Narrative of a journey in the interior of China – 1816

Until XIX century, missionaries produced the majority of accounts and knowledge on Chinese Empire, but how was China seen by diplomats, bureaucrats, merchants, and naturalists? How did they cooperate for the creation of a European image of China?

During the XVIII and XIX centuries commercial contacts between European nations and the Chinese Empire rocketedHowever, theknew little about each others: Confusion on the exact location of Europe is attested in official documents1Fairbank, K., 1942:147 and misunderstandings on Chinese ceremonies and rites provoked the failure of several western embassies. Moreover, restrictions on trade and on contacts severely affected the possibility offered to Europeans to study and learn from Chinese culture.

The ruling dynasty, the Qing, reserved for themselves the absolute right to regulate foreigners‘ trading with China, since the opening of the first harbors to Spanish and Portuguese ships. Not only location and frequency of the contacts were established in details, but even personnel and goods involved were determined by imperial decree.

Severe limits were posed to trades and foreign presence in Chinese territory: After 1760 all European trade was restricted to Canton port, residence was thereallowed only from October to March, and the trading community was completely insulated outside the city walls.

A complex system of corporations and merchant companies, the Cohong (gōng háng,公行), emerged and soon became the only possible partner for Western merchants (1754, by Qing decree)2Spence, J. D., 1990, pp.120 and following. All foreign intercourse with mandarin bureaucracy was mediated by the seldom literate Hong merchants3Fairbank, K., 1942:148 (Cohong), and court trade officials, the Hoppowho were in charge of collecting from them grievances and petitions from Westerners, exasperated the already complex relations with the Chinese authorities.

Macartney’s first meeting with Qianlong, by William Alexander. British Library database.

More than two decades after the failure of Macartney Embassy (1793), the British government made a new attempt to establish satisfactory high level relations with the Heavenly Empire, by delivering a new diplomatic mission to Beijing. Lord William Amherst was appointed Ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary4Ellis, H., 1817:49 by the Prince Regent, and on February 8th, 1816, he embarked on board of H. M. S. Alceste, and left to Canton.

As in Lord Macartney Embassy (1793), the main delivering causewere the insecurity and uncertainty of Canton trade, as well as the arbitrary management of power by local authorities5Auber, P., 1834:256However, comparing Macartney and Amherst Embassy, we can observe a significant novelty: At the time of Macartney mission, knowledge of Chinese culture and society was limited: No member of the Embassy had had prior experience of the country6Hao Gao, 2016:596. This constituted an important deficit during the short negotiations with the Qing imperial court.

On the contrary, Lord Amherst could rely on “China’s experts”: Almost all members of the Embassy had a command of Chinese language, and/or lived in Canton or Macao for extended periods, where they dealt with mandarin bureaucracy and Chinese authorities. Furthermore, Sir. George Staunton, appointed as second commissioner and minister plenipotentiary of the Embassy, had also been part of Macartney expedition7Ibidem: «From my local experience, and from habits of long and deep reflection upon it, I ought to be fully prepared to offer a well-grounded opinion8Staunton, G. T., 1824:31». Moreover, the higher number of accounts left by several members of Amherst Embassy, in comparison with the previous one, offeran interesting view from inside-out of how the mission was perceived.

Amherst Embassy globally travelled for four months in Chinese mainland, to and from Beijing. During the way to the Chinese capital, excited negotiations with mandarins emissaries took place: The issue discussed concerned not trade nor diplomatic residence, but ceremoniesSince the delivering of the first western embassies, the main requisite to be received by the Emperor was the performance of kotow9 磕头, to kowtow, kotow, or kētóu (pīnyīn transcription); it kotow describes the act of kneeling and bowing the head to the ground.As for Macartney Embassy, the British government did not provide Lord Amherst, who had therefore to rely on his counselors’s and his own judgement, with clear and unmistakable instructions on the attitude to be taken regarding the performance of kotow.

The negotiation lasted approximately twenty days achieving little or nothing. Moreover, the chiefs of the Embassy did not share a unanimous view. At Canton the threat of stopping the trade, even if as ultimate resource, was at a hand. On the contrary, in Beijing «The principle laid down are conciliation and compliment: indeed the sole chance of success […] exists in producing a favorable impression upon the mind of the Emperor10Ellis, H., 1817:52», therefore «complying with the particular usages of the court and nation11Ibidem, pp.53».

The refusal of the members of the mission to bend to the kotow ceremony finally resulted in the abrupt dismissal of the EmbassyFew hours after their arrival in Yuen-ming-yuen12The summer palace, which wasdesigned by Jesuit architects for Qianlong., the British were forced to leave. An attempt to partially recover some kind of mutually respectful relation was done by the Chinese court on the following day. A partial exchange of presents took place upon the return to Tongzhou: This was interpreted by Lord Amherst as «a sort of reparation for its abrupt dismissal from Yuen-min-yuen13Hao Gao, 2016:607» together with the ample freedom of movement accorded to the Embassy during the return journey.

Nan Wang Hod in Abel’s Narrative

Even if the strategic mission of the Embassy was not accomplished, we could affirm that «except for creating ill feeling on both sides, nothing was achieved14Hao Gao, 2014:569» only if we limit our observations to the twenty days of the official proceedings and to the diplomatic poinof view. The months that followed the dismissal of the Embassy were devoted to the “discovery” of China; for the first time a foreign delegation was allowed to wander about cities and rural areas, and make contact with common people.

The return journey covered areanever explored before by Westerners, gaining a first-hand knowledge of Chinese society outside Canton enclaves. The information and observations reported by the accounts deeply influenced the British perception of China, and it is not unreasonable to trace back to them the British attitude to the Heavenly Kingdom during the opium warsIn fact, all these reports, letters, and diaries played the same role for China as Mudimbe’s “colonial library” in Africa15Mudimbe, V., 1988: They confirmed the perception of a European superiority and supported the “call for civilization”, at least in diplomatic terms.

The image of China presented in these accounts was strongly influenced by an eurocentric vision: China was considered inferior to Europe in terms of the principles of government and laws – and «in the country, cheating was universal, begging had been common, and military force was feeble16Shunhorig Zhang, 1990:97» but superior in one way or another to other countries in Asia17Ibidem.

From this point of view, the main account of 1816 embassy that is worth be considered is the Narrative of a journey in the interior of China, by Clarke AbelAbel was the chief medical officer and naturalist of Amherst embassy. Differently from the other accounts that mainly focus on the short period of official negotiationsor on diplomatic and political issues, Abel’s Narrative includes the description of their travel after the dismissal.

Even if Abel’s opinion on China slightly differ in comparison with the other writers, his descriptions of everyday life, religious ceremonies, medicines, plantations, etc., offered to the European readers a rich overview of the Chinese EmpireOne of the first points raised by Abel is the strict imperial policies that limited contacts and trades between Chinese and European: «A stranger having no other intercourse with the country than trough the medium of Canton, would be led to form an inaccurate judgement both of the general ingenuity and the luxury of its inhabitants.18Abel, C. 1818:211».

Camellia sinensis, tea plant, in Clark Abel’s Narrative

The members of the embassy were the first westerners allowed to cross a wide area of rural China: To the villagers they were «as inhabitants of another world. Have you a moon, and rain and rivers in your country? were their occasional questions»19Ibidem, pp. 131.Abel was at a time observer and observedand «the curiosity of the people of Tien-sing seemed to have been in no degree diminished by their first opportunity of seeing the English tribute-bearers20Ibidem, pp. 134».

This extraordinary but not unique access to mainland China allowed European to deepen and share their knowledge: From 1793 to 1911, more than seven hundred monographs about China were written or translated in English. Some of those were written and translated by Chinese authors: Europe had for the first time direct knowledge of Chinese literature, poetry, and philosophy (for instance Wang Ying-lin published in 1891, in Rangoon, A precise translation of the Three Character-Classic). However, this process was not easy nor without consequences. In fact, the opium wars that forced the opening of China to the West, as well as the Boxer rebellion, were not only the result of international and commercial interests, but they were also influenced by the image of at a time barbaric and primitive China presented in these accounts and texts.


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  • Abel, C. 1818, Narrative of a journey in the interior of China: and of a voyage to and from that country, in the years 1816 and 1817: containing an account of the most interesting transactions of Lord Amherst’s Embassy to the court of Pekin and observations on the countries which it visited,printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown.
  • Auber, P., 1834, China: au outline of its government, laws, and policy: and of the British and Foreign embassies to, and intercourse with that empire, published by Parbury, Allen and Co..
  • Ellis,H., 1817, Journal of the Proceedings of the Late Embassy to China, printed for John Murray Albemarle-Street.
  • Fairbank, J. K., 1942,Tributary Trade and China’s Relations with the West,in the Far Eastern Quarterly, published by the Association for Asian Studies, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 129-149.
  • Hao Gao, 2014, The Amherst Embassy and British Discoveries in China, in History – the journal of historical association, vol. 99, issue 337, pp. 568-587.
  • Hao Gao, 2016, The “Inner Kowtow Controversy” During the Amherst Embassy to China, 1816–1817, in Diplomacy & Statecraft, published by Routledge Taylor and Francis group, Vol. 27, No. 4, pg. 595-614.
  • Mudimbe, V., 1988, The Invention of Africa, published by James Currey Ltd and Indiana University Press.
  • Murray, P., 2013, Strangers abroad, in Irish Arts Review, published by Irish Arts Review, Vol. 30, No. 3, pp. 118-123.
  • Spence, J. D., 1990, The Search form Modern China, published by W. W. Norton & Company, New York.
  • Sir Staunton, G.T., 2013 – first published 1824, Notes of Proceedings and Occurrences During the British Embassy to Pekin in 1816, Cambridge University press.
  • Shunhorig Zhang, 1990, British views on China during the time of the embassies of Lord Macartney and Lord Amherst (1790-1820), London University.