and he went to visit China just as that empire was on the verge of its final decline. His diary of his visit to China – unsuccessful though it was in the short term – is must-reading for anyone wishing to understand why relationships between China and the outside are as they are.
The diary – An Embassy to China – was only published in 1962, after having lain undisturbed and useless in libraries for more than a century and a half. A new edition with a foreword by superstar China scholar Jonathan Spence was published last year.
The diary, unlike a lot of documents from that era, is readable and accessible, and through Macartney's chatty style, the reader gets a clear view of the Chinese empire at its peak.
Macartney was sent to China in the hope that he would be allowed to stay and set up a permanent British mission in Beijing. He also wanted the Chinese to allow British traders to operate out of more ports other than just Canton in the south, and to control official corruption, a huge burden on traders. He failed in all respects.
He took with him a large quantity of presents for the Manchu emperor Qian Long, whose 83rd birthday was to be celebrated on September 17, 1793. The presents were delivered. Macartney made his policy pitch. And the Chinese (or Manchus) missed an opportunity to cut a deal at the height of their strength on terms that would have been as advantageous to their interests as they were ever going to get.
"We need for nothing"
Qian's Long's much-quoted response was: "There is nothing we lack, as your principal envoy and others have themselves observed. We have never set much store on strange or indigenous objects, nor do we need any more of your country's manufactures." Arrogance is a two-way street. A chance was lost when Qian Long rebuffed Macartney, and the Chinese officials who accompanied him after the audience appear to have realized that.
Macartney describes the Old Summer Palace, Yuanming yuan, at the height of its splendor (it was to be ransacked by British and French troops in 1856 in retaliation for the killing by the Chinese of 400 British troops). He describes the tensions between the Manchus and their subjects the Chinese people, clearly a relationship of foreign power and subjugated race. He describes the Great Wall of China, and comments that even then it was falling down.
He tells of his acquisition of tea plants which he took to India, creating the huge India tea industry in competition to China. And he comments at length on social, military and economic issues – he spent about seven months in China and traveled overland from Beijing to Canton, a rare event for the 18th century.
His diary would have been a valuable intelligence document at the time. Now, it is an accessible window into the world of old China when it was almost untouched by the West and before the prejudices of 19th century Western arrogance about China had solidified.
An Embassy to China by Lord Macartney; London: 2004; Folio Society (Lure of the East series); 400 pages; ?31.50. For more information, see http://www.foliosoc.co.uk/