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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.

This text is part of the Internet Modern History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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© Paul Halsall, July 1998

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