The mission by Lord George Macartney to Qing China from 1793 to 1794 has become a legendary one. This is both because Macartney himself kept a journal of the events that happened, as did his secretary John Barrow. Both testified to an encounter with a culture which was infuriatingly opaque to them, resistant to their overtures to open up trading links, and seemingly highly insular and archaic. The torturous negotiations on the Chinese side for the visiting foreigners to kowtow before the reigning Qianlong emperor, along with the somewhat messy compromise reached at the end of this (Macartney merely bowed his head, dignity, in his view, retained) remain symbols of a history of miscommunication, misalignment, and, ultimately, mistrust and dislike. Half a century later, it was the superior war ships of the British navy during the Opium War that were forging a new, and, in China’s eyes, far more tragic and harmful diplomacy.

American sinologist Tonio Andrade in `The Last Embassy’ puts the record straight in showing that the Macartney experience was neither typical, nor in any sense final in terms of Sino-European encounters at this time. Isaac Titsingh, a Dutch with long experience of living in Japan in the late 18th century, and his compatriot Andreas Van Braam, were mandated by the Dutch government in the form of the Prince Regent, William of Orange, to visit the emperor of the great Qing empire in his palace in Beijing. The overture to the Qing court was embraced, the curiosity of Qianlong piqued, and the Dutch embassy hastily enjoined to come as soon as they could to enjoy an audience at the court.

Unlike Macartney, who with his entourage largely made his way in the comfort of his own boat, travelling only the most final stage by land, the Dutch did the vast majority of their travel to Beijing by palanquins, horses and on foot. Using a variety of sources, Andrade gives their experiences immediacy by writing in the present tense, and adopting a clear narrative structure. At each stage of the journey, the visiting ambassadors are confronted with physical hardship, and venal local officials who seem to interpret their instructions from the imperial hand in Beijing with great latitude. It takes the visitors a while to work out that they are regarded largely as a source of potential profit and personal gain by those looking after them. The budget for their accommodation for instance is clearly being skimmed off by allocating them often dismal and uncomfortable dwellings along the way, while the shortfall between actual and real costs goes into the pockets of others. At times, the roughness of the terrain, the fickleness of the porters who often get employed and then abscond with a short time once their pay has been paid, and the harsh climate almost finish the Dutch off. Nor are they aware that the sponsors of their visit back home are forced from power by French invasion halfway through their mission.

Despite all this, they make it to their destination, and are able to gain access to the octogenarian emperor, not once by several times. Here Andrade’s account starts having eerie echoes with the experience of anyone today dealing with high level political figures in China. Despite the drama and theatrical splendour while they are immediately before the emperor himself, in terms of their own lodging in the imperial palace or its environs, things are often shockingly primitive. (I allowed myself a short sigh at this point of the book, remembering a moment when I had to take a toilet break while in a meeting in one of the splendid ceremonial meeting halls in the great Zhongnanhai leadership compound in central Beijing a few years ago, and found myself in a lavatory which made a run down three star hotel in provincial China look like a palace!).  The attitude and behaviour of people around the emperor too seems anything but reverential. They are often scurrying around, seeming to be heedless of the great figure in their midst, sometimes arguing, creating loud noise, and at other times simply cramming themselves into different rooms and spaces. A whole book could be written about the mysterious behaviour of Chinese crowds. They have, after all, been one of the great actors of Chinese imperial and modern history – perhaps the only single constant one.  Even the quality of the food leaves the visitors baffled – often simply inedible, apart from some small delicacies delivered as a sign of Qianlong’s favour, which then end up partly on the plates of other officials eager to get at least a bit of these rarities.

Andrade makes the sound point that while history has been harsh to the way in which the Dutch, unlike the British, did kowtow, in the end their mission was a more successful one because at least it showed there were ways in which one might be able to operate and engage with Chinese officials in ways that didn’t lead to the sort of disconnect the British experienced. The author is probably right that a lot of diplomacy, both then and now, not just in China but elsewhere, is purely trading in symbols, and that China has clearly always been in the business of rewarding recognition of its status with good favours in return. Even so, it’s clear to see why in the more transactional environment the world was moving into from the time of the 1795 mission, the priority China placed on this, and the often huge disconnect between lower level officials seeming to only want to pursue their own gains, and the top levels of the Qing system, with its yearning for validation and respect, were going to be problematic. Andrade’s conclusion was that the Dutch in 1795 were a success, and though he doesn’t state it so explicitly and crudely, this was because they had no real business to transact. They did not wish to open markets, do any treaties, establish any real business links. Had they tried to do so, one wonders if the outcome would have been any different to that of the Macartney effort.

It is important though to understand this rich history of interaction between Chinas that existed in the past, and those that came to speak to them, and work with them, which is why this book, clearly and well written and so engaging, is valuable. One  of the many things one can learn from it is that successfully dealing with the theatre and symbolism of high level political in China is one thing; getting down to real practicalities is another. It is possible to use the first as a basis to move on to the second. Some countries and companies and individuals manage this. But it is a frustrating business – and one that many, who are not in the mindset of constantly operating in asymmetrical relationships find hard to do. One could argue that today, at least, one of the most fundamental issues between the US and China is that clearly neither side feels the other gives them the respect they deserve, or therefore doesn’t understand them. Whether the Macartney approach or the Titsingh/Van Braam one offers any alternatives is a sobering thought. Perhaps, despite the changes of the last two centuries or more, there really are just two approaches – to compromise, or to walk away. The problem today for those who want to adopt the latter, is where, exactly, do you walk to!

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