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The long perspective
Zhou and Qin
Intermediate times
     The Qing dynasty
     Western barbarians
     The kowtow and a taste for tea
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The Qing dynasty: 1644-1912

Manchuria, the region north of Korea, has never been included within China. Its inhabitants, barbarians to the Chinese, are racially closer to their western neighbours, the Mongols. Nevertheless the Manchus themselves imitate and adopt many of the more sophisticated Chinese ways. So their eventual intervention in China brings no very abrupt change.

By the mid-17th century the Ming empire, nearly three centuries old, is enfeebled and decadent. Pampered emperors, rarely seen in public, leave practical matters in the hands of much-hated palace eunuchs. Peasant uprisings, characteristic of the end of Chinese dynasties, become frequent.


In 1644 a rebel band captures Beijing. The Ming emperor hangs himself in a pavilion on a private hill overlooking his great palace, the Forbidden City. The Ming commander in the north invites the neighbouring barbarians, the Manchus, to help him in recovering the imperial city. They do so, and then keep it for themselves.

The Manchu hereditary chieftain is a boy of six. His people now establish him as the Son of Heaven (the official title of a Chinese emperor). But it is evident that this is a development planned during his father's reign. The Manchus, already the conquerors of Korea, have declared the start of a new Chinese-style dynasty in 1636. They have chosen the name Qing, meaning 'pure'.


The Qing conquest of the whole of China is complete by 1683. The conquerors insist on one change emphasizing the dominance of a new group. All Chinese men are now required to shave part of the head, leaving a long pigtail (known as a queue) hanging down behind.

The first century of the Qing dynasty is a time of prosperity and expansion. Chinese rule extends north of the Great Wall from Turkestan in the west to Manchuria in the east. Tibet is brought under Chinese protection. Taiwan is colonized. This great empire, in its wealth and sophistication, is now of great interest to Europe. But it is the west which eventually causes the downfall of the Qing, China's last imperial dynasty.


Western barbarians: 18th-19th century

In Chinese tradition people from outside the empire are classed together as one group - barbarians. If they are allowed into China, it is only for the single purpose of bringing tribute to the emperor.

By complying with local tradition the Jesuits, during the 17th century, disarm the Chinese in their distrust of foreign ways. They also impress them with western technology (Ricci particularly delights the emperor with a striking clock). But the Jesuits are followed by other Europeans, including unruly merchants. In 1703 the Qing emperor Kangxi, on a tour of the southern provinces, is alarmed to discover how many westerners are 'Wandering at will over China'.


Kangxi, foreseeing trouble, imposes restrictions on Europeans entering the empire. But the 18th century is a period when the sea-going nations of the west are in an expansive mood. Prosperous and self-confident Europeans, masters of the oceans and eager to trade, are perplexed to find their advances rejected by the Chinese.

An intriguing glimpse of the frustration of the Europeans, in their baffled inability to make any headway in China, can be seen in the experience of the British and Dutch embassies which are briefly received, in 1793 and 1794, at the court of Kangxi's grandson, the Qianlong emperor.


The kowtow and a taste for tea: 1793-1794

In July 1793 two British ships reach the China coast. The first carries Lord Macartney and his retinue, sent by George III as an embassy to the Chinese emperor Qianlong. Macartney has a specific task - to win trading concessions and, if possible, a British offshore base similar to Portugal's Macao.

The second ship carries presents for the emperor, of the kind which have proved most popular in the past. There are scientific instruments, clocks and watches, a planetarium and even (the latest western marvel) a hot-air balloon. The embassy and the presents are loaded into splendid barges and are dragged up the Grand Canal towards Beijing.


A pretty banner flutters at the masthead of the leading barge. Its Chinese characters, when translated, are discovered to say 'The English Ambassador bringing tribute to the Emperor of China'.

This is not the relationship which Lord Macartney has in mind. Much time is now spent negotiating with mandarin officials who try to insist on the ambassador kowtowing (touching his forehead three times to the ground) when coming into the imperial presence. He refuses to do so, agreeing merely to kneel on one knee and bow his head. This, according to the English account, is accepted. The audience and the accompanying banquet go well, but the emperor refuses to discuss practical matters of trade.


Three weeks later a letter for George III is brought with much solemnity to the ambassador. It explains that there is no need for any trading agreement, since the nations of the world have always brought precious commodities as tribute to China. 'Consequently there is nothing we lack, as your principlal envoy has himself observed. We have never set much store on strange or ingenious objects, nor do we need any more of your country's manufactures.'

Some in Europe blame Macartney's failure on his refusal to kowtow, so in 1794 Holland tries the opposite tack. The Dutch ambassador is calculated to have kowtowed thirty times (once to some dried grapes sent as a present by the emperor). He too returns home without a trading agreement.


The truth is that the need for reciprocal trade is all on the European side because the west, and especially Britain, has developed a passion for one particular Chinese product - tea. The Chinese are happy to sell their tea to British merchants, but they want only hard currency in exchange. Precious silver is draining away to the east, just as gold flowed from Rome along the Silk Road.

Eventually the British solve their trade balance by encouraging a Chinese addiction greater even than the English thirst for tea. The East India Company grows opium in India for the Chinese market. And the British will go to any length to ensure that the Chinese enjoy it.


This History is as yet incomplete.


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