During the 16th century and most of the 17th century, China enjoyed a generally positive image in Europe. The works of the Jesuits – Catholic missionaries who lived and proselytized in the Far East – depicted the Central Kingdom as a well-governed and ethical society. (Jones, 2001, p. 18)
Chinese art became popular with European polite society, exerting its influence on European styles such as the Rococo. Chinese tea, lacquer ware and porcelain (known in England as “china”) were sought-after goods that were emulated by European manufacturers. (Clyde, 1948, p. 103)
The imitation and evocation of Chinese styles in Western art and architecture was so fashionable that European languages created a word for it: chinoiserie. (Chilvers, 1996, p. 104)
Buildings, paintings and artifacts imitating Chinese styles can be found almost everywhere in Europe: from the “Chinese Palace” (“Palazzina cinese”, built around 1800), in Palermo, Italy; to the Great Pagoda (built in 1762) in the Royal Botanic Gardens in London; to the “Chinese House” (“Chinesisches Haus”, built in the 1760s), in Potsdam, Germany.
European philosophers such as Leibniz, LaMettrie, and Quesnay praised China’s system of government, its enlightened absolutism, as well as its economic structure. Critics of the empire, most notably Montesquieu, remained a minority up until the end of the 18th century. (Clyde, 1948, p. 103; Jones, 2001, chapter 1)
European admiration for China corresponded to the empire’s status as a global powerhouse and as one of the most stable and advanced monarchic states in the world.
Until around 1800 AD, China generated approximately a third of the total world manufacturing output, one-tenth more than the West. But after 1800, the tide began to turn. By 1900, China’s share of manufacturing output had fallen to 6.2 percent, while the West’s had risen to 77.4 percent. (Deng, 1999, p. 2)
The end of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century also saw a major shift in how the West perceived China. A key role in this change was played by the Macartney Embassy, Great Britain’s first diplomatic mission to the Chinese empire, which lasted from 1792 to 1794.
The experience of British diplomats, especially the way in which the emperor and his court treated them as inferiors, dismissing any suggestion of establishing diplomatic relations on an equal footing and of opening up trade, was recorded in the diplomats’ travel journals and circulated throughout Europe. Although the Macartney Embassy was unsuccessful, it was an important step towards the reshaping of Sino-European relations.
Sino-Western trade in the 18th century – The “Canton system”
During the 18th century, trade volume between Great Britain and China had been increasing. However, the British were not satisfied with the various restrictions the Beijing court imposed on foreign merchants. The Macartney Embassy was an attempt to redefine trade relations so as to make them more favourable to British merchants.
According to Rowe (2012), by the mid-Qing era China was one of the most commercialized countries in the world. From the mid-16th century to the early 19th century China had undergone a “commercial revolution”, enabled by the peace and, by the standards of the Chinese empire of the time, “good governance” established by the Qing Dynasty. During this period, China developed a “commodity economy” where farmers produced an agricultural surplus which they were able to sell in exchange for goods of daily consumption. China was largely a “self-sufficient” economy, in which trade was mainly conducted within the borders of the empire.
Trade with peoples outside the borders of the empire did take place, but it was not encouraged by the authorities, unless it was carried out under the supervision of the Qing court and served as political tool that reaffirmed the centrality of China.
According to the generally held worldview of Chinese elites at the time, China represented the centre of the civilized world. This civilization was characterized by patriarchal Confucian family ideology, proper cooking and eating (with chopsticks), Chinese characters, and the imperial form of government. All those who lived outside the empire were deemed “barbarians” (夷). (see Rowe, 2012, chapter 5)
There were two main categories of barbarians. The “cooked” (熟) barbarians, for example the Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese, who were considered partly civilized because they had assimilated core elements of Chinese civilization. On the other hand, there were the “raw” (生) barbarians, a category that referred to all other peoples.
The Chinese empire did not have diplomatic relations with the rest of the world according to European practices. The main form of diplomatic exchange was the “tribute system”, which underscored the hegemony and superiority of the Chinese state with regard to the peoples at the “periphery”.
Polities surrounding China commonly accepted their status as vassals and sent to the imperial court an annual tribute consisting of a stipulated amount of goods. Envoys were required to prostrate themselves (ketou) before the Chinese emperor. It must be noted that subordination to China did not involve direct political control. States like Japan, Korea or Vietnam were entirely independent, and their tribute was a symbolic act.
The tribute system was used to maintain traditional relations of vassallage, but it was also employed to pacify border regions. For instance, in 1739 emperor Qianlong agreed on a truce with the Zunghars, a group of Buddhist Mongol tribes that were challenging the empire. The truce would allow the Zunghars to establish regular trade relations. According to the Governor-General of Sichuan and Shaanxi, Qingfu, the goal of trade was to “transform” the barbarians and ultimately achieve peace. (Perdue, 2005, pp. 257-259) The plan of the Qing court, however, did not work out, and the imperial army nearly exterminated the entire Zunghar people over the following years.
In 1685 emperor Kangxi lifted a ban on private maritime commerce along the coasts of the empire and established customs stations in various port cities where trade could be legally conducted. Each ship was required to register upon arrival and pay a duty on its cargo before being allowed to trade. The port of Guangzhou (then known in the West as Canton) became the most important commercial hub for Western merchants.
In 1725 emperor Yongzheng set up the Gonghang (公行) – mispronounced Cohong by Westerners – a government-sanctioned organization that grouped Chinese merchant brokers who served as middlemen between Western traders and the Chinese Imperial Household Department. In 1757 the Qing court announced that Canton would be the only port open for Western trade with the Qing empire. (Rowe, 2012, chapter 5; Rowe, 1984, p. 127)
The “Canton system”, as it became known, was a compromise between the imperial government and the local communities of southern China. On the one hand, the province of Guangdong benefited from foreign trade so that local authorities lobbied the central government to grant them trade privileges with foreigners. Ending trade altogether would have had adverse effects on the local economy. On the other hand, emperors wanted to control foreign merchants because they viewed them as potential troublemakers. The Qing government set up the cohong in order to permit trade while closely monitoring and taxing foreign merchants.
Western traders were unhappy with the Canton system. Apart from the fact that they could only trade in one port and were forced to partner with the cohong, there were also a number of other cumbersome restrictions in place. Each arriving Western ship had to be guaranteed and supervised by a Chinese merchant house. In 1760, the Chinese government issued a set of regulations that further restricted foreigners’ freedom of movement and trade. Foreign merchants were allowed to reside in China only during the trading season. They were prohibited from entering the city of Guangzhou and could only live in specially designated areas, called “factories”. Their wives and dependents were forbidden from accompanying them altogether. (Cohen, 2000, p. 222; Ikels, 1996, p. 14)
The British Crown and the East India Company had no choice but to accept the Canton system, yet they were increasingly dissatisfied with the restrictions imposed by the Chinese government. In order to change the status quo, the British government decided to dispatch an embassy to China.
A first attempt was made in 1787, when an embassy under Lieutenant Colonel Charles Cathcart was sent to China. However, this expedition was unsuccessful and never reached its destination.
In 1792 the British tried again. This time George Lord Viscount Macartney, Baron of Lissanoure, former ambassador to Russia, chief secretary for Ireland, and colonial official in the British Caribbean and Madras, was appointed as ambassador, while Sir George Staunton was named deputy ambassador. (Rowe, 2012, chapter 5)
Macartney was tasked with lobbying the Qing court to open direct trade at Ningbo, Tianjin and Zhoushan, to cede to the British a small island where it could set up a depot, and to allow British merchants to open a commercial warehouse in Beijing.
The British secretary of state, Henry Dundas, instructed Macartney to avoid demanding the settlement of private debt incurred by British merchants, and not to mention the sensitive issue of opium trade. However, Dundas told Macartney that if the Qing pressed him on the subject, he should accept the Chinese position.
“If this subject [opium trade] should come into discussion, it must be handled with the greatest circumspection,” Dundas stated. “It is beyond a doubt that no inconsiderable portion of the Opium raised within our Indian Territories actually finds its way to China; but if it should be made a positive requisition, or an article of any proposed Commercial Treaty that none of that drug should be sent by us to China, you must accede to it rather than risk any essential benefit by contending for our liberty in this respect, in which case the sale of our Opium in Bengal must be left to take its chance in an open market …” (quoted in: Rowe, 2012, chapter 5)
Macartney carried a letter from King George III, who styled himself as “King of Great Britain, France, and Ireland . . . Defender of the Faith” and as “Sovereign of the Seas.”
“Not satisfied with promoting the prosperity of Our own subjects in every respect,” Goerge III wrote, “we have taken various opportunities of fitting out Ships and sending in them some of the most wise and learned of Our Own People, for the discovery of distant and unknown regions, not for the purpose of conquest, or of enlarging Our dominions which are already sufficiently extensive for all Our wishes, or for the purpose of acquiring wealth, or even of favoring the commerce of Our Subjects, but for the sake of increasing Our knowledge of the habitable Globe, of finding out the various productions of the Earth, and for communicating the arts and comforts of life to those parts where they were hitherto little known; and We have since sent vessels with the animals and vegetables most useful to Man, to Islands and places where it appeared they had been wanting.” (quoted in: Rowe, 2012, chapter 5).
Lord Macartney met with emperor Qianlong between August 21 and October 7, 1793, twice in Beijing and once in the summer residence at Chengde (Jehol), outside the Great Wall (excerpts of Sir Staunton’s account are provided below).
According to Lord Staunton, the embassy was treated by the Chinese with politess. Yet tensions between the two sides soon emerged. The Qing court was adamant that the British should be treated just like any other “barbarian” nation seeking to trade with the empire within the framework of the tribute system. That involved gestures of submission such as the ketou, or, as it would soon be known in the West, the “kowtow.”
The kowtow was the act of supplication by kneeling and knocking one’s head to the floor. It was a ritual that denoted a hierarchical difference between individuals. It was performed not only by people who received an audience with the emperor, but it was also commonly practiced in religious ceremonies, in interactions between family members of superior and inferior rank, as well as by commoners who appeared before local magistrates.
The British, however, who regarded their king as an equal of the Chinese emperor, were unwilling to perform a ritual which they perceived as a humiliation. The “barbarians” thus negotiated a ritual that they deemed acceptable, something which was unheard of in China and irritated the Qing court. The word “kowtow” immediately entered the English language as a symbol of what the British regarded as the subservient character of the Chinese. (Rowe, 2012, chapter 5)
The Macartney Embassy did not accomplish its goal. Emperor Qianlong rejected in the strongest terms Britain’s requests, and sent King George III a letter that Westerners later portrayed as an example of Chinese arrogance.
“You, O King [George III], live beyond the confines of many seas, nevertheless, impelled by your humble desire to partake of the benefits of our civilisation, you have dispatched a mission respectfully bearing your memorial. Your envoy has crossed the seas and paid his respects to my Court on the anniversary of my birthday. To show your devotion you have also sent offerings of your country’s produce….
“Swaying the wide world, I have but one aim in view, namely to maintain a perfect governance and to fulfil the duties of the State: strange and costly objects do not interest me. If I have commanded that the tribute offerings sent by you, O King, are to be accepted, this was solely in consideration for the spirit which prompted you to dispatch them from afar. Our country’s majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious and have no use for your country’s manufactures.” (quoted in: Dillon, 2010, p. 40)
The clash between a Chinese empire that considered itself the centre of civilization, and Britain, an emerging power that would soon dominate the world politically and economically, was interpreted in the West as the symbol of the decline of a static, conceited autocracy, uninterested in progress and unaware of the rest of the globe, and of the rise of a dynamic modern nation. Such an interpretation was first articulated as a proud reaction to perceived humiliation, and later renarrated as the genesis of Britain’s casus belli against a hubristic, declining empire.
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- Breeze of a Spring Evening and Other Stories, by Yu Dafu.
- Chinese Civilization: A Sourcebook, by Patricia Buckley Ebrey.
- The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song Transformation of China, by Dieter Kuhn.
- The World Turned Upside Down: A History of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, by Jisheng Yang.
- Craven A and other Stories, by Mu Shiying.
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- The Emperor’s New Road: China and the Project of the Century, by Jonathan E. Hillman.
- The Oil Vendor and the Queen of Flowers, by Feng Menglong.
- The Invention of China, by Bill Hayton.
- Making China Modern: From the Great Qing to Xi Jinping, by Klaus Mühlhahn.
- The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, by Elizabeth C. Economy.
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Sir George Staunton: An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China (Excerpts)
The rest of the world is, in the contemplation of a vast multitude of his [the emperor’s] subjects, of little significance; and they consider his dominion, as virtually extending over the whole. With these ideas, they scarcely can distinguish the relations or duties of other nations or individuals towards him, from their own, which are, indeed, unbounded. If they sacrifice to him in his absence, it is not surprising that they should adore him present. The Ko-teou [kowtow], or adoration, as the Chinese word expresses it, consists in nine Solemn prostrations of the body, the forehead striking the floor each time. It is difficult to imagine an exterior mark of more profound humility and submission, or which implies a more intimate consciousness of the omnipotence of that being towards whom it is made.
These prosternations are expected, as well from strangers, as from the subjects and vassals of the empire; and the Legate began now to press the Embassador, what indeed he had signified before, to practise them in his presence before the throne. For this demand, his Excellency [Lord Macartney] was not entirely unprepared; and he had the advantage of the instructions which had been given to him, in general terms, from his Majesty, in relation to requisitions of such a nature.
He was well aware of the tenaciousness of the Chinese court in exacting ceremonies, of which the humiliation on the one part, contributed, perhaps, to render most embassies so grateful to the other. In this spirit, care had been taken, in consequence, no doubt, of superior orders, to write in large Chinese characters upon the flags pendent from the yachts and land carriages of the Embassy, EMBASSADOR BEARING TRIBUTE FROM THE Country of ENGLAND.
As it was possible that the meaning of those characters might not have been mentioned to his Excellency, he did not think himself bound to make a formal complaint about them; especially as a failure of redress, which he had reason to judge by no means impossible, must have put at once a stop to his proceeding: thus giving an abrupt, as well as unsuccessful termination to his mission. These characters had however attracted notice ; they were repeated in the court gazette; they would be recorded in the annals of the empire; they would find their way to Europe thro the Russians residing in the capital, and the missionaries who came there from the different countries of the Roman Catholic persuasion. It behoved, therefore, the Embassador to be the more guarded in any act of his own, lest it should be construed as unbecoming the sovereign whom he had the honour to represent.
Similar considerations had prevented the embassador from Russia, in a former reign, from complying with the usual Chinese form of introduction, until a regular pact was made for its return, on a like occasion, to his own sovereign. It has been remarked, that he was the only minister that had hitherto gained any point in negotiations with the Chinese court. The Dutch, who, in the last century, submitted at once to every ceremony prescribed to them, in the hope of obtaining, in return, some lucrative advantages, complained of being treated with neglect, and of being dismissed without the smallest promise of any favour …
It was in the nature of an attempt, for establishing an amicable and useful intercourse, with a suspicious and forbidding court, that the chief difficulties were to be encountered in the beginning. The esteem and confidence of such a court were to be obtained by cultivating its good will, thro the means of proper agents, and by a well judged, courteous, but not abject, conduct. It was of the utmost consequence that, in this first Embassy, his Majesty’s representative should not, in order to ensure a gracious reception for himself, consent to any unqualified act which might be proposed to him, such as should commit the dignity of his sovereign, or the honour of his country, in the eyes of other nations. If, on the contrary, both these were asserted in the first in stance, his successors might afterwards, perhaps, without the hazard of improper inferences, comply with the prevalent usages of the country.
The Legate, tho apprised of what had passed in the case of the Russian embassy, had entertained the hope of prevailing over the tractable disposition of the British Embassador to accede to his demands, without annexing any conditions to them. Such success would be no small merit with the ministers of the empire, who, more than the Emperor himself, adhered to this antiquated claim of superiority over other nations. In conjunction with his own efforts, he employed those of the mandarines most intimate with his Excellency.
The latter acquitted themselves of this duty with no slight address and insinuation, introducing the subject by remarks up on the different customs of nations, and the advantage which travellers found in conforming to them, in what ever country they happened to reside; then, passing to the circumstance of the introduction to the Emperor, they mentioned the prostration as a ceremony to be performed of course, in which it might be unpleasant to be aukward, and that therefore it was customary to practise it some time before. They were not a little surprised to hear, what is testified by history, that for such an act done by an European (Timagoras,) in the character of embassador to a powerful Eastern monarch, (of Persia,) he was, on his return amongst his countrymen, (the Athenians,) condemned to die, as having degraded the nation by which he had been deputed; that less condescensions, in modern times, have been strongly reprehended; the actions of men, in a public capacity, being deemed not so much their own as the acts of those they represent.
Upon this principle, the usual ceremonies practised by subjects, towards their own sovereigns, were not expected from the representatives of foreign powers; there being a necessary and proper distinction to be made between acts of homage and submission, and the voluntary tokens of esteem and friendship. Upon this delicate occasion, his Excellency determined to try every method in his power, to gratify the supposed wishes of the Emperor, in this respect, as far as it was possible so to do, without failing in duty towards his own sovereign.
He did not, therefore, propose to avoid complying with the ceremony of prostration; but offered to go thro the whole on a condition which did not render it less personally respectful to the Emperor; yet took away the principal objection that lay to it as an act of homage or dependence in his representative character. The condition, which he offered, was, that a subject of his Imperial Majesty, of rank equal to his own, should perform, before the picture he had with him of his Majesty, dressed in his robes of state, the same ceremonies that the Embassador should be directed to do before the Chinese throne. It was of importance that this proposal should be given in writing, and translated into Chinese accurately, lest it should fail of its effect thro any misrepresentation or mistake.
The interpreter of the Embassy, tho a native of China, was utterly unacquainted with the style necessary for the palace ; and in writing Latin and Italian, for the many years he had lived at Naples, he had lost the habit of writing the complicated Chinese characters, of which there are not fewer than eighty thousand. Even the European missionaries at Pekin, in the employment of the court, tho they understand the language, seldom attempt to write, at least any official paper, for doing which they employ a native bred to letters, to whom they signify the purport of what they want to have properly communicated.
The Legate, who aimed at obtaining nothing less than an unconditional compliance with his proposition, was disinclined to receive any stipulation in writing from the Embassador, and would offer, or willingly allow of, no assistance for such a purpose. This difficulty might however be surmounted thro the means of the European missionaries. His Excellency therefore urged for permission to be given that these should be allowed to visit him, which he knew they were well inclined to do. It was obvious, how necessary it became that some of them should aid his own interpreter, who sometimes suffered by ill health, to explain for the several gentlemen and others belonging to the Embassy, in the common occurrences of life. Among those missionaries it was likely, in consequence of the recommendatory letters brought to them from their superiors and friends in Italy in favour of the Embassy, that some could be found who would venture to procure a faithful translation of necessary papers; and perhaps also be able to supply much useful information. After many applications on the part of the Embassador, several of those Europeans were introduced to his Excellency; but in a formal and cautious manner, in presence of the Legate, and having at their head the Portugueze jesuit, described in the Pekin missionary’s letter…
At Pekin, the whole of the Embassy was lodged in a spacious edifice, or palace, consisting of several edifices, erected by a former collector of revenues and customs of Canton, out of his extortions, it was said, from the English trade, and confiscated to the crown, in consequence of extortions upon the natives in another office nearer to the capital. This palace was built on the general model of the dwellings of great mandarines. The whole inclosure was in the form of a parallelogram, and surrounded by a high brick wall; the outside of which exhibited a plain blank surface, except near one of its angles, where a gate way opened into a narrow street, little promising the handsome structures within side. The wall, in its whole length, supported the upper ridge of roofs, whose lower edges, resting upon an interior wall parallel to the other, formed a long range of buildings, divided into apartments for servants and offices. The rest of the inclosure was subdivided into several quadrangular courts of different sizes …
His Excellency’s memorial was addressed to Ho-choong taung Colao, first minister of the empire, and represented that his Majesty the King of Great Britain in sending an Embassy to his Majesty the Emperor of China, fully intended to give the strongest testimony of particular esteem and veneration for his Imperial Majesty; that the Embassador entrusted to convey such sentiments was earnestly desirous of fulfilling that object of his mission with zeal and effect; that he was ready likewise to conform to every exterior ceremony practised by his Imperial Majesty’s subjects, and the tributary princes attending at his court, not only to avoid the confusion of novelty, but in order to shew, by his example on behalf of one of the greatest as well as most distant nations on the globe, the high and just sense universally entertained of his Imperial Majesty’s dignity and transcendent virtues; that the Embassador had determined to act in that manner without hesitation or difficulty, on this condition only, of which he flattered himself his Imperial Majesty would immediately perceive the necessity; and have the goodness to accede to it, by giving such directions as should be the means of preventing the Embassador from suffering by his devotion to his Imperial Majesty in this instance; for the Embassador should certainly suffer heavily if his conduct, on this occasion, could be construed as in any wise unbecoming the great and exalted rank which his master, whom he represented, held among the independent sovereigns of the world: that this danger could be easily avoided, and the satisfaction be general on all sides, by his Imperial Majesty’s order that one of the officers of his court, equal with the Embassador in rank, should perform before his Britannic Majesty’s picture at large, in his royal robes, and then in the Embassador’s possession at Pekin, the same ceremonies which should be performed by the “Embassador before the throne of his Imperial Majesty.
This paper was properly addressed, and delivered to the Legate, who promised to forward it immediately. He seemed to approve of its contents. Of the Emperor’s acquiescence in the proposal neither the missionary nor the principal Chinese who were acquainted with it entertained the smallest doubt. The return, in fact, of the ceremony required from one of his Imperial Majesty’s subjects might be made in a private room, without parade, and would scarcely be known or mentioned in the empire; but the prostrations of the Embassador were to be performed on a solemn festival, in presence of all the tributary princes and great subjects of the state, and would be described in the gazettes published by authority. In this persuasion, preparations were made immediately for the journey to the Emperor’s presence …
The attention of the whole Embassy was now taken up in preparations to wait upon the Emperor. It had been announced to the Embassador, that his Imperial Majesty would be satisfied with the same form of respectful obeisance from the English, which they were in the habit of paying to their own sovereign. This determination relieved the Embassador from much anxiety; and removed the necessity of fixing in his own mind, where, in the present circumstances, it became him to draw the line between the obligation of resisting, and the propriety of yielding to, the wishes of the Imperial court.
It was whispered, that the good sense and liberality of the Emperor himself, cloyed too perhaps with adoration, rendered him much more inclined than any of his advisers, to dispense with that ceremony in the present instance. His Excellency was aware, that the sort of triumph he had gained, would contribute to make him still more obnoxious to the Chinese and Tartar enemies of the English; tho it heightened very much the esteem and respect of the people at large, for the nation in whose favour so unusual an exception was about to be made; and the practical consequences of such sentiments, could scarcely fail to operate to its advantages in every connection, commercial and political, between the two countries.
This relaxation of a rule from which no deviation had before been made, excited indeed much surprise, and perhaps even murmuring, from those whose minds were guided by precedent alone; but it confirmed the opinion of the veteran missionary at Pekin, that the mere pleas of custom, however usually and strongly urged by the Chinese, would not stand always against reason, accompanied by temper and perseverance. The birth-day of the Emperor, on the occasion of which a great number of embassadors and tributary princes was assembled at Zhe-hol, was the seventeenth of September. A day however previous to it, the four teenth of the same month, was fixed for the particular reception of the British Embassy. In the interval, such of the presents as had been brought to Zhe-hol, were carried to the palace; and very civil messages, implying the satisfaction they gave to his Imperial Majesty, were conveyed to the Embassador …
Soon after day-light the sound of several instruments, and the confused voices of men at a distance, announced the Emperor’s approach. He soon appeared from behind a high and perpendicular mountain, skirted with trees, as if from a sacred grove, preceded by a number of persons busied in proclaiming aloud his virtues and his power. He was seated in a sort of open chair, or triumphal car, borne by sixteen men; and was accompanied and followed by guards, officers of the household, high flag and umbrella bearers, and music. His approach to the tent of audience is delineated in the 25th plate of the folio volume. He was clad in plain dark silk, with a velvet bonnet, in form not much different from the bonnet of Scotch Highlanders; on the front of it was placed a large pearl, which was the only jewel or ornament he appeared to have about him. On his entrance into the tent he mounted immediately the throne by the front steps, consecrated to his use alone. Ho-choong-taung, and two of the principal persons of his household, were close to him, and always spoke to him upon their knees. The princes of his family, the tributaries and great officers of state being already arranged in their respective places in the tent, the president of the tribunal of rites conducted the Embassador, who was attended by his page and Chinese interpreter, and accompanied by the Minister Plenipotentiary, near to the foot of the throne, on the left hand side, which according to the usages of China, so often the reverse of those of Europe, is accounted the place of honour. The other gentlemen of the Embassy, together with a great number of mandarines and officers of inferior dignity, stood at the great opening of the tent, from whence most of the ceremonies that passed within it, could be observed …
The Embassador, instructed by the president of the tribunal of rites, held the large and magnificent square box of gold, adorned with jewels, in which was inclosed his Majesty’s letter to the Emperor, between both hands lifted above his head; and in that manner ascending the few steps that led to the throne, and bending on one knee, presented the box, with a short adress, to his Imperial Majesty; who, graciously receiving the same with his own hands, placed it by his side, and expressed “the satisfaction he felt at the testimony which his Britannic Majesty gave to 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 towards the sovereign of Great Britain, and hoped that harmony should always be maintained among their respective subjects.”
This mode of reception of the representative of the King of Great Britain, was considered by the Chinese court, as particularly honourable and distinguished: Embassadors being seldom received by the Emperor on his throne, or their credentials delivered by them into his own hands, but into that of one of his courtiers. These distinctions, so little material in themselves, were however understood by this refined people as significant of a change in the opinions of their government in respect to the English; and made a favourable impression upon their minds.
His Imperial Majesty, after a little more conversation with the Embassador, gave, as the first present from him to his Majesty, a gem, or precious stone, as it was called by the Chinese, and accounted by them of high value. It was upwards of a foot in length, and curiously carved visit to the into a form intended to resemble a sceptre, such as is al ways placed upon the Imperial throne, and is considered as emblematic of prosperity and peace. The Chinese etiquette requiring that Embassadors should, besides the presents brought in the name of the sovereign, offer others on their own part, his Excellency, and the Minister, or as the Chinese called him, the inferior Embassador, respectfully presented theirs; which his Imperial Majesty condescended to receive, and gave in return others to them. Those presents were probably, on both sides, less valuable in the estimation of the receivers than in that of the donors; but were mutually acceptable, upon the consideration of being tokens of respect on the one part, and of favour and good will upon the other.
During the ceremonies, his Imperial Majesty appeared perfectly unreserved, cheerful, and unaffected. The frontispiece to the first volume of this work, is a portrait of him, from a drawing by Mr. Alexander, one of the draughtsmen to the Embassy. It was made under unfa vourable circumstances; yet the person, dress, and man ner, are perfectly like the original; but the features of the face, which were taken by stealth, and at a glance, bear a less strong resemblance. This, of all the drawings made by Mr. Alexander throughout the route, the gen tlemen of the Embassy, who had an opportunity of comparing them with the originals, thought the only one Emperor’s Court. – which was defective. To the facility and truth with which he caught with his pencil the most striking ob jects, and costume of the country, as the Embassy passed rapidly along, this work is principally indebted for the ornamental part of it, in which every plate is a faithful copy after nature. To render the portrait of his Imperial Majesty more correct, it might have been proper to draw the eye more full and clear, and the countenance more open and cheerful. Such at least it was during the interview with the Embassador, which was lengthened by inter preting whatever was said by either party. His Imperial Majesty, adverting to the inconvenience arising from such a circumstance, inquired from Ho choong-taung, whether any person of the Embassy un derstood the Chinese language; and being informed that the Embassador’s page, a boy then in his thirteenth year, had alone made some proficiency in it, the Em peror had the curiosity to have the youth brought up to the throne, and desired him to speak Chinese. Either what he said, or his modest countenance, or manner, was so pleasing to his Imperial Majesty, that he took from his girdle a purse, hanging from it for holding areca nut, and presented it to him. Purses are the ribands of the Chinese monarch, which he distributes as rewards of merit among his subjects; but his own purse was deemed a mark of personal ſa- visit to the vour, according to the ideas of eastern nations, among whom any thing worn by the person of the sovereign, is prized beyond all other gifts. It procured for the young favourite the notice and caresses of many of the manda rines, while others perhaps envied his good fortune. This Imperial purse is not at all magnificent, being of plain yellow silk, with the figure of the five-clawed dragon, and some Tartar characters worked into it. It is delineated in the annexed engraving, together with one of the sceptres intended as presents from his Imperial Majesty.
After these ceremonies were over, some Hindoo em bassadors from Pegu, and Mahometans from the neigh bourhood of the Caspian, were introduced to the Em peror on the right hand side of the throne. They re peated nine times the most devout prostrations, and were quickly dismissed. The English Embassador, and the three persons who accompanied him, were then conducted to cushions, on which they sat to the left of his Imperial Majesty. The princes of the Impe rial family, the chief Tartar tributaries, and highest mandarines of the court, were seated according to their ranks, nearer to, or farther from, the throne. His Excel lency was placed about midway between it and the op posite extremity of the tent. A table was laid for every two guests. As soon as all were seated, the tables were uncovered, and exhibited a sumptuous banquet. The tables were small; but on each was a pyramid of dishes or bowls piled upon each other, containing viands and fruits in vast variety. A table was placed likewise for his Imperial Majesty before the throne; and he seemed to partake heartily of the fare that was set before him. Tea was also served. The dishes and cups were carried to him with hands uplifted over the head, in the same manner as the gold box had been borne by the Em bassador. – An attentive consideration of those ceremonies, which have thus the appearance of being meant only to mark the prodigious distance between the sovereign and his visit to the subjects in a monarchy altogether absolute, has some times led to a conjecture, that they were not originally devised, nor have since continued to be exacted, for the sole purpose of gratification. It is obvious, that during the performance of them, they effect a physical, as well as imply a moral, inequality between the party requir ing, and him who pays, such homage. The former, tho superior to all open force, may yet be conscious of being liable to private treachery; and the suspicious mind, which frequently accompanies unbounded power, may have suggested such precautions against the latent and desperate designs of individuals admitted to approach the person who possesses it. The prostrations, the kneeling, the hands uplifted above the head, certainly render attacks less practicable from people in those postures. A circumstance not less remarkable than those cere monies, was the solemnity and silence, approaching to religious awe, with which the whole business was con ducted. No conversation among the guests, no bustle among the attendants. The commanding feature of the scene, was the calm dignity and sober pomp of Asiatic grandeur, which European refinements have not yet attained. Throughout the day the Emperor’s attention to his Eu ropean guests did not abate. During the repast, he sent them several dishes from his own table; and, when it was over, he sent for them; and presented with his own Emperor’s COurt. hands to them, a goblet of warm Chinese wine, not un like Madeira of an inferior quality. He asked the Em bassador the age of his own sovereign ; of which being informed, he immediately replied, that he heartily wished him to equal himself in years, which had al ready amounted to eighty three, and with as perfect health. He was indeed yet so hale and vigorous, that he scarcely appeared to have existed as many years, fifty seven, as, in fact, he had governed the empire. When the festival was entirely over, and he descended from his throne, he marched firm and erect, and without the least symptom of infirmity, to the open chair that was waiting for him. Soon after the Embassador’s return home, he received from the Emperor presents of silks, porcelaine, and tea for himself, and all the gentlemen of his suite. The silks were generally of a close and firm texture, and of a grave colour, such as were worne by men. Some were woven into patterns of dresses, with the four clawed dragon, or Imperial tyger; and some with the Chinese pheasant, embroidered in silk of tints more lively than the ground; the former intended for military, and the latter for civil, mandarines of rank. The porcelaine consisted of detached pieces, slightly differing in form from those which are generally exported. The tea was made up into balls of different sizes, by means of a glutinous liquid, which united the leaves together without visit to the altering their qualities; the tea thus preserving its ori ginal flavour. It is brought from the southern province of Yunnan, and is not usually imported into England. This species of tea is highly prized in China; but habit has so much power over taste, that the English prefered that to which they had been accustomed. Among the presents of fruits which were occasionally sent to the Embassador, were some white grapes of an uncommon form, being more oblong than olives, and about the size of the olives of Spain. Almost every intercourse in China between superiors and inferiors, is accompanied or followed by reciprocal presents; but those made by the former are granted as donations, while those on the part of the latter, are ac cepted as offerings. Chinese terms correspondent to these, are still applied to the presents passing between the Emperor and foreign princes, according to the official stile of arrogated superiority, affected on these occasions by the Chinese court; such as the tone that was for merly assumed by the chancery of the German empire towards the other European powers. But when the Emperor of China has occasion to make mention of him self, especially if contradistinguished from any of his ancestors, or predecessors on the throne, he uses the most modest, and indeed humble, expressions, in every thing that relates to his own person, according to the system of Chinese manners; which, in the excess of precaution Emperor’s court. against egotism, require, in the mention of one’s self, that the most abject terms should be employed, and the most exalted towards those who are addressed. The next object of civility immediately from the Emperor, was an invitation to his Excellency and his suite to see the gardens or pleasure grounds of Zhe-hol. In proceeding towards them at the early hour in the morning, at which all transactions are begun at this punctual court, they met his Imperial Majesty, who stop ped to receive the Embassador’s salutations, and to tell him that “he was going to his devotions in the temple “of Poo-ta-la; that as they did not adore the same gods, “he would not desire his Excellency to accompany him; “but that he had ordered his ministers to attend him “through his gardens.” The Embassador, who thought that the appointment of any courtier of rank, unoccupied with the affairs of state, to accompany him on the proposed excursion, would have been a sufficient testimony of the Emperor’s attention, was surprised to find Ho-choong-taung him self waiting in a pavilion for him. The great Vizier of the empire, he, whom the people almost considered as a second Emperor, was now ordered to give up some por tion of his time from the calls and cares of government, to keep a stranger company in a mere tour of pleasure and curiosity …
In the mean time the celebration of the Emperor’s anniversary, the seventeenth of September, had taken place. To this ceremony, as to the former, the Embas sador and his suite were called before the rising of the sun. The festival may be considered as having lasted several days. The first was consecrated to the purpose of rendering a solemn, sacred, and devout homage to the supreme majesty of the Emperor. The ceremony was no longer performed in a tent; nor did it partake of the nature of a banquet. The princes, tributaries, embassa dors, great officers of state, and principal mandarines, were assembled in a vast hall; and upon particular notice, were introduced into an inner building, bearing, at least, the semblance of a temple. It was chiefly furnished with great instruments of music, among which were sets of cylindrical bells, suspended in a line from ornamented frames of wood, and gradually diminishing in size from one extremity to the other, and also triangular pieces of metal arranged in the same order as the bells. To the sound of these instruments, a slow and solemn hymn was sung by eunuchs, who had such a command over
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