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Qianlong Meets Macartney: Collision of Two World Views

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The Macartney mission of 1792-4 is a defining episode in the modern encounter between China and the West. It is the first major event in which British diplomats well read in the ideas of the European Enlightenment came face to face with the leadership of the world’s greatest and most populous land power. Before that time, educated Europeans had learned about China mainly through the writings of French Catholic missionaries. Eighteenth-century European philosophers, with the notable exception of Montesquieu, had rather liked what they perceived as the rationality and beneficence of Chinese Imperial government. In addition, a taste for Chinese art developed among the European aristocracy. Whole rooms in eighteenth-century European palaces and aristocratic estates were given over to chinoiserie. But this was contact at a distance. Outside of Russo-Chinese relations, no major diplomatic or political decision making had as yet been involved.