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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)