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10-08-2015, 16:16


In August 1793, a British ambassadorial mission led by Lord Macartney arrived at the North Chinese port of Dagu and embarked on the road to Beijing. His caravan, which included six hundred cases bearing presents for the emperor, bore flags and banners provided by the Chinese that proclaimed in Chinese characters “Ambassador bearing tribute from the country of England.” Upon his arrival in the capital, Macartney refused his hosts’ demand that he perform the kowtow, a traditional symbol of submission to the emperor. Eventually, a compromise was reached, according to which he agreed to bend on one knee, a courtesy that he displayed to his own sovereign, and the dispute over protocol was resolved. In other respects, however, the mission was a failure, for China rejected the British request for an increase in trade between the two countries, and Macartney left Beijing in October with nothing to show for his efforts. It would not be until half a century later that the Qing dynasty—at the point of a gun—agreed to the British demand for an expansion of commercial ties. Historians have often viewed the failure of the Macartney mission as a reflection of the disdain of Chinese rulers toward their counterparts in other countries and their serene confidence in the superiority of Chinese civilization in a world inhabited by barbarians. But in retrospect, it is clear that the imperial concern over the aggressive behavior of the European barbarians was justified, for in the decades immediately following the abortive Macartney mission to Beijing, China faced a growing challenge from the escalating power and ambitions of the West. Backed by European guns, European merchants and missionaries pressed insistently for the right to carry out their activities in China and the neighboring islands of Japan. Despite their initial reluctance, the Chinese and Japanese governments were eventually forced to open their doors to the foreigners, whose presence and threat to the local way of life escalated rapidly during the final years of the century. •