Lord Macartney and China: A Lack of Cultural Awareness

Marx was right about all of history being a struggle between the classes, but he does leave out one crucially important element. Many of the world’s biggest problems come about as a result of cultural superiority that manifests itself not in blatant racist attitudes but in the more subtle danger of making assumptions about one culture based entirely on the traditions of another. None of the Bush supporters seem to care very much that hardly anyone he appointed to oversee his debacle in Iraq spoke Arabic or even possessed more than a Wikipedia-level of understanding about the Muslim culture. Like almost all of Pres. Bush’s mistakes—and, my God, have there been a lot of them—this reckless attitude has untold precedents in all those history books in the White House library that nobody in the Bush administration seems the slightest bit interested in perusing. The total lack of understanding and even the desire to understand cultural differences reminds me of a little-known episode in world history that nevertheless had enormous consequences.

The economic powers of the western world at the close of the 1700’s had had just about enough of China. In 1792 the King of England commissioned Lord Macartney to China to act as a representative of Britain in diplomatic talks aimed at improving commercial access that would, naturally, serve to benefit England.

Although England viewed Lord Macartney in their own inimitably class-conscious manner as a high ranking diplomat, imagine his surprise on arriving in the land of Confucius and Kung Pao chicken to be treated as little more than a low-ranking envoy from a tributary nation. Macartney’s defiant insistence of being treated as someone of a higher class—not to mention being -treated with the dignity of his mission—rather than obsequiously accepting this humiliation served to challenge the relationship that had previously existed between China and not only England, but all of mercantilist Europe. Lord Macartney’s refusal to accept the admittedly stark attitude of the Chinese leaders essentially broke down any hope of that his mission before the Qing court to lift all restrictions to foreign trade would be accomplished. In the modern parlance, Macartney’s was stuck in China with a bona fide non-starter.

Macartney’s ill-fated trip to China came at a time when the confidence of the Chinese government in relation to the western nations was never higher; the confidence was tantamount to Bush’s arrogance in dealing with any foreign envoy who arrives to ask for anything from the White House. That similiarity is an important thing to remember. The preliminary processes to carve out their own trade interests had thus far been met with surprisingly strong resistance by a Chinese government that was viewed as little more enlightened than the savages recently conquered in the New World by most Europeans. Looking at the same situation from the Chinese point of view, Lord Marcartney’s arrival under these circumstances would have been one in which he arrived for one purpose only: paying tribute to their emperor. As has been so often the case in these kind of conflicts between cultures, the real difference was less one of cultural distinctions than it was presuppositions regarding which country held the upper hand. Lord Macartney believed strongly that as a representative of the legendary state of England, he and his country should quite naturally expect to be treated with the respect generally accorded a mighty power, whereas China was little more than an economic newcomer to the rapidly growing global economy. Concidentally enough—not ironically, as some might term the situation—Macartney’s thoughts on the matter were mirrored exactly by his Chinese counterparts.

Lord Macartney found himself face to face with the situation of going back home to face the madness of King George, taking back with him not a trade agreement amenable to England but rather nothing more than a patronizing little pat on the butt on his way out the door. Macartney failed even to receive any sign that China was prepared to remain loyal to England should one of those frequent European wars pop up against. In their defense, China’s attitude has almost nothing to do with preferring any other European country to England and everything to do with the fact that Chinese government saw next to no benefit at all in making any kind of long-term deal with a national it effectively viewed as nothing more than a little island in a faraway land.

Lord Macartney was also accused by the Chinese of repeating history as he basically arrived hellbent on treating them the say way that Christian missionaries had, by showcasing their ignorance and obliviousness to the fact that China had been at the forefront of nearly technological invention since the Stone Age. But then again, the Chinese empereor himself proved to possess no doctorate in cultural studies either. The issue that springs to the forefront in this little bit of historical trivia is an economic issue that is at the forefront of twentieth-century politics: the collision between cultures and how it relates to the further globalization of the economy. Europe had been trading with China for over three-hundred years by the time Lord Macartney’s name entered into the history books, yet Europe had still not managed to manufacture a single thing that was considered of substantially valuable to the Chinese people.

The perception of the European powers at that time—as it is today on the part of most American businessmen and politicians in regard to the Middle East—was that the Chinese must have been little more than ignorant savages not to desire the same products on which they put such encompasssing value. The perception on the Chinese part is today perhaps a little more understandable, but then and now was equally disastrous from the perspective of overcoming cultural differences: how could you trust people who placed such a high value on such meaningless items? Sch a sordid opinion of European values did the Chinese Emperor Qianlong hold that he actually even refused to draft a missive for Macartney to carry back to King George III letting him know in no uncertain terms that the goods that England was capable of manufacturing were of absolutely no use to the people of China. As a result, it was a matter of impracticality for England to have even sent a representative to China.

China remained convinced that Macartney represented little more than Europe’s latest attempt to instill their values into her ancient traditions. Meanwhile, the Chinese remained steadfast in their belief that they already possessed all the natural resources necessary to remain competitive with the little backwards country that Macartney was representing. Rather that try to understand what the letter really meant, the British, Americans and other Europeans became convinced of China’s arrogance. And it was that misperception that eventually led to the long decline in China’s role in world affairs.