How Britain’s First Mission to China Went Wrong23 min read

Why the Macartney mission went awry – Stephen R. Platt


The 1793 mission of Lord Macartney, Britain’s first ambassador to China, is infamous for its failure to curry favour with the Chinese court. In this excerpt, adapted from Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, Stephen R. Platt fleshes out the story. We join Lord Macartney as he arrives at the Qing emperor’s summer quarters after a long and grueling voyage from England. Macartney had brought along six hundred crates of gifts in the hope of opening up Chinese markets, but most were left behind at Beijing (about a week’s journey to the south) due to their fragility. The visit does not go as well as Macartney hoped. – Alec Ash


At last, an early departure on September 8 brought Macartney and his entourage into range of the emperor’s summer quarters. They had been traveling for nearly a year since their departure from England in the autumn of 1792, and the success or failure of the embassy would likely be decided in the next few days. They stopped a mile from the imperial residence to primp and reassemble themselves for presentation, then set forth for the final leg of the journey in a makeshift parade formation with as much pomp as they could muster. The English soldiers and cavalry led the way on foot, followed by a two-by-two procession of servants, musicians, scientists, and various gentlemen. Bringing up the rear were Macartney’s secretary, George Staunton, in a palanquin, and finally the ambassador himself, accompanied by his page, Staunton’s 12-year-old son, in a post-chaise trailed by a little turbaned African boy one of the gentlemen had brought along.

The earnest paraders arrived around ten in the morning at their designated quarters, a low-slung palace of wood and stone with eight great steps leading up to it. But no one was there to greet them. Macartney had been given to believe that he would be welcomed on arrival by the imperial minister of state, a Manchu named Heshen whom the British knew as the “Grand Choulaa” (there was in fact no such title, though it would take Western diplomats about fifty years to confirm that). However, Heshen was nowhere to be seen. Macartney assumed that he must have been delayed for some reason and would be along shortly, so the soldiers made preparations to fall into line, and the British traveling party arranged itself in formation in front of the building, waiting ceremoniously to greet the “Grand Choulaa” when he arrived. An hour passed that way. Then another hour, and still he did not come. Most of the time they just stood there waiting for him, though occasionally they would launch into an abortive parade if someone important-looking approached nearby, but none of them turned out to be him. After six hours of standing in formation with no sign of the imperial minister, they finally lost heart and went inside for their dinner.

In the end, it was Macartney who had to go find the “Grand Choulaa” himself, which set an uncomfortable tone for the opening of relations. Nevertheless, over the next several days, mountains of gifts were exchanged. The British presented their rugs, woolens, and cottons, and intimated at the grand scientific displays and mechanical wonders that awaited the emperor at Beijing. The emperor’s representatives in turn gave them an abundance of luxurious fabrics—velvets, silks, satins—along with embroideries, hundreds of fans, jade, a huge assortment of expensive porcelain, lacquerware, and large quantities of top-quality tea. It was in these gifts, however, that we find the contradiction at the heart of the embassy. For the British sought to impress. They brought the finest products of their science and technology, their burgeoning industry, and their purpose was to awe the Chinese with their advancement. But this was not how embassies traditionally worked in the Qing Empire. When embassies from neighboring countries came to Beijing—from Thailand, Vietnam, especially Korea—they came to trade. While Macartney wished to negotiate for more advantageous policies in the future, and hopefully gain approval to station a permanent British minister in the capital, for the Asian diplomats who came to visit the emperor the embassy itself was the opportunity for trade. Thus the large quantity of high-quality trading goods that the emperor gave to the British—the silks, the porcelain, the tea. He expected that these were what they wanted above all, so they could bring them home and sell them.

Furthermore, the embassies that came from tributary states like Vietnam and Korea did not come to impress the throne; they came to seek the emperor’s approval, which gave them political power back home. To demonstrate their government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the powerful Qing emperor was (at least in China’s eyes) to argue for their own sovereign’s right to rule in his own country. And to gain this approval, they paid tribute. They readily performed the so-called kowtow before the emperor in the manner of his own ministers—a prescribed ritual of nine kneeling bows to the ground (three sets of three) to humble themselves in his presence. And it made perfect sense to do so, because in their recognizing the supremacy of the emperor of China, the eminent power in Asia, he would recognize their supremacy within their own, smaller countries. Whether or not such emissaries actually considered their own countries to be inferior, it was still in their best interests to follow the court’s protocol. But such a relationship could hardly have been further from Lord Macartney’s expectations, and it was on this issue of ceremony that the weak pageantry of the British embassy began to unravel.

Macartney insisted that he would perform the ceremony of nine kneeling bows as long as it was reciprocal – that is, if a Chinese official would do exactly the same before the king of England”

Initially Macartney did not realize that he was supposed to prostrate himself before the emperor. Nor, when it was explained to him, was he willing to do so. Despite his great admiration for the prosperity and civilization of the Qing Empire, he viewed Qianlong as an equal to the king of England, entitled only to the same show of respect he would give to his own sovereign. Since Macartney would not perform anything so abject as the kowtow before his own king, he felt he could not do so before Qianlong either. In any case, he expected that the ceremony would be waived in his case, and submitted a request to that effect in advance, which he had been told was approved. But on the embassy’s arrival at Jehol, Heshen denied ever having seen the request, and insisted Macartney should perform the full kowtow before the emperor. Chinese officials assured Macartney that it was just for show, “a mere exterior and unmeaning ceremony,” and urged him to go forward with it.

The negotiations were thorny. Macartney insisted that he would “readily” perform the ceremony of nine kneeling bows as long as it was reciprocal—that is, if a Chinese official would do exactly the same before the king of England (or rather, before the portrait of King George that Macartney had brought along). Failing such reciprocity, he insisted there should be a different ceremony for “equal” states like Britain (as he, but not they, considered it), to distinguish his own powerful country from mere tributary states like Korea. In that vein, he proposed to bend on one knee before Qianlong and bow his head once, as he would do for the king of England. To Macartney’s great relief, that proposal was accepted. He could now look forward to his audience with the emperor, to productive discussions of new trade privileges, and hopefully to a long residence in the capital. And that was to say nothing of what he expected would be the heightened respect for the English more widely in China once it became known that their ambassador—theirs alone—did not have to kowtow before the emperor.

After a few more days of waiting, Macartney finally learned that the emperor would see him on September 14, nearly a week after their arrival. Heshen the “Grand Choulaa” still had never come to Macartney’s own residence to pay his respects, which was irritating from a protocol standpoint, though lesser officials consoled Macartney that Heshen hadn’t visited only because there wasn’t enough room in Macartney’s quarters to fit his entourage (also, they said evasively, he had hurt his foot). But now that didn’t seem to matter; the British diplomat would have his audience with the emperor of China, and the members of the embassy could finally enjoy a taste of success in their mission.

At three o’clock in the morning on the appointed day, the ambassador was whisked away in a palanquin, dressed in a specially-prepared outfit of mulberry velvet suit, diamond star, and a plume of feathers on his head. He was followed through the dark by his suite and musicians, also done up in their best, who tried to march in formation behind him until they realized they couldn’t keep up with the quick-footed Chinese porters who carried Macartney’s litter, at which point they began running after him, breaking ranks as they got mixed up in various herds of pigs and donkeys that crowded the early-morning road.

The servants, musicians, and gentlemen in their sweaty disarray were abandoned near the entrance to the emperor’s ceremonial tent. Macartney entered, carrying above his head a jewel-encrusted golden box containing a letter from King George III, accompanied by George Staunton in a scarlet Oxford gown (calculated, as misguidedly as Macartney’s own outfit, to win the admiration of the “scholarly” Chinese), as well as Staunton’s son and their interpreter. By Macartney’s own account, inside the tent he ascended the steps to the emperor’s throne, knelt on one knee as agreed, and presented him with the box (also, awkwardly, some watches). The emperor did not seem in the slightest chagrined that the ritual had been changed. The elder Staunton later wrote that Qianlong’s eyes were “full and clear, and his countenance open,” in contrast to the “dark and gloomy” demeanor they had expected.

The Chinese emperor arriving at his tent to receive Macartney. Watercolour by William Alexander, Macartney’s official artist, in 1799 (courtesy of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland)

The letter from King George had been rendered into Chinese with the assistance of the European missionaries in the capital. The king’s language was full of lofty praise in a manner he thought the emperor of China might expect, which the translators preserved—and even amplified, so what Qianlong actually read was not just that he was, as the king wrote, “worthy to live tens of thousands and tens of thousands thousand years,”  but also that he “should rule” for that long, an endorsement that was absent from the original. The translators also weeded out potentially offensive references to Christianity, deleting for example a reference by the king to “the blessings which the Great God of Heaven has conferred upon various soils and climates.” Furthermore, they rendered the letter into standard honorific form, elevating the word “China” one line above the rest of the text whenever it appeared, and elevating all references to the emperor three lines above the rest. In the form in which Qianlong read it, the letter scarcely appeared to come from the pen of a sovereign who considered himself to be Qianlong’s equal.

Macartney was nearly overcome by the ornate pageantry of the audience tent—the tapestries and carpets, the rich draperies and lanterns, “disposed with such harmony,” he wrote in his journal, “the colors so artfully varied.” It was as if he were inside a painting. The “commanding feature” of the ceremony, he recalled dreamily, was “that calm dignity, that sober pomp of Asiatic greatness, which European refinements have not yet attained.” The only flaw to intrude upon Macartney’s Orientalist reverie was that he was not the only ambassador in attendance. There were in fact several others from various tributary states, including six Muslims from near the Caspian Sea and a Hindu from Burma, “but,” he noted jealously, “their appearance was not very splendid.” Unlike Macartney, they all readily performed the kowtow.


Macartney had no idea how deeply he had offended the emperor with his negotiations. As early as September 10, four days prior to the audience, Qianlong was already so furious about the English ambassador’s dithering over ritual and his attempts to drag out his time in Jehol that he issued an edict to his ministers of state expressing “great displeasure” with the British and declaring that he would no longer show them any extra favors. They could keep the gifts that were planned for them, he said, and hold the meetings that had been promised, but otherwise they were cut off. He said that he had originally planned to let Macartney stay for a while to enjoy the sights in Jehol, but given the “presumption and self-importance” displayed by the English ambassador, he had decided that Macartney and his retinue should be sent from Jehol immediately after the banquet, then escorted from Beijing after having a day or two to pack their belongings. “When foreigners who come seeking audience with me are sincere and submissive, then I always treat them with kindness,” Qianlong wrote. “But if they come in arrogance, they get nothing.”

The surface politesse of entertaining the embassy had gone ahead despite the anger behind the scenes, but on a practical level Macartney’s mission was doomed; he just didn’t realize it yet. On October 3, a few days before they were ordered out from Beijing, Macartney received Qianlong’s response to the letter from King George: an edict on imperial yellow silk, rejecting all of the British requests. Fortunately for Macartney, he couldn’t read it. The request to have a British ambassador remain at the capital, said Qianlong, was (in the language of the translation later prepared for the king) “not consistent with the Customs of this our Empire, and cannot therefore be allowed.” Qianlong acknowledged that foreign missionaries had been allowed to live in Beijing, but pointed out that anyone wishing to adopt such a position “must immediately put on the Chinese dress, dwell with the Society assigned to him, and cannot return to his Country.” Such an arrangement, he observed, even if he approved it for Macartney, would be quite contrary to what the king hoped to achieve. Trade was in fine hands, said Qianlong, and there was no need to change more than a century of precedent just to please one country.

Qianlong pointed out that he had already given the British embassy an abundance of gifts, and they should simply be grateful and go home. As far as the British presents, on which the East India Company had spent a great deal of money and about which Macartney had worried for much of his voyage, Qianlong noted that he had accepted them not because he actually wanted them, but merely as “Tokens of your own affectionate Regard for me.” In truth, he went on, “As the Greatness and Splendor of the Chinese Empire have spread its Fame far and wide, and as foreign Nations, from a thousand Parts of the World, crowd hither over mountains and Seas, to pay us their Homage, and to bring us the rarest and most precious offerings, what is it that we can want here?” Foreigners had already brought him whatever he could want. In words that would sting the British for a generation, he added, “Strange and costly objects do not interest me. . . . We possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”

Macartney’s mission was doomed; he just didn’t realize it yet”

Because he could not read the edict at the time and did not understand the rejection it contained, Macartney remained hopeful. Later that same day he pressed for a letter to be given to Qianlong in which he listed even more boldly than before his primary requests: for new ports to be opened to the British; for an island on the coast they could use as a storage depot for their goods; and for privileged and protected terms of trade in Canton, among other concessions. The emperor’s response to that letter—in a second edict addressed to the king of England—was, as one might expect, even more blunt. It coincided with the order for the British embassy to leave, and Macartney received it on his way out from the capital.

The essential, underlying point of Qianlong’s second edict was that Great Britain had no leverage with him. He laid out the long-term economic relationship of the two countries in his own terms. “The products of our empire are abundant,” he wrote to King George, “and there is nothing we do not have. So we have never needed trade with foreign countries to give us anything we lacked.” However, he went on, the tea, porcelain, and silk that China produced were “essential needs” for countries like England that did not have them, and so out of grace the dynasty had long permitted foreign merchants to come to Canton to purchase such goods, “to satisfy your needs and to allow you to benefit from our surplus.” Trade, in other words, was—and had always been—entirely a favor on China’s side. England, he reminded the king, was only one of many countries that came to trade in Canton, and if he gave Britain special treatment, then he would have to give it to all the others as well.

Nevertheless, Qianlong did not propose to punish King George for his naiveté in making these requests, and he noted that it was entirely possible Macartney had acted without the king’s permission. Instead, Qianlong expressed his sympathy for remote England—whose people, he observed, were so unfortunate as to live far away beyond an expansive waste where they were ignorant of the civilization of China. So he did not revoke any of Britain’s existing privileges, but he did go through every single one of Macartney’s requests to explain in each case why he could not possibly grant them. He also suggested that the British had betrayed their own ignorance by even making such requests in the first place.

Sketch of Macartney’s first meeting with Qianlong, also by William Alexander. The boy on the right is the eleven-year-old George Staunton who impressed the Emperor with his spoken Chinese

Macartney had entertained extremely high hopes, and his failure to gain advantage in the Qing imperial court stung him. He wound up having quite a lot of time to brood on things before he sailed home, for it turned out that the captain of his ship the Lion had taken the vessel back down to Macao for the sake of his crew, a huge number of whom were sick, and so there was no ship waiting to convey him back to the south (its companion, the Hindostan, remained, but Macartney complained that there wasn’t room on it for everyone, and the crowding would only worsen the chances of disease). With the emperor’s permission, Macartney and his retinue were escorted on a two-month inland journey along canals and rivers and over mountain passes to Canton.

In Macartney’s journal after Beijing, on the way back down to Canton empty-handed, his earlier wide-eyed admiration gave way to a new undertone of anger. “Can they be ignorant,” he wondered in late October, “that a couple of English frigates would be an overmatch for the whole naval force of their empire, that in half a summer they could totally destroy the navigation of their coasts and reduce the inhabitants of the maritime provinces, who subsist chiefly on fish, to absolute famine?” Separately he fantasized that Britain could, from its territories in India, trigger a revolt in Tibet. Or British naval vessels could destroy the Tiger’s Mouth forts guarding the river passage to Canton with just “half a dozen broadsides.” They could “annihilate” the Canton trade, and the millions of Chinese employed in that trade “would be almost instantly reduced to hunger and insurrection.”

But—and this was an extremely important caveat—he also realized full well that if Britain showed any aggression toward China, the emperor could simply shut down their trade entirely. Were that to happen, worried Macartney, “the blow would be immediate and heavy,” and the economies of England and British India would suffer immeasurable damage with no recourse. The China trade was the lifeblood of the British Empire, and so he admitted to himself that the idea of showing force or trying to conquer territory in China, no matter how appetizing it might be to his wounded pride, was “too wild to be seriously mentioned.” Given the current state of the two empires, he concluded that the best course for Britain was patience. “Our present interests, our reason, and our humanity,” he concluded, “equally forbid the thoughts of any offensive measures with regard to the Chinese, whilst a ray of hope remains for succeeding by gentle ones.”


The Macartney mission ended as an embarrassment. Later critics would decry “the strange want of decent and manly spirit by which it was distinguished,” charging that the most prominent feature of this first embassy from Great Britain to China was that it “acknowledged the inferiority of its country.” After the Lion and Hindostan returned home, the senior members of the embassy took their time preparing official accounts of the journey for publication, but they were beaten to the press by Macartney’s valet, who quickly published a much more candid account than anything they would write—and unlike Macartney and Staunton, he, as a servant, had no vested interest in upholding the dignity of either the government or the East India Company. The servant’s unvarnished narrative was an immediate success, going through three reprintings in its first year alone.

Macartney became a standing joke. Caricatures of him circulated, an awkward figure abasing himself before plump, overbloated Chinese officials. The satirist John Wolcot, writing as Peter Pindar, ridiculed him in a poem titled “Ode to the Lion Ship of War, on her return with the Embassy from China,” which begins:

Dear Lion, welcome from thy monkey trip;
Glad is the Bard to see thee, thou good Ship;
Thy mournful ensign, half way down the staff,
Provokes (I fear me much) a general laugh!
. . .
Say, wert thou not asham’d to put thy prow
Where Britons, dog-like, learnt to crawl and bow?
Where eastern majesty, as hist’ry sings,
Looks down with smiles of scorn on western kings?
A cartoon of the Maccartney mission by James Gillray, published 14 September 1792, with an assortment of British produce on display – depicted as children’s toys – and a caricatured Western imagination of the Chinese emperor

Macartney did not endure his embarrassment quietly, however. He had his own version of events, which centered on the arrogant obliviousness of the Chinese throne. And whatever the results of the embassy may have been, he was now recognized as one of the very few Englishmen qualified to speak of China. His pronouncements after he returned home to England were, if anything, even more resentful than what he had penned on the later part of his journey. He wrote a series of observations for the use of the British government and the East India Company—short essays on China’s people, its economy, its agriculture, science, legal system, and so on—the unifying theme of which was that the empire was far less prosperous or stable than Europeans had previously imagined.

He had begun to explore this idea in his journal in Canton just before the voyage home. “The empire of China is an old crazy first-rate man of war,” he mused, “which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers has contrived to keep afloat for these hundred and fifty years past; and to overawe their neighbors, merely by her bulk and appearance.” China’s grandeur and power, he came to believe (or wanted to believe), was illusory—or at least, it was a relic from the past that was now lost. “She may perhaps not sink outright,” he wrote, continuing his nautical metaphor, “she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed in pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom.”

He wrote a series of observations that the Chinese empire was far less prosperous or stable than Europeans had previously imagined

His judgment on this matter darkened the longer he thought about it (and, it should be noted, the more bruising his dignity suffered once he was back in England). It wasn’t just that the Qing Empire was adrift, he decided, but that it was headed for a revolution. Against those in the West who imagined China to be a model of stable and virtuous government, Macartney described it instead as “the tyranny of a handful of Tartars over more than three hundred millions of Chinese.” And those Chinese subjects, he predicted ominously—fed at least in part by his own wish to see the Manchu emperor humbled—would not suffer “the odium of a foreign yoke” for much longer. A revolution was coming.

He did not stop there. China’s day of reckoning was not just inevitable, he believed, it was imminent. “I often perceived the ground to be hollow under a vast superstructure,” he wrote, “and in trees of the most stately and flourishing appearance I discovered symptoms of speedy decay.” The huge population of ethnic Chinese (that is, the Han Chinese) were “now recovering from the blows that had stunned them; they are awaking from the political stupor they had been thrown into by the [Manchu] impression, and begin to feel their native energies revive. A slight collision might elicit fire from the flint, and spread the flames of revolt from one extremity of China to the other.” The destruction of the Qing dynasty’s empire would be a savage affair, he predicted, attended by “horrors and atrocities.” And it would come soon. “I should not be surprised,” he concluded, “if its dislocation or dismemberment were to take place before my own dissolution.”

These were words written in resentment and anger by a man who had only traveled in the country for a few months. Macartney knew little of China’s history or the conditions in the interior of the empire beyond the threadlike path of his own journey. He could not speak the language or read the country’s books, he had no network of informants or advisers, and his understanding was irretrievably colored by his own national pride. And yet he would turn out to be more correct than he had any right to be. ∎


Excerpted from Stephen R. Platt, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, Knopf (May 15, 2018), and used with permission.
Images are free use from Wikimedia Commons, with the exception of the header image which is courtesy of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.