1793 – There’s war in Europe. France is having a bloody revolution and living the year of the Terror. It also opens the Louvre and the Paris Zoo. Spain joins the revolution in Haiti which leads to the abolition of slavery in all French colonies. Meanwhile, after a couple years of skirmishes, the Quiroste Tribe attacks the Franciscan mission at Santa Cruz in the Spanish colony of Alta California. The American colonies in the East have just broken away from the British Empire and Washington becomes the new capital of the brand new USA. The Industrial Revolution in the U.K. is about to properly take off and King George 111 keeps it moving, seeking other opportunities around the world. Including in China.
China accounted for about a third of the entire world’s GDP and population that year. While the King and Queen of France were having their heads cut off, putting the sovereigns of Europe on notice, the Qianlong Emperor of the Celestial Empire enjoyed unquestioned authority alongside vast wealth and power. The European empires had been doing trade in Canton for a century, but they wanted to expand operations.
In an attempt to do just that, and to set up a permanent embassy in Beijing, King George 111 sent Earl George McCartney to the Chinese capital to meet with the Emperor. The two proved to epically misunderstand each other. The Chinese, who considered all other nations as tributaries, took the British conception of ambassadorial relations as an affront. And Earl McCartney:
“The Empire of China is an old, crazy, first-rate Man of War, which a fortunate succession of and vigilant officers have contrived to keep afloat for these hundred and fifty years past, and to overawe their neighbours merely by her bulk and appearance. But whenever an insufficient man happens to have the command on deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship. She may, perhaps, not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom.”
“The breaking-up of the power of China (no very improbable event) would occasion a complete subversion of the commerce, not only of Asia, but a very sensible change in the other quarters of the world. The industry and the ingenuity of the Chinese would be checked and enfeebled, but they would not be annihilated. Her ports would no longer be barricaded; they would be attempted by all the adventures of all trading nations, who would search every channel, creek, and cranny of China for a market, and for some time be the cause of much rivalry and disorder.”
These first hand observations of this sealed off kingdom were considered the successful part of the voyage. No trade concessions were to be had. The Qianlong Emperor, in his supreme awesomeness, dashed off this must-read, totally badass, yet painfully disconnected response to King George, with the lines;
“Hitherto, the barbarian merchants of Europe have had a definite locality assigned to them at Aomen (Macau) for residence and trade, and have been forbidden to encroach an inch beyond the limits assigned to that locality…. If these restrictions were withdrawn, friction would inevitably occur between the Chinese and your barbarian subjects, and the results would militate against the benevolent regard that I feel towards you. From every point of view, therefore, it is best that the regulations now in force should continue unchanged….”
This encounter took place 100 years before the birth of Mao Zedong. It was a prelude to the Opium Wars and the “Century of Humiliation” which the Chairman would declare the end of with the founding of the PRC.
China is back on its feet and has a different attitude toward foreign business these days, though some shifty shadows of the Qianlong Emperor’s estimations remain, and the Middle Kingdom is experiencing its biggest wave yet of Barbarian Subjects and merchants, searching “every channel, creek, and cranny of China for a market”.
The mandarins of Mao-Dynasty China aim to regain China’s place as the world’s top civilization. If that will happen is an open question. These pages will endeavor to simply experience this story in all its great and strange details. In the spirit of the Earl and the Emperor, we will be biased and judgmental, but you’ll know where we’re coming from. We’ll keep our appetite keen and try to have a good time while learning something. If that interests you, drop in once in a while.