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Qianlong’s Rejection of Macartney’s Request Essay

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Updated: Aug 22nd, 2020


For a long time, China had little trade ties with the western countries. Many of these countries had tried to foster bilateral trade relation with China to no avail. However, this did not stall England from sending a delegation to China to persuade China to soften its trade policies. Indeed, in 1793, the King of England sent a huge delegation to China led by Lord Macartney to deliver his requests. In a similar manner to those before him, Macartney failed to convince the Emperor. In retrospect, the rejection of Macartney’s request marked the beginning of China’s woes in her foreign relationships (Waley-Cohen 79). This paper will give a brief historical account of the events that transpired prior and after Macartney’s request and also discuss the effects of this rejection.

Historical Background

The Qianlong’s reign is arguably one of the most prosperous and peaceful periods in the history of China. During this period, there was a massive expansion of the Chinese empire — from Korea in the northeast to Turkestan in the west. It was also during this period of time when China made numerous protectorates and sent its military to Vietnam and Nepal. In addition, the Emperor made many trade allies from both the Asian region and the West. In 1793, China undertook strict measures to regulate business with their Western allies. This prompted the King of England to send a delegation led by Lord Macartney to China. His mission was to persuade the emperor to allow free trade with England and build a diplomatic station in China where British traders would operate their trade.

The trouble happened as soon as Macartney alighted in China, and when the ambassador declined to kneel before the Emperor’s subordinates. In his defense, Macartney insisted that they should also kneel before the portrait of the King of England. Noting how generous the previous delegations had been, they allowed Macartney to meet the Emperor. However, Macartney’s requests were turned down without consideration. In his reply to the King, the Emperor Qianlong referred to the Britons as the barbarians. Secondly, he claimed that all the nations in the world were tributaries of the Chinese people. Finally, he tried to urge the King of England to obey his commands (Smith 67).

For some people the objection by Macartney to kneel before the Emperor’s subordinates was the reason for the rejection of the King’s request, while to others the traditions of the Chinese people did not play a significant role and could not be considered as influential in this case. Recently, there have been arguments from certain academic quarters that it was because of the conflicting world trade views that the emperor refused to grant the request offered by Macartney (Hevia 34).


In the 18th and 19th centuries, China was considered the richest empire in the world. The Qianlong era saw China hit the peak in the economic front, becoming one of the most desirable trade destinations1. However, the rejection of Macartney’s request by the Emperor marked the beginning of China’s downfall (Smith 71).

Trade and Opium

When the Emperor rejected goods from the West, the traders from Britain were forced to use silver to pay for supplies from China. This, however, brought about a huge imbalance in the reserves of Britain. Consequently, the British traders had to devise new ways to make money from the Chinese — and so the idea of opium was borne. Though this was also rejected, the traders went on with their business albeit in the black market. It was very hard for the Emperor and his subjects to effectively restrict the sale of this good, as most of the users were already hooked. By the end of 1838, the British smugglers had managed to reach a record of 40,000 chests of opium a year. Eventually, the empire started losing its huge reserves of silver causing a decline in the economy (Fairbank 45).

War and Loss of Territory

Due to the incessant objections by the Emperor to allow the British trade in China the war between the two nations became inevitable. This war had lasted for 3 years with the culmination of China’s indecision on trade policies. What followed was a signing of a treaty with England that made China, among others, pay heavy indemnities, open up the coastline for foreign traders and led to a loss of Hong Kong as a protectorate. Later, China would go to the war with the French after China failed to agree with the various trade demands made by France. This resulted in the exile of the Emperor to Jehol as the British and French troops occupied Beijing. As a consequence, taking over Beijing by the British and French soldiers resulted in the looting and the destruction of the main palaces in China (Hevia 35).

The resistance by the Qianlong administration continued with a major rebellion in the mid 19th century that resulted in a famine killing over 60 million citizens. In 1851, a massive dissociation erupted between Taiping and the Manchu’s administration. This rebellion gained popularity with its anti-Manchu sentiments. They were objecting to the way the Manchu was running both economic and social issues. Ultimately, the rebellion died off with the Tailings unable to form their structure of leadership and mobilize their territories. As a last resort, Guangxu constituted what became popularly known as the “Hundred Days of Reform”. In his list of proposals, Guangxu recommended a creation of the constitution, a change of the education system to a more westernized one, a promotion of trade with foreign allies and to fortify their army2. From this period onwards, China has been struggling with its trade policies. It moved from one of the richest nation in the world to a struggling state. Today, China continues to have a soar trade relation with the West which may be the cause of the recent devaluation of its currency (Cranmer-Byng 117).


According to Chinese history, the downfall of the once strong empire began when the Emperor Quinlong refused to grant Macartney’s requests. Due to its wide market and unexploited nature, the traders from Britain and France found China an irresistible market for their goods. However, once the emperor stopped them from selling their goods by rejecting their offers they resorted to smuggling of opium. Ultimately, a lot of silver was taken out of China leaving the economy of the country in a mess. The tussle that ensued would leave China in a pitiful situation losing its sovereignty and most of its protectorates to foreigners. Indeed, it was unwise of the Emperor Qianlong to turn down Macartney’s requests.

Works Cited

Cranmer-Byng, Johnson. “Lord ’s Embassy to Peking in 1793.” Journal of Oriental Studies. 4.1 (1957–58): 117–187.

Fairbank, John King and Merle, Goldman. China: A New History. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard: Belknap Press, 1998. Print.

Hevia, James. Cherishing Men from Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Mission of 1793. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1995. Print.

Smith, Richard. Chinese Maps: Images of ‘All Under Heaven.’ New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1996. Print.

Waley-Cohen, Joanna. The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History. New York: Norton, 1999. Print.


  1. See Cherishing Sources from Afar volume 24 pg 135.
  2. For a similar opinion see, Account of the Public Life, and a Selection from the Unpublished Writings, of the Earl of Macartney volume 2.
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