In 1784, the British Prime Minister William Pitt cunningly destroyed the tea-smuggling industry by slashing import duties from 119% to 12.5%. This sent the revenues from the legal, taxable tea trade soaring, making fortunes for the East India Company. Even as the British fought home-grown crime, they committed it overseas, funding their tea-buying operations in China by dumping literally tons of opium on the Chinese market, creating a narcotics crisis and an entire criminal underclass.

This is the background to George Macartney’s ill-fated embassy of 1793, an attempt to get the Qianlong Emperor to accept diplomatic agreements and trade deals with the evil empire that was turning his southern Chinese subjects into junkies.

Author Eoin McDonnell is a former diplomat, now a secretary in Ireland’s foreign ministry, with a deep and vested interest the way that diplomacy gets done, as revealed in his new book, Kowtow: Georgian Britain, Imperial China and the Irishman who Introduced Them. His uniquely Irish perspective on Macartney’s mission foregrounds the imperialist attitudes of its leader. Much like Qianlong himself, Macartney was a member of an occupying regime, undoubtedly competent, but propelled to high office by nepotism and cronyism, relentlessly sure of his right to his own privileges. He arrived in China, utterly sure that he was doing the Qianlong Emperor a favour by showing up at all, determined to drill into the ignorant Chinese the advantages that awaited them if they started buying British woollens and, I don’t know, clocks.

Determined to deal directly with the Emperor, Macartney claimed that the gifts he was bringing were so intricate and delicate, so jaw-droppingly awesome, that he could not risk dragging them all the way across China from Guangzhou, the usual point of contact for foreigners. Instead, he insisted on arriving at Tianjin, the sea-port close to Beijing, all the better to deal directly with the Emperor himself.

Except the Emperor wasn’t there. While his technicians toiled to assemble their posh machineries in the Summer Palace near Beijing, Macartney and a small entourage journeyed north to the Emperor’s retreat in Rehe (modern Chengde). There, he planned to hand the Emperor a letter from King George III, which lied that he was the King’s cousin. Instead, he found himself facing an audience in which the Emperor assumed he was a faraway lesson, bringing tribute to the glorious Qianlong.

This is the nub of McDonnell’s story – the elaborate bickering over whether or not Macartney, a British nobleman, should prostrate himself on the floor in the ritual kowtow demanded of the Emperor’s subjects, a humiliation that Macartney himself regarded as distastefully evocative of Catholic ceremonial, and of suggesting that Britain was subservient to China. McDonnell examines the diplomatic and political implications, in unsurprisingly modern terms, regarding the extent to which foreign powers need to “kowtow” to China even today. He draws modern parallels all the way up to 2014, and the behind-the-scenes shouting matches over whether the Chinese Prime Minister was worthy of meeting the Queen, a diplomatic catfight that even extended to questions about whether his red carpet at Heathrow Airport was “long enough.” But these things are important to diplomats – elaborate rituals of glad-handing and small-talk continue to affect the way that trade deals get done and treaties get signed.

In the case of the Qianlong Emperor, his Manchu regime needed conspicuous displays of foreign fawning in order to impress upon his Chinese subjects that he deserved to stay in power. He had no interest in acknowledging George III as his equal, or in agreeing that China needed absolutely anything at all from a distant country that was so unsure of itself that its King even bigged himself up in the communiqué by also pretending to be the ruler of France. Qianlong, in fact, was fighting two wars in his own hinterland – the very tariff restrictions that Macartney was complaining about had themselves been partly levied in order to help bolster Qianlong’s borders against British machinations in Tibet.

The Macartney mission failed spectacularly in securing its aims with the Emperor, but managed to fail up on the way home. Having literally missed the boat home, Macartney was obliged to traverse China on its Grand Canal, and was permitted a front-seat view of Qing-dynasty China in all its glory. Qianlong helped a bit by ordering a series of fearsome military displays along the route, just in case the British wanted to try anything on. But Macartney’s diary of his China visit is most valuable today for the view it presents of an empire rotting from within, compared by Macartney himself to a man-o-war that has somehow stayed afloat through sheer luck, sure to sink in good time as soon as it gains a sub-standard captain.

Macartney saw his mission as Qing-era China’s last, best hope to avoid being carved up by foreign predators, a chance to ally itself with the biggest predator of all to hold the others at bay. He did not live to see his predictions play out in the Opium Wars, as the Qing state was ram-raided by a dozen European armies demanding that the Chinese play a political game of their own invention. McDonnell chooses to end on a moving, telling moment as British and French troops ransack the Emperor’s Summer Palace in 1860. Looters stumble into one of its many halls, to find it stacked like that warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark, rammed to the rafters with crates. The hall contained the supposedly world-beating gifts of the Macartney Embassy, boxed up and forgotten by a regime that saw such wonders on a daily basis, and had been singularly unimpressed.

Kowtow: Georgian Britain, Imperial China and the Irishman who Introduced Them by Eoin McDonnell is published by Fonthill Media. Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals.

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