Qianlong’s letter to King George III

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Qianlong is often criticized for not engaging more with the West and launching China more on the path to modernisation. This is most evident when Britain sent an embassy to China in 1793 led by Lord George Macartney to discuss the possibility of China opening up to more free trade with Britain. Qianlong rejected the idea of the opening up of China to trading more freely with Britain, and consequently the rest of the Western world, in his letter to King George III. “As to your entreaty to send one of your nationals to be accredited to my Celestial Court and to be in control of your country’s trade with China, this request is contrary to all usage of my dynasty and cannot possibly be entertained”

This refusal to engage more with the West caused European’s view of China to change. There was a lot of admiration for China in the West up to this period for their inventions, but this view was changing because of China’s seeming unwillingness to improve or develop towards a more Western view of modernity. “In the late eighteenth century, Western views of China shifted from admiration to contempt” The West was starting to view China as inferior to themselves, “because at the time the West had come to define itself in terms of, and derive a strong sense of superiority from, its undoubted technological power” This change of opinion was dangerous for China because as the West grew more technological and consequently more powerful they realised China was stagnant and in relation to themselves, weak.

Even though King George’s embassy failed in getting China to open up for more trade with Britain, the information acquired by Macartney was invaluable. They discovered the low state of China’s medical and scientific knowledge, the indifference of the literati class to material progress, the poverty of the masses, and most importantly the backwardness of an army which still used bows and arrows and lacked modern firearms. At this time Britain was the strongest state in the world and discovering that China was not developing at the same rate as themselves meant that if Britain wanted, they could simply overpower China and force them to bend to their will. The Western nations were finding the restrictive trading at Canton very irritating and directly at odds with their free world market ideals. It can therefore be stated that Qianlong’s resistance to modernity and advancement was directly making China a target for the stronger Western countries.

It is possible to take another point of view when discussing Qianlong’s refusal to the British. He states in his letter to King George III that “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”. It could be stated that this letter to King George was as much directed at his own people in China, as it was to the British and West. This was propaganda to show the Chinese people how China was the strongest nation in the world. This could be construed as simply serving as a morale boost to the country, but it also served the function of keeping would be rebels in check. Qianlong was being disingenuous when he stated that he had no interest in Western manufactures or technology. In fact, just a few years prior to Macartney’s envoy, Qianlong had quizzed the missionary Michel Benoist about Western science, philosophy, warfare, cartography, shipping and navigational practices. Qianlong reasons for declaring China’s self-sufficiency and disinterest in Western technology were primarily to do with domestic politics. This was to remind the Qianlong’s Chinese subjects that their Manchu rulers remained faithful to the traditional public Chinese attitude of superiority toward foreigners.

There are a few important conclusions to be drawn from Qianlong’s stance on engagement with the West. In his mind, China could not be seen to show massive interest in Western ideals or technology because to do so would show China as inferior to these nations and particularily at this time Britain. Britain was the world power at this time and Qianlong, it would be safe to assume, would have seen them as a big threat. So if he did decide to open up China to the British, would he be able to keep them under his control? Conversely, by not allowing the West in, was he sealing China’s fate? What is meant by this is that by taking this closed stance on the West, Qianlong was showing them that China was either not willing or not able to make the jump into modernity. This gave the Western world the opinion that China was inferior to themselves and could be conquered easily in the not too distant future if necessary.
It was a tough situation for Qianlong to be in. If he allowed the West in, he made China look weak and could also leave himself open domestic rebellion. By keeping them out, he made China look powerful and self-sufficient, espically to the Chinese people themselves. But by doing this he was altering Western perception of China and putting China at more risk in the long run. He could not really win whatever stance he took so it is difficult to criticise his position at the time.

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Waley-Cohen, Joanna, ‘China and Western Technology in the Late Eighteenth Century’, The American Historical Review, Vol. 98, No. 5 (Dec., 1993), pp 1525-1544.

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