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back to catalog Chapter 17: Door Opened by Cannons(1).

  Human society saw unprecedented changes in the middle of the 19th century. The modernization drive in Europe and North America had just begun and was gaining momentum, leading to an unforeseen historic trend. Due to its extended isolation, China was weak and poor at the time. However, its large market potential and rich resources were attractive to and were coveted by the European and American powers, namely, Britain, America, France, Germany, Russia, and Italy, as well as its close neighbor to the east, Japan. Powers entered China one after another, staking out their “sphere of influence” for their own interest. What could China do in response to these major upheavals, unprecedented for the past three thousand years?

  McCartney Hits a Wall in China.

  During the Ming Dynasty, feudal rulers adopted strict policies prohibiting maritime trade or contact with foreign countries.

  The rulers in the early period of Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) also continued such policies until the late 17th century, when Emperor Kangxi, who was quite a visionary, temporarily relaxed the ban.

   Customs offices were established in the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang and Jiangsu for trading with foreign merchants.

  In 1686, the Guangdong authorities enlisted 13 relatively powerful businessmen and appointed them to conduct trade with foreign merchants on foreign ships, as well as levy tariffs for the customs office.

  Thanks to the reigns of Emperor Kangxi and Emperor Yongzheng, Emperor Qianlong took over a China which had entered a prosperous age.

  However, despite the glory on the surface, the massive state machinery was showing more and more cracks with increasingly evident symptoms of decline. Emperor Qianlong was himself a show-off and liked seeking empty glory. To equal his grandfather Emperor Kangxi’s historical accomplishment, and stamp his name on the pages of history, Emperor Qianlong followed his grandfather’s footsteps by conducting as many as six inspection tours to southern China.

  Even today, a number of legends circulate about these tours.

   One legend has it that Emperor Qianlong saw some village girls picking tea leaves at the foot of Shifeng Hill in Longjing (dragon well) area of Hangzhou. To display his concern for people’s living conditions, he also joined the chore. However, just as he started picking, a eunuch reported, “The empress dowager is ill, please return to Beijing immediately.” Not daring to delay a moment, he unconsciously put a handful of tea leaves he had picked into his own pocket and rushed back to Beijing without rest on the way.

  Actually his mother was simply troubled by a minor discomfort caused by excessive heat in the liver, which had led to swollen eyes accompanied by a stomach ache. When Emperor Qianlong met her, she smelt an invigorating aroma, and thinking it might be a gift her son had brought for her from the south, she inquired about it.

  Emperor Qianlong felt quite embarrassed as he had forgotten about the gift in the rush. Then where did the fragrance come from? He searched his own clothes and found in his pocket the handful of tea leaves he had picked at Shifeng Hill of Hangzhou. The refreshing smell was from the leaves that had dried after several days. The empress expressed a desire to taste them, and Emperor Qianlong ordered his maids to prepare a pot of tea with these leaves. The tea served to the empress dowager had a sweet and pleasant scent, and serenaded her nostrils. After drinking it she felt much better and said, “Hangzhou’s dragon well tea is really wonderful and a miraculous medicine.”

  Seeing her exult about it, Emperor Qianlong handed down an imperial edict right away, conferring upon the 18 tea trees at the foot of Shifeng Hill the title of imperial tea. Since then, every harvest of the trees was taken to the empress dowager as a tribute. Today, the 18 tea trees still grow in front of Hugong Temple at Longjing (dragon well) Village, Hangzhou. The stories about Emperor Qianlong’s incognito trips to south of the Yangtze River have been adapted and made into a very popular primetime program on TV, which is broadcast across the country. This reflects the desire of the Chinese people to learn more about their leadership.

  However, Qianlong’s travels to the south were extremely expensive. A number of temporary imperial palaces were constructed along his travel routes from Beijing to Hangzhou. The southern inspection fleet consisted of more than one thousand ships at a time. All localities along the way had to prepare food, stock water and anything else they needed. Despite Emperor Qianlong’s orders to prevent wastage of money, local officials still tried every means possible to please him. He conducted six southern inspection tours in his lifetime, with each costlier than the previous ones.

  It mounted a heavy burden on the people, and in the end, ate up the treasury of the dynasty. There were indeed some clear-headed officials in Qing courts, who tried to dissuade him from these tours. However, Emperor Qianlong reprimanded them severely, not realizing the mistake until the last few years of his life.

  He said, “I believe I did not commit major wrong doings during my 60 years as the emperor, except for the six southern inspection tours that wasted much money and resources and burdened the people. The goodwill did not translate into good outcomes.”

  After that no emperor in Qing Dynasty embarked on southern inspection tours modeled on the Qianlong ones. It was also because the treasury of the Qing court could no longer afford it.

  Emperor Qianlong had always felt like the center of the universe, feeling no necessity to have contact with the outside world. In the later stages of his reign, he resumed the prohibition of maritime trade, pushing China back to isolation.

  At the same time, the Western world was experiencing epochmaking changes. In the 30th year of Emperor Qianlong’s reign (1765), a British textile worker Hargreaves invented a new type of weaving machine, the Spinning Jenny, which greatly improved the efficiency of weaving machines, leading to Britain kicking off its industrial revolution. In the 50th year of Emperor Qianlong’s reign (1785), Watt improved the steam engine. Bolton invented the steamship soon after; an Englishman named Stephenson invented steam locomotives. These new revolutionary improvements in productivity pushed western society to develop at a very rapid pace, leading it to enter a time of colonial expansion and depredation in search of resources worldwide.

  In the 40th year of Emperor Qianlong’s reign (1775), the American Civil War broke out. The United States became independent and the Human Rights Act was ratified eight years later.

  In the 54th year of Emperor Qianlong’s reign (1789), the French revolution took place, which led to the issuance of the Declaration of Human Rights and the capital punishment for Louis XVI.

   All these major events gave birth to the creation of a new level of productivity and a new political system. The geopolitical structure of the world had profoundly changed, generating a huge impact on the world’s history.

  In desperate search for markets, the emerging capitalist western countries were eager to trade with China, which had a large territory and a big population. However, the Qing Dynasty declined foreign trade and had its doors tightly closed, due to its dislike of Western cultures.

  Despite the fact that by the mid 18th century Britain was the largest Western trader with China, its industrial products saw a cold shoulder in China’s self-sufficient economy, and bilateral trade was limited to Britain’s purchase of Chinese teas with silver. The British were deeply troubled by the increasingly large trade deficit and urgently needed to open the closed door of the Qing Empire.

  The British king George III made a major decision in September 1792. He dispatched an embassy to the remote and ancient country of China, headed by Lord George McCartney, with a large fleet composed of Royal British warships, including The Lion, The Hindoostan, and The Jackal. The delegation was sent on the pretext of commemorating the Emperor’s 83rd birthday, with which they wanted to open the Chinese market.

  The British diplomatic mission arrived in China in May 1793 (the 5th year of Emperor Qianlong’s reign). While waiting for the provincial governor of Liangguang (Guangdong and Guangxi) to report their visit to the throne, they anchored their ships off the shore of Macao. Emperor Qianlong was extremely pleased to learn of the visit of the British diplomatic mission, and appointed senior officials specially for receiving the diplomatic mission.

  When the British diplomatic mission heard of the imperial edict, they left Macao for the northern port of Tianjin. From there they reached Beijing through the Great Canal. After brief refreshments, McCartney led his people to travel another 200 kilometers beyond the Great Wall for the Chengde Summer Palace, where the 83-year-old Emperor’s birthday party was to be held.

  The Qing government attached extraordinary importance to this visit. Emperor Qianlong had directed the Privy Council (equivalent of a cabinet) to draft a reception proposal, including official court audience with the Emperor, granting of presents, a banquet, theatre and sightseeing etc. When McCartney and his mission arrived at Chengde in September 1793, Emperor Qianlong had been waiting for long, perched on his throne, courting a gesture which suggested he was the mandate of the heaven, the center of the world, and the inferior tributary states had all come to pay respect to him.

  As both sides prepared for the meeting with great interest and enthusiasm, an unpleasant thing occurred-the two sides got into a serious disagreement over the formality of the court audience with the emperor. The Qing tradition provided that foreign envoys must kowtow before the Qing Emperor with the full formality including “three kneel-downs on both knees and nine kowtows each time”.

   But McCartney believed that the full formality would harm the dignity of the British Empire and suggested bending down with one knee would be more appropriate.

  Emperor Qianlong was furious at the suggestion. He deemed McCartney and his mission as envoys who could not have come to pay tributes, as his agreeing to entertain them itself was a huge honor to them. He could not imagine the British mission could be so insensitive to this. Emperor Qianlong told his official, “I am not happy with the arrogance of the British. Such uncultivated people from remote regions do not deserve preferential treatment.”

  The British mission could now possibly be expelled, and McCartney would have to return without accomplishing the assignment he had been sent for. After careful deliberations, he offered his counter conditions for accepting the kowtow formality, which included a reciprocal formality when a Chinese envoy visited Britain, and a Chinese official kneeling down to the portrait of the British king. The two sides finally reached an agreement with concessions. The British envoy would perform the British-style formality in the banquet and the complete kowtow formality for the Emperor’s birthday gala.

  Emperor Qianlong also softened his attitude. He thought these people were from a remote maritime state and might not be familiar with the regulations of his celestial dynasty. Since they were now submissive, he thought he could still bestow upon them his imperial kindness and benefactions.

  Emperor Qianlong also let a key senior member of his Privy Council, He Shen, accompany the mission for sightseeing, including a tour around the imperial garden.

During the official celebration of the emperor’s “ten thousand years of longevity”, McCartney presented gifts to the emperor, including telescopes, clocks, warship models and modern firearms.

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