BOOK REVIEW / The sacred kowtow: Godfrey Hodgson on how Chinese ceremony and British arrogance led to a historic stand-off - 'The Collision of Two Civilisations' - Alain Peyrefitte, Tr. Jon Rothschild: Harvill, 20 pounds

EARLY IN the morning of 14 September 1793, George, Lord Macartney, the first British ambassador ever to visit the Chinese court, entered the imperial tent in Jehol, the Manchu capital, to see the emperor Qianlong.

As one, a thousand demonstrated their submission to the Son of Heaven by performing the ceremony of the kowtow. Three times they fell to their knees, and three times on each occasion they touched their foreheads to the ground. Macartney, however, refused to kowtow. He would bend one knee, he said, to his sovereign; both knees he would bend only to his God. Three times, with the greatest politeness, he went down on one knee. And three times, in the course of each genuflexion, in rhythm with the mandarins, he respectfully bowed his head. But he flatly refused to touch his forehead to the ground.

This, argues Alain Peyrefitte in his remarkable study, the fruit of decades of research and reflection, was one of the decisive moments in the history of the world. In that moment two civilisations came into contact. Instead of beginning fruitful exchanges, their relations hardened into hostility, war and eventually the domination of the West.

The Chinese were outraged by Macartney's refusal to kowtow. It was not just that they felt it as an insult to the Celestial One. China knew of only one kind of embassy, one that brought tribute from vassals of the Middle Kingdom. Indeed, at the same audience where Macartney refused the kowtow, he was received together with scruffy emissaries from the Pegu and Calmuck tribes of Central Asia. The Chinese literally could not imagine a nation that did not accept vassalage to the suzerainty of their emperor.

Macartney's gesture was not made on the spur of the moment. For weeks, since his arrival on Chinese soil, mandarins had been despatched to explain to him the nature of the submission he must make, and he had explained, patiently on the whole, that he was not a vassal, that the King of England (at that moment the doddering George III) was not a tributary of China, and that he had no intention of making the submission expected of him.

His embassy was a dignified and most interesting failure, but still a failure. Historians used to argue that it was the refusal to kowtow that doomed it to fail. Alain Peyrefitte argues convincingly that this is a mistake. After all, a Dutch ambassador who arrived a few months later, and who signified his willingness to make whatever obeisance the emperor might require, if only he could open north China to Dutch trade, was treated with even greater contempt than Macartney; and indeed it appears that, horrified as they were by this ignorant barbarian's manners, they were, or at least some of them were, impressed in spite of themselves.

Alain Peyrefitte was a minister in De Gaulle's government, and is now a member of the French Academy. In 1954 he picked up, in a secondhand bookshop in Krakow, a collection of 18th-century travel books which had belonged to Prince Adam Czartoryski, who became, after the last partition of his native country between Prussia, Austria and Russia, the minister of foreign affairs in St Petersburg. In this package, Peyrefitte was astonished to find two accounts of Macartney's embassy by members of it; he had no idea that, at the very moment when the French Revolution was at its height, Britain, a nation of eight million people, had been so confident of its status as 'the most powerful nation on earth' that it insisted on dealing on equal terms with the emperor of one-third of the human race.

More than 30 years later, Peyrefitte has produced a book which can only be described as magnificent. He has made contacts with Chinese scholars, who have been able to recover documents which illuminate the Chinese view of the encounter as clearly, or almost as clearly, as the Western texts do. Peyrefitte has also uncovered unknown Western sources. But the most revealing is one that has been known for a long time: the eyewitness account of Thomas Staunton, the son of Macartney's deputy. The 11-year- old Thomas learned Chinese from the Chinese Jesuits who were accompanying the embassy on the long voyage out. He was therefore often able to understand Chinese reactions which his father found baffling.

The China Macartney was visiting was past its apogee, though the Chinese did not realise that. In the course of Qianlong's long reign, the population of his empire had more than doubled, to 340 million, but it did not escape Macartney's sharp eyes that Chinese military power, though imposing, was not really impressive; or that the Chinese, who had once been far ahead of Europe in most branches of technology, were now falling far behind.

Peyrefitte sees the Macartney embassy as a major turning-point in the relations between West and East. Before it, the intellectuals of the Enlightenment used an idealised picture of China as a stick to beat their conservative opponents in Europe, rather as European intellectuals in the 1930s saw the Soviet Union as a model.

Voltaire, Leibnitz and Oliver Goldsmith, among many other 18th-century writers followed the Jesuits, who of course had an axe to grind, in portraying China as an enlightened despotism, run by the best of all possible counsellors: writers and intellectuals.

Hegel, having read the elder Staunton's book about the embassy, thought otherwise: the history of China, he wrote, 'is merely the repetition of the same majestic process of decline'.

Macartney may have failed, but Britain was not easily discouraged. In 1816, now victorious over Napoleon and at the zenith of power, Whitehall despatched Lord Amherst (with the younger Staunton as his right-hand man) on a similar mission. Again, Lord Amherst refused to kowtow, and again the Chinese refused to contemplate any relationship with Britain or any other Western country except that of vassalage.

It was their last chance for over a century. In 1840, when Parliament debated the sending of a military expedition to punish the Chinese for sentencing British merchants in Canton to death, the decisive speech was made by the Member for Portsmouth: none other than Sir Thomas Staunton. 'Let the House recollect,' he said, 'that our empire in the East was founded on the force of opinion; and if we submitted to the degrading insults of China, the time would not be far distant when our political ascendancy in India would be at an end.'

This is a vast, many-faceted book. It draws no simple conclusions, and takes no sides. Peyrefitte admires the confidence of the ascendant British, but is alert to the point where impatience turns into arrogance. He sympathises with the historical dilemma of the mandarins, but he debunks the Voltairean illusion by citing just enough evidence of the less ideal characteristics of Chinese society: begging, prostitution, the agonising footbinding of millions of women, widespread corruption and a savage penal code.

His conclusions are subtle, even paradoxical. All countries, he concedes, have a tendency to consider themselves the centre of the world. 'But rarely has any nation carried this defect as far as China,' he considers. 'Its present inferiority flows largely from its sense of superiority.' If Macartney had presented his offer differently, Peyrefitte says with an almost visible shrug, if Qianlong had accepted it differently, the history of the world might have been altered. 'Instead, the confrontation between arrogance and self-sufficiency robbed humanity of incalculable benefits.' But the lessons remain.

As Chris Pattern may be reflecting in Hong Kong today, Qianlong and Macartney are not dead, but live among us still.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past