The China trade was enormous - British exports alone were worth pounds 1.2m, imports pounds 1.5m - but the existing terms had become intolerable. Foreigners could trade only at Canton and for certain months of the year; they were not allowed outside their 'factories', were banned from contact with ordinary Chinese and prevented from learning the language. During the non-trading months they had to cool their heels in Macao, the Portugese enclave at the mouth of the Pearl
River. Britain hoped to clear these restrictions away. Lord Macartney and the East India Company, which footed the bill, expected that common sense would prevail.
The meeting of two arrogant and self-confident civilisations - one at the zenith of its power, though about to implode with a shocking rapidity, the other rich and thrusting and about to rule the world with its ships - is described in these books. It is a wonderful story, fraught with misunderstanding and mishap on both sides. All the British demands were rejected. The idea that a barbarian, let alone a red-haired one from the Western Ocean, should remain in Peking as part of the imperial court was incomprehensible to Qianlong. The British never realised that the Imperial edict answering their requests was written some six weeks before they arrived. Their gifts were ignored or vandalised; the suspension carriage, the 18th-century technological equivalent of a Rolls-Royce, was considered especially out of place because the groom sat higher than the Son of Heaven.
Lord Macartney was given the ultimate official Chinese run-around: guided tours away from the real China, the cold shoulder followed by perfect charm, rejection followed by instant recognition, bad food followed by a banquet, waiting, always waiting, then suddenly an audience without notice. The Chinese, uncertain what Britain would do, bolted the doors. They were opened by British gunboats 47 years later, and then there was Hong Kong.
Aubrey Singer's is much the tauter of these books: it dumps you in China immediately, and goes straight to the point. Alain Peyrefitte, a former French diplomat, has written a huge and detailed work that meanders through the Imperial archives, China, its court, Britain and the Enlightenment, and ends up with the odd conclusion that Macartney's mission was a cause of 200 years of Anglo-Saxon superiority. He makes much of Macartney's failure to kowtow. This principle - to kowtow or not - seems to have dogged Britain's relations with China ever since.
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