Could Macartney’s Mission to China in 1793 Have Succeeded?

Posted by on November 22, 2017

The debate surrounding the question of why Macartney failed in 1793 can easily become reductive by over-emphasising Macartney’s failure to perform the kowtow to Chinese standards of ritual. This however explores only a partiality of the debate by solely focusing on the event and Macartney; which in turn becomes a westernised perspective with no in-depth understanding of the Chinese geo-political context during the Eighteenth-Century. The argument must take into account Western goals and aims surrounding Macartney’s embassy venture to China, and why they conflicted with the values and principles of Chinese Confucianism, and the conformity of traditional Chinese culture by the Celestial Empire. As Byng and Levere (1981) surmise, ‘the embassy’s failure is shown to reveal fundamental differences in British and Chinese Eighteenth-Century responses to Science; and has wide cultural implications’. The article attempts to approach the debate of Macartney’s embassy from the scientific context of cultural analysis rather than mere historical significance of the event which creates a transitory debate of Macartney’s character and refusal to perform the kowtow.

Cultural and scientific understanding will be the approach of the debate put forward. As Attwell highlights, ‘on the surface this failure appeared to turn on Macartney’s refusal to follow Chinese protocol… in Chinese imperial terms, of the emperor’s pre-eminent position in the Celestial hierarchy’. Attwell’s argument demonstrates the importance of identifying the Celestial viewpoint of the Qing Empire, Chinese culture of traditionality and disinterest and ambivalence towards the ‘Western Ocean barbarians’. This develops the argument that the mission due to the cultural conflictions of the two empires was doomed from the onset. But, importantly, retaining a comprehensive overview of the contexts from both Empires will be essential for understanding whether the mission was capable of success or not. The argument will take the position that Macartney was doomed to fail from the outset, not because of his failure of protocol kowtow, or his character, but because at this point during the eighteenth century the two empires were polar opposite’s geo politically and firmly rooted in there differing and conflicting world views. The ’embassy, indeed, was rejected before it arrived’.

Firstly, the rise of the British Empire during the eighteenth century explains the coinciding mentality of Enlightenment that the British increasingly adopted and applied domestically as part of its culture; and the measure of dealing with foreign powers to determine how civilised they were in comparison to British achievements. The values and principles of the Enlightenment were ones of rationality and observation; as a result the scientific method grew out of the Enlightenment period and spread to the use of state and fields such as historical enquiry. The British world view became increasingly scientific, and the ‘scientific explosion’ of knowledge during the eighteenth century contributed to Britain’s growing faith in the Sciences. The Enlightenment and the promotion of continuous progression and Science was a concept completely alien to China; deeply imbedded in the world view of Confucianism and Celestial pre-dominance. As Attwell surmises, ‘for Qing China… peoples were evaluated according to their level of civilisation relative to the perfection of the Celestial Empire.

For the British, this positioning had to do with their level of scientific achievement’. The mere concept of the Enlightenment was the awakening of new ideas and methods, new norms of study and progress, which resulted in Britain adopting the method of industrialisation that would make Britain the largest empire during the eighteenth century. The Chinese on the other hand were not aware of the progress of Britain and Europe scientifically and economically as powers, this lack of awareness, and concern, is what makes the Macartney debate historically significant and interesting for enquiry because it marks the contrast between the two civilisations, particularly as a context of the times. The Chinese did not believe that those outside of its Celestial borders would contribute to the greatness of the heavenly empire, with the ‘Son of Heaven’ as the ruler. The Chinese as expressed by Gregory ‘were secure and confident in their world’. These themes of cultural division, and cultural priorities, are themes which are directly at the core of Macartney’s failure to secure the goals of Britain’s embassy in 1792. These cultural differences and conflict of cultural norms is the root and essence behind the failure of Macartney’s embassy, and it is because of these, that Macartney could not achieve a successful embassy regardless of a successful kowtow or no kowtow.

Another obstacle to the success of Macartney’s venture was China’s deep rooted Confucianism; these principles had existed within China for hundreds of years and were inherently part of the Chinese national identity and cultural life. The enlightenment contradicted the principles and virtues of Confucianism, particularly the Celestial power of the emperor which Confucianism bolstered, as highlighted by Byng and Levere ‘according to Confucian theory, the virtue of the Emperor, as Son of Heaven and universal ruler, would inevitably attract the barbarians to his Court… see for themselves China’s superiority’. The Chinese believed that through exposure to their country and through the tribunal offerings to the Emperor, foreigners were therefore accepting subservience to the Celestial Empire and accepting the hierarchy of the universal leader. The letter Chang-Ku ts’ung-Pien I, p.b. cited by Byng, provides an insightful understanding into the Chinese mind-set of interpreting Western motives. The letter is from the ‘Grand Secretiat’ to the governors of China, the letter reads, ‘naturally we ought to grant their request in order that they may satisfy their sincerity in sailing across the seas in their longing for civilisation’. The position assumes through the statement of ‘longing for civilisation’ that the Chinese are the ones who possess this civilisation and that the foreigners are searching for it via the Celestial Empire’s culture. The British however did not see China in this way, appreciating China with curiosity but not as a superior power. Macartney coincidentally would not accept this implied proposition of subordinating his sovereign King to a foreign Emperor. A conflict of British and Chinese world views became an ego conflict, each believing in their own superiority, however the British wished to open the Chinese to diplomatic acceptance of British power.

The Chinese remained introverted, in its centre world, neither willing nor interested in accepting Britain’s scientific advancements. Two worlds apart, and Macartney’s event shows the disillusionment of the two continents, as Gillingham cites Alain Peyrefitte, ‘a collision of two planets… one celestial and lunar; the other with its feet firmly on the ground, mercantile, scientific and industrial’. The remark is one of condescending sentiment on behalf of the Chinese attributes of the statement, but accurately reflects the extensive nature of the cultural divide between the two powers. Furthermore, the significance of identifying ‘euro-centric accounts’ of China’s culture is important for historical conclusions because it is implied by Gillingham’s citation that the scientific method adopted by the West was the successful or superior discourse as opposed to China’s seemingly negative virtues at that time. Another example of such a statement from Gillingham, ‘striking instance of a clash between a dynamic, advanced society and a traditional and unchanging one’, shows the Westernized accounts of change according to the measurement of success based on industrialisation principles such as trade and economy. The Chinese description of a successful nation and culture were completely differently from the British; the scientific method represented a methodology and quantification alien to the Chinese hierarchy, as Pritchard highlights there were ‘problems of early intercourse with the West which grew out of divergent practices and ideas’. The Chinese had differing and alternative methods of dealing with foreigners; the embrace of expanding celestial borders was not an interest of the Qing dynasty.

The subject of trade became a prevalent issue which resulted in the failure of Macartney’s embassy. The British conducted trade for economic power and free trade, the Chinese however did not trade with foreigners for economic benefit but rather out of ‘compassion’ for the foreign trader’s dependent on the tea and silk trades of China; which Britain was becoming increasingly dependent on due to increasing demand. The Chinese had an alternative belief in trade; trade was meant for the self-sufficiency of the country not overindulgence, this approach was in accordance with the values of Confucianism; an approach described by Landes cited by Attwell as a result of ‘cultural triumphalism combined with petty downward tyranny made China a reluctant improver and bad learner’. The statement does not reflect however an understanding of the eighteenth century context of Chinese cultural values, China as argued, did not wish to change or adapt to the British paradigm of scientific methodology and societal progression. A more accurate account of the Chinese culture would be to emphasise the geo-political landscape of egocentrism and introversion of China’s relationship with foreigners. As Cramner- Byng identifies, ‘the Macartney embassy had no success in piercing the armour of cultural superiority as typified by the tribute system of the Chinese Empire’. The argument reflects the cultural division and the conviction that Macartney could not have succeeded regardless of the procedure kowtow performed according to Chinese official standards. But Britain’s motivations and objectives are just one facet of the reasons as to why Macartney was inconceivably doomed from the moment he left Britain.

The East India Trading Company was particularly concerned with the success of the embassy to China, it wished to set up new trading standards that would benefit Britain by giving access to potentially desirable ports for merchant profiteering; Gillingham abbreviates that ‘there were nevertheless frustrations at the rigid controls imposed on the one port into China which was open to overseas trades’. The Company took such an interest and pursued dedication to the embassy that they set up a commission to oversee the mission, ‘the secret and superintending committee’. The committee however did not have a grasp of Chinese Hong merchants and their elite leaders’ aspirations. The Macartney embassy therefore did not have full preparation of ceremonial concepts within Chinese culture and the effect regarding the status implied towards the emperor. Macartney, on requesting for his sovereign to be the recipient of his kowtow did not understand, or more likely underestimated, the hierarchical supremacy of the Emperor; as Zewei states, ‘under the whole heaven, there is no land that is not the Emperor’s, and within the sea-boundaries of the land, there is none who is not a subject of the Emperor’. Confucianism served as a doctrine to support the Emperor’s Celestial power over Chinese society and the world around China, but the kowtow served as a means of social control over the Chinese and foreigners visiting the Celestial Empire to pay homage to the centre world. The idea was one of conversion, as Byng and Levere cite, ‘they could see for themselves Chinese superiority… barbarians would naturally be eager to come to be transformed’.

Macartney’s embassy although a failure marked an important period for China, the realisation of its external world forces, and the changing balances of power shifting to the Western colonizers. As Byng declares, ‘the Macartney embassy was the writing on the wall, a warning that Chinese exclusiveness could not be maintained for ever’.

However, the implications of Macartney’s kowtow are of relevance to the question of Macartney’s perceived failure. The Chinese perspective is central to understanding why Macartney’s refusal to Chinese ceremonial customs undermined the embassy’s key objectives. The Chinese believed the British embassy was a standard procedure of ‘tribunal ceremonial homage’, and carried banners stating that Lord Macartney had come to pay tribunal respect to the Emperor. The British however had several goals including the opening of several trading ports and an official for the British inside the Chinese capital. These goals went against the Chinese, the Chinese Hanshen arguing that no such ‘precedents ‘ had been established with any of the other Western Ocean countries. The embassy was a tribute, and treated as such, Mungello states, ‘the Chinese placed a banner on Macartney’s barge that clearly identified him as a tribute-bearing envoy from Britain’. The British wished to stand out as an embassy from their European counterparts but the Chinese could not accept differentiating Britain as different; to do so would admit Britain as of superior standards of treatment and set the precedent of conciliations amongst the other Western Ocean powers. Macartney’s failure can strongly be attributed to China’s reluctance to separate Britain as different from the other powers, as Mungello concludes, ‘British attempts to receive special treatment from the Chinese were doomed by the obligations of guest ritual to treat all nations equally’.

‘In many ways the timing of the embassy could scarcely have been any worse.’ The Macartney expedition was a failure, but nonetheless proved insightful for the British, the Chinese romanticism of the Jesuit period was far gone, and China’s flaws and egocentric concept of themselves and the world exposed. Macartney hoped for a diplomatic solution, but the Opium Wars were an indictment of lost patience with the Celestial presence by the British. The context of two different cultures, cultures of confliction is what caused Macartney’s failure. China was unwilling to embrace the trading and scientific values of the West, a move that would prove destructive for China in the Opium Wars. But China, appeared stable, far across the lands from the European continent. As Byng remarks, ‘Ch’ien Lung and his officials seemed quite unaware that the position of Chinese supremacy in the world was being challenged’. The failure of the kowtow was merely a response to the cultural divisions, and firm convictions from both Empires of their supremacy of values across the globe, akin to an ideological struggle of culture. The kowtow, represents the facet or face of cultural apprehension and incompatibility between China and Britain as Hevia identifies, ‘the contingency of ceremonial performance is important to highlight because both in the nineteenth century and later, it was asserted by diplomats and scholars that the rigidity of rites, and the Chinese refusal to make alterations, lay at the core of Sino-Western conflict’. The implication on Macartney’s embassy is evident in its failure.


Attwell, William. ‘Macartney’s failed trade delegation to China, 1792-1794’, Quartly bulletin of the National Library of South Africa, vol. 66. No. 1, (2012): 25-34.

Byng-Cranmer, J.L and Trevor. H. Levere. ‘a case study in cultural collision: scientific apparatus in the Macartney embassy to China, 1793’, Annals of Science, 38. (1981): 503-525.

Byng-Cranmer, J.L. ‘Lord Macartney’s embassy to Peking in 1793 from official Chinese documents’, The British Library: University of Hong Kong (1961): 117-183.

Gillingham, Paul. ‘The Macartney Embassy’, History Today, (November 1993): 28-34.

Gregory, John S. The West and China since 1500, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Hevia, James L. ‘the ultimate gesture of deference and debasement: Kowtowing in China’, Past and Present, (2009): 212-234.

Mungello, D.E. The Great Encounter of China and the West, Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2009.

Pritchard, Earl H. ‘The Kotow in the Macartney embassy to China in 1793’, The Far Eastern Quarterly (1943): 163-202.

Zewi, Yang. ‘Western international Law and China’s Confucianism in the 19th Century: Collision and integration’, Journal of the History of International Law 13 (2011): 285-306.

Source by Alexander James Syder

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