The George Macartney Mission to China, 1792–1794

The Earl George Macartney Collection launches this month in Archives Unbound. It is a new digitisation of a fascinating resource – letters, books, sketches and journals relating to the important Macartney mission from George III to the Chinese Emperor Qianlong in 1792–1794. The Charles Wason Collection at Cornell is the largest collection of material on this event held in one place, covering a period from 1784 to 1916. This valuable piece of Anglo-Chinese history is now available in Gale’s Archives Unbound programme, where it sits alongside collections such as Papers of the British Consulates and Legation in China (1722–1951), the Chinese Recorder and the Protestant Missionary Community in China, 1867–1941. Below Dr Liren Zheng, curator of the collection at Cornell University Library, explains the importance of both the eighteenth-century mission and the accumulation of this material into one holding.

On September 26, 1792, a mission led by Earl George Macartney (1737–1806) departed from Portsmouth, England, for China. The mission, financially sponsored by the East India Company, was dispatched by King George III to meet Chinese Emperor Qianlong on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The mission was composed of over 100 members, including Earl Macartney’s right-hand man George Staunton, his teenage son Thomas Staunton, the comptroller John Barrow, two doctors Hugh Gillan and William Scott, two artists William Alexander and Thomas Hickey, the President of the Royal Society Joseph Banks, a group of scientists led by James Dinwiddie, and four Chinese Catholic priests who served as interpreters. The squadron was initially composed of three vessels, the HMS Lion, the Hindostan, and the Jackall, and later added the Clarence in Batavia and the East Indiaman Endeavour at the Yellow Sea. After nearly 11 months journey the Macartney mission arrived in Beijing on August 21, 1793 and they were received in audience by Emperor Qianlong in Chengde on September 14, 1793.

George Macartney, Thomas Hickey, and Henry William Parish, Watercolors For Lord Macartney’s Embassy, f1792-1794, Volume 3. (1792 – 1794). Macartney Collection. Cornell University Libraries

This mission led by Earl Macartney was the first British diplomatic delegation to China. The real goals of this mission were as follows:

(1) Due to the increasing trade imbalance between China and Great Britain, impelled by the latter’s great demand for tea, porcelain, and silk, the British tried to address the trade deficit by showcasing their products of technology, such as clocks, telescopes, weapons, textiles, and others, so as to motivate the Chinese to purchase more British commodities.

(2) The Chinese government confined all foreign maritime trade to Guangzhou through 13 trading firms selected by the Qing imperial court. By the late eighteenth century, British traders felt fettered by this system and demanded extended trade rights. In response to their desire, the mission was intended to appeal to Emperor Qianlong to mitigate trade restrictions and tariffs on British merchants and open more ports and markets in addition to Guangzhou for their operations.

(3) The mission was instructed to negotiate for possession of a small unfortified island along China’s coast under British jurisdiction “for the residence of British traders, storage of goods, and outfitting of ships.”

(4) By the late eighteenth century Great Britain had become China’s largest trading partner, underscored by the fact that out of 86 foreign ships arriving in Guangzhou in 1789, 61 were British. However, in contrast to the Portuguese who once had much bigger influence over the Qing imperial court through Jesuit missionaries, Great Britain possessed no direct conduit to the Chinese central government. The Macartney mission was thus asked to request the establishment of a permanent embassy in Beijing.

George Staunton and George Macartney. An Historical Account Of The Embassy To The Emperor Of China: Undertaken By Order Of The King Of Great Britain (1797). Macartney Collection. Cornell University Libraries.

The Macartney mission was generally regarded as futile; all of its requests were rejected by Emperor Qianlong. The failure of this diplomatic encounter between China and Great Britain could be attributed to both sides. On China’s side, Emperor Qianlong, like other Chinese monarchs before and after him, considered all other states to be China’s tributaries. Accordingly, the Macartney mission was naturally perceived as a tribute delegation and the gifts the mission brought for Emperor Qianlong were accepted as articles of tribute. At the time when Emperor Qianlong ruled the country, China was at the apex of its power with its size doubled thanks to brutal military campaigns in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Nevertheless, Emperor Qianlong was still wary of any foreign encroachments upon China’s sovereignty. As a result, he simply turned down the proposition of exchange by the Macartney mission and failed to recognise the benefits it could have brought to China in the long term. Emperor Qianlong and his chancellors painstakingly wracked their brains to devise a way to get the Macartney mission out of China as soon as possible. On the British side, the Macartney mission came to China with the conviction of Western superiority in terms of holding a modern, rational, and scientific world outlook. Besides promoting trade and diplomacy, the mission also came to assess China’s government, society, and people, and to collect evidence it could utilise to explain the loss of the Jesuit mission, to condemn the unreasonable Chinese rites, and to rationalise the mission’s intention to push China to change.

The situation between the British and the Chinese in the late eighteenth century was stymied by self-interest, with each focusing only on its own point of view. These two entirely opposite cultural and political perspectives inevitably invited friction on the matter of etiquette requiring Earl Macartney to prostrate in front of Emperor Qianlong, which was fortunately resolved with great compromises, extreme polite manners, and sagacious wisdom from both sides. The clash of the two value systems was well reflected in Emperor Qianlong’s letter to King George III after the conclusion of the Macartney mission, explaining the reasons for his refusal to grant the requests of the mission:

“I have but one aim in view, namely, to maintain a perfect governance and to fulfill 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 dynasty’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. This then is my answer to your request to appoint a representative at my Court, a request contrary to our dynastic usage, which would only result in inconvenience to yourself.”

Aeneas Anderson, A Narrative Of The British Embassy To China, In The Years 1792, 1793, And 1794 (1795) p186. Macartney Collection. Cornell University Libraries.

John R. Watt, a historical scholar, has thus concluded:

“The problems of the Macartney mission resulted from increasingly divergent global interpretive and managerial systems: Imperial Confucianism on the one hand… and European Enlightenment ideas about law and rationality and their application by British leaders to the reorganization of British power in India and Asia on the other hand… The Manchu-controlled Chinese state system had its own goals for the management and control of foreign power, which Macartney’s mission intentionally sought to change.”
(Qianlong meets Macartney: Collision of Two World Views, New England China Network, 1997)

By all accounts, the Earl Macartney mission is historically significant because it marked a turning point in the relationship between China and the Western powers. On the one hand, China missed an opportunity to establish a normal diplomatic relationship with Great Britain and move toward greater trade with the Western world, which could lead to its industrialization. This failure to industrialize would come to ceaselessly plague China as it had to face increasing foreign pressures and internal unrest during the nineteenth century. On the other hand, as the British left desperately searching for other ways to balance a massive trade deficit fueled by its demand for tea and other Chinese products, it started to grow opium in India to sell in China, which eventually gave rise to the Opium War between China and Great Britain from 1840 to 1842.

Earl George Macartney, Commonplace Book Kept By Lord Macartney During His Embassy In China, 1792, p9. Macartney Collection. Cornell University Libraries.

The Macartney mission was deputed to collect information on Chinese government, society, and people. In keeping with this instruction, the mission brought back detailed observations of China. The painter William Alexander published numerous engravings based on his watercolours. George Staunton produced the official account of the expedition. Earl Macartney and expedition commander Erasmus Gower wrote multi-volume works. And Joseph Banks selected and arranged engravings of the illustrations for the official record. The extensive cultural, political, and geographical observations the mission participants recorded during their trip are extremely valuable materials for scholars and researchers in China studies.

In 1806, Earl Macartney passed away. In 1854, his heirs sold materials related to the Macartney expedition at Puttick and Simpson, many of which were purchased by Sir Thomas Phillips. On May 23, 1913, part of the Phillips Collection was sold at Sotheby’s, to Charles W. Wason. In 1917, Wason purchased additional documents from Mr. C. G. Macartney, a direct descendant of Earl Macartney.

George Staunton and George Macartney. An Historical Account Of The Embassy To The Emperor Of China: Undertaken By Order Of The King Of Great Britain (1797) p135. Macartney Collection. Cornell University Libraries

Charles W. Wason was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 20, 1854, entered Cornell in 1872, and received his degree in Mechanical Engineering in 1876. Wason and his wife, Mabel, took a cruise to China and Japan in 1903, which was a crucial, transitional, and eventful period in modern Chinese history. This trip served to begin Wason’s strong interest in China, Chinese people, and Chinese culture. After he returned from the trip, he gave a speech to the Cornell Alumni Association of Cleveland and declared that he would undertake “to purchase everything he could get his hands on written in English on China” for the purpose of bringing “China and the United States into closer intellectual relations”. As a result of many years of intensive collecting, Wason amassed over 9,000 volumes of materials on China, including the manuscripts from the Macartney mission to China. On April 15, 1918, Wason passed away. He donated the whole Wason collection to his Alma Mater, Cornell University. The collection of the Macartney Mission to China (1792–1794) constitutes an important component of the Charles W. Wason Collection on East Asia at Cornell University Library. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Charles W. Wason Collection. In cooperation with Gale, a Cengage Company, we have successfully digitised the Macartney collection in honour of the founder of the Wason Collection.


Blog post cover image citation: ‘Scene from the Spectacle of the Sun and Moon’. George Newenham Wright and Thomas Allom. China, In A Series Of Views, Displaying The Scenery, Architecture, And Social Habits, Of That Ancient Empire. Volume 2. (1843) p46.