Modern History Sourcebook:
Letter to George III, 1793
Qian Long [Ch'ien Lung], (r. 1735-1795) ruled China
for much of the 18th century, the last period in which China was
strong enough to resist, or better, disdain external influence.
Here is letter he sent in response to a request from George III
of Britain (r. 1760-1820) for trade privileges. In 1793, while
Britain was in the midst of the French Revolutionary situation
in Europe, China retained its fredom to act as it wished. But
within 50 years, all was to change. By the 1840s the British were
able to sail into China's rivers and destroy its fleets.
You, O King, live beyond the confines of many seas, nevertheless,
impelled by your humble desire to partake of the benefits of our
civilisation, you have dispatched a mission respectfully bearing
your memorial. Your Envoy has crossed the seas and paid his respects
at my Court on the anniversary of my birthday. To show your devotion,
you have also sent offerings of your country's produce.
I have perused your memorial: the earnest terms in which it is
couched reveal a respectful humility on your part, which is highly
praiseworthy. In consideration of the fact that your Ambassador
and his deputy have come a long way with your memorial and tribute,
I have shown them high favour and have allowed them to be introduced
into my presence. To manifest my indulgence, I have entertained
them at a banquet and made them numerous gifts. I have also caused
presents to be forwarded to the Naval Commander and six hundred
of his officers and men, although they did not come to Peking,
so that they too may share in my allembracing kindness.
As to your entreaty to send one of your nationals to be accredited
to my Celestial Court and to be in control of your country's trade
with China, this request is contrary to all usage of my dynasty
and cannot possibly be entertained. It is true that Europeans,
in the service of the dynasty, have been permitted to live at
Peking, but they are compelled to adopt Chinese dress, they are
strictly confined to their own precincts and are never permitted
to return home. You are presumably familiar with our dynastic
regulations. Your proposed Envoy to my Court could not be placed
in a position similar to that of European officials in Peking
who are forbidden to leave China, nor could he, on the other hand,
be allowed liberty of movement and the privilege of corresponding
with his own country; so that you would gain nothing by his residence
in our midst.
Moreover, our Celestial dynasty possesses vast territories, and
tribute missions from the dependencies are provided for by the
Department for Tributary States, which ministers to their wants
and exercises strict control over their movements. It would be
quite impossible to leave them to their own devices. Supposing
that your Envoy should come to our Court, his language and national
dress differ from that of our people, and there would be no place
in which to bestow him. It may be suggested that he might imitate
the Europeans permanently resident in Peking and adopt the dress
and customs of China, but, it has never been our dynasty's wish
to force people to do things unseemly and inconvenient. Besides,
supposing I sent an Ambassador to reside in your country, how
could you possibly make for him the requisite arrangements? Europe
consists of many other nations besides your own: if each and all
demanded to be represented at our Court, how could we possibly
consent? The thing is utterly impracticable. How can our dynasty
alter its whole procedure and system of etiquette, established
for more than a century, in order to meet your individual views?
If it be said that your object is to exercise control over your
country's trade, your nationals have had full liberty to trade
at Canton for many a year, and have received the greatest consideration
at our hands. Missions have been sent by Portugal and Italy, preferring
similar requests. The Throne appreciated their sincerity and loaded
them with favours, besides authorising measures to facilitate
their trade with China. You are no doubt aware that, when my Canton
merchant, Wu Chaoping, was in debt to the foreign ships,
I made the Viceroy advance the monies due, out of the provincial
treasury, and ordered him to punish the culprit severely. Why
then should foreign nations advance this utterly unreasonable
request to be represented at my Court? Peking is nearly two thousand
miles from Canton, and at such a distance what possible control
could any British representative exercise?
If you assert that your reverence for Our Celestial dynasty fills
you with a desire to acquire our civilisation, our ceremonies
and code of laws differ so completely from your own that, even
if your Envoy were able to acquire the rudiments of our civilisation,
you could not possibly transplant our manners and customs to your
alien soil. Therefore, however adept the Envoy might become, nothing
would be gained thereby.
Swaying the wide world, I have but one aim in view, namely, to
maintain a perfect governance and to fulfil the duties of the
State: strange and costly objects do not interest me. If I have
commanded that the tribute offerings sent by you, O King, are
to be accepted, this was solely in consideration for the spirit
which prompted you to dispatch them from afar. Our dynasty's majestic
virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings
of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea.
As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things.
I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use
for your country's manufactures. This then is my answer to your
request to appoint a representative at my Court, a request contrary
to our dynastic usage, which would only result in inconvenience
to yourself. I have expounded my wishes in detail and have commanded
your tribute Envoys to leave in peace on their homeward journey.
It behoves you, O King, to respect my sentiments and to display
even greater devotion and loyalty in future, so that, by perpetual
submission to our Throne, you may secure peace and prosperity
for your country hereafter. Besides making gifts (of which I enclose
an inventory) to each member of your Mission, I confer upon you,
O King, valuable presents in excess of the number usually bestowed
on such occasions, including silks and curios-a list of which
is likewise enclosed. Do you reverently receive them and take
note of my tender goodwill towards you! A special mandate.
In the same letter, a further mandate to King George III dealt
in detail with the British ambassador's proposals and the Emperor's
reasons for declining them.
You, O King, from afar have yearned after the blessings of our
civilisation, and in your eagerness to come into touch with our
converting influence have sent an Embassy across the sea bearing
a memorial. I have already taken note of your respectful spirit
of submission, have treated your mission with extreme favour and
loaded it with gifts, besides issuing a mandate to you, O King,
and honouring you with the bestowal of valuable presents. Thus
has my indulgence been manifested.
Yesterday your Ambassador petitioned my Ministers to memorialise
me regarding your trade with China, but his proposal is not consistent
with our dynastic usage and cannot be entertained. Hitherto, all
European nations, including your own country's barbarian merchants,
have carried on their trade with our Celestial Empire at Canton.
Such has been the procedure for many years, although our Celestial
Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no
product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to
import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for
our own produce. But as the tea, silk and porcelain which the
Celestial Empire produces, are absolute necessities to European
nations and to yourselves, we have permitted, as a signal mark
of favour, that foreign hongs [merchant firms] should be
established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and
your country thus participate in our beneficence. But your Ambassador
has now put forward new requests which completely fail to recognise
the Throne's principle to "treat strangers from afar with
indulgence," and to exercise a pacifying control over barbarian
tribes, the world over. Moreover, our dynasty, swaying the myriad
races of the globe, extends the same benevolence towards all.
Your England is not the only nation trading at Canton. If other
nations, following your bad example, wrongfully importune my ear
with further impossible requests, how will it be possible for
me to treat them with easy indulgence? Nevertheless, I do not
forget the lonely remoteness of your island, cut off from the
world by intervening wastes of sea, nor do I overlook your excusable
ignorance of the usages of our Celestial Empire. I have consequently
commanded my Ministers to enlighten your Ambassador on the subject,
and have ordered the departure of the mission. But I have doubts
that, after your Envoy's return he may fail to acquaint you with
my view in detail or that he may be lacking in lucidity, so that
I shall now proceed . . . to issue my mandate on each question
separately. In this way you will, I trust, comprehend my meaning....
(3) Your request for a small island near Chusan, where your merchants
may reside and goods be warehoused, arises from your desire to
develop trade. As there are neither foreign hongs nor interpreters
in or near Chusan, where none of your ships have ever called,
such an island would be utterly useless for your purposes. Every
inch of the territory of our Empire is marked on the map and the
strictest vigilance is exercised over it all: even tiny islets
and farlying sandbanks are clearly defined as part
of the provinces to which they belong. Consider, moreover, that
England is not the only barbarian land which wishes to establish
. . . trade with our Empire: supposing that other nations were
all to imitate your evil example and beseech me to present them
each and all with a site for trading purposes, how could I possibly
comply? This also is a flagrant infringement of the usage of my
Empire and cannot possibly be entertained.
(4) The next request, for a small site in the vicinity of Canton
city, where your barbarian merchants may lodge or, alternatively,
that there be no longer any restrictions over their movements
at Aomen, has arisen from the following causes. Hitherto, the
barbarian merchants of Europe have had a definite locality assigned
to them at Aomen 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....
(7) Regarding your nation's worship of the Lord of Heaven, it
is the same religion as that of other European nations. Ever since
the beginning of history, sage Emperors and wise rulers have bestowed
on China a moral system and inculcated a code, which from time
immemorial has been religiously observed by the myriads of my
subjects. There has been no hankering after heterodox doctrines.
Even the European (missionary) officials in my capital are forbidden
to hold intercourse with Chinese subjects; they are restricted
within the limits of their appointed residences, and may not go
about propagating their religion. The distinction between Chinese
and barbarian is most strict, and your Ambassador's request that
barbarians shall be given full liberty to disseminate their religion
is utterly unreasonable.
It may be, O King, that the above proposals have been wantonly
made by your Ambassador on his own responsibility, or peradventure
you yourself are ignorant of our dynastic regulations and had
no intention of transgressing them when you expressed these wild
ideas and hopes.... If, after the receipt of this explicit decree,
you lightly give ear to the representations of your subordinates
and allow your barbarian merchants to proceed to Chêkiang
and Tientsin, with the object of landing and trading there, the
ordinances of my Celestial Empire are strict in the extreme, and
the local officials, both civil and military, are bound reverently
to obey the law of the land. Should your vessels touch the shore,
your merchants will assuredly never be permitted to land or to
reside there, but will be subject to instant expulsion. In that
event your barbarian merchants will have had a long journey for
nothing. Do not say that
From E. Backhouse and J. O. P. Bland, Annals and Memoirs of
the Court of Peking (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), pp.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997