging from a grove in the background. Clad in a plain dark silk with a velvet
bonnet and a pearl in front of it, he wore no other distinguishing mark of his high rank.
As soon as the monarch was seated upon his throne, the master of the ceremonies led the
ambassador [Lord Macartney] toward the steps. The latter approached, bent his knee, and
handed, in a casket set with diamonds, the letter addressed to His Imperial Majesty by the
King of England. The emperor assured him of the satisfaction he felt at the testimony
which His Britannic Majesty gave him of his esteem and good will in sending him an embassy
with a letter and rare presents; that he on his part entertained sentiments of the same
kind toward the sovereign of Great Britain, and hoped that harmony would always be
maintained between their respective subjects. He then presented to the ambassador a stone
scepter, whilst he graciously received the private presents of the principal personages of
the embassy. He was perfectly good-humored, and especially pleased with the son of Sir G.
Staunton, who talked a little Chinese, and received as a token of imperial favor a yellow
plain tobacco pouch with the figure of the five-clawed dragon embroidered upon it.
Afterward the ambassadors from Burmah and little Bukharia were introduced and performed
the nine prostrations. A sumptuous banquet was then served up, and after their departure
they had presents sent to them consisting of silks, porcelain, and teas. Upon an
application made to the prime minister, respecting a merchant ship which had accompanied
the ambassador's frigate, they received the most flattering answer, and every request was
fully granted to them. Having accompanied the embassy, the ship was to pay no duty. After
their return to Peking, it was intimated to them the His Majesty, on his way to
Yuen-ming-yuen, would be delighted if the ambassador came to meet him on the road. When
the emperor observed him, he stopped short and graciously addressed him. He was carried in
a chair and followed by a clumsy cart, which could not be distinguished from other
vehicles if it had not been for the yellow cloth over it.
In consequence of this embassy, His Imperial Majesty called together a council to
deliberate what answer ought to be given to the letter. The result of this conference was
that the ambassador was given to understand that, as the winter approached, he ought to be
thinking about his departure. At an interview with the minister of state, to which he was
invited in the palace, he found the emperor's answer contained in a large roll covered
with yellow silk and placed in a chair of state. From thence it was sent into the
ambassador's hotel, accompanied by several presents. News which arrived from Canton,
stating the probability of a rupture between England and the French Republic, hastened the
departure of the ambassador. He had been very anxious to obtain some privileges for the
British trade, but the prime minister was as anxious to evade all conversation upon
business. The splendid embassy was viewed only as a congratulatory mission and treated as
such. The Chinese were certainly not wanting in politeness, nor did the emperor even treat
them rudely; but empty compliments were not the object of this expensive expedition.
From: Eva March Tappan, ed., China, Japan, and the Islands of the Pacific, Vol.
I of The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song, and Art, (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp. 189-192.
Scanned by: J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton. Prof. Arkenberg
has modernized the text.
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© Paul Halsall, July 1998