A caricature of the times portraying the failed and fateful Macartney Mission to China in 1793
For many thousands of years in its earlier recorded history, China was an inwardly-focused nation, largely closed off to and wary of foreigners – a long period of time during which the Chinese, an extraordinarily creative and industrious people, achieved greatness in many fields. The Silk Road trading route allowed interaction with foreigners and an exchange of culture and goods, although these were fairly controlled exchanges; in fact, there were even imperial edicts against foreigners learning the spoken and written Chinese language throughout most of the nation’s history.
In 1793, Lord George Macartney (1737-1806) was sent by King George III (1738-1820) of the ascendant British Empire to seek a more formal, open trading relationship with the ruling Qing Empire. At the time, China accounted for one-third of the world’s gross domestic product and was clearly the most powerful, prosperous nation in the world. During their fateful encounter which would come back to haunt the Chinese less than half a century later when a newly-industrialized Great Britain emerged victorious in the Opium Wars, the aging Emperor Qianlong famously turned a cold shoulder to these advances and wrote to the British monarch,
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.
— Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799)
At the time, it was not difficult to see the rationale behind Emperor Qianlong’s position. In addition to giving birth to classic literature and philosophy including the Confucian Analects, I Ching, Journey to the West, and The Art of War; economic, military, political, and social innovations such as coinage and paper currency, maps, military strategy, advanced navigation techniques, and standard weights and measures; and massive architectural and infrastructure projects including complex irrigation systems, large stone arch bridges, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and the Temple of Heaven, among many others; more inventions and scientific advancements first took root in China than any other country on earth.
Included among countless examples of such creations and discoveries described in the massive seven-volume, twenty-four book tome, Science and Civilization in China, written by British scientist, historian, and sinologist Joseph Needham (1900-1995) and first published in 1954, are what the Chinese still take pride in as the Four Great Inventions of their civilization: the compass, gunpowder, paper making, and printing.
To be continued…