In 1792, the Emperor of China sent a letter to George III of Great Britain. Beneath the surface of diplomatic politeness, it was a gallingly peremptory, even dismissive note, especially for a missive sent to the ruler of an Empire upon which the sun was just beginning not to set. “Our Celestial Empire,” the emperor informed his bemused counterpart, “possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” The message could not have been more clear: George III’s little island had nothing to offer the Qianlong Emperor’s Middle Kingdom, the true center of the world.
China’s complete and utter rejection of British overtures stung, and not simply because of the intemperate language of the Emperor’s letter. The American Revolution and the subsequent loss of its American colonies had left Britain with a hole in its commercial network. Bereft of a ready market for its imported teas, the British were facing a mounting trade deficit with China. British merchants paid for Chinese goods—tea, silk, porcelain—in silver, but as yet, Chinese merchants were largely uninterested in purchasing British commodities. To make matters worse, China tightly controlled every aspect of its trade with the West. European merchants were allowed access only to a single port—Canton, modern Guangzhou—and then only seasonally. During the trading season, European factors lived in an enclosed community, forbidden almost all contact with the Chinese population.
Most Western powers, including the newly independent United States, resented China’s protectionist system, believing that Chinese consumers would warm to European and American goods if they were exposed to them. By blocking free trade, the Canton System prevented Chinese adoption of Western commodities and doomed Britain and America to runaway trade imbalances.
In the face of post-war economic stagnation and Chinese commercial intransigence, in 1792 Britain sent its first formal ambassador, George Macartney, to the Emperor of China. It was hoped that Macartney’s embassy would open Chinese markets to British goods, thereby righting the trade imbalance and rescuing the flagging British economy. And so, in September 1793, at the Emperor’s summer court at Jehol (Chengde) beyond the Great Wall, Macartney knelt before the Qianlong Emperor and formally presented Britain’s diplomatic requests.
The failure of the Macartney mission—China refused to grant any trade concessions to Britain—has famously been blamed on Macartney’s stubborn refusal to perform the kowtow, the obligatory ritual humiliation of foreign diplomats before the Emperor. Despite being informed of the usual protocol, Macartney insisted that since his sovereign George III and the Qianlong Emperor were equals, he would prostrate himself before the Emperor only if a Chinese official of equivalent rank would kowtow before a portrait of George III, which he had handily brought in his baggage. In the end, it was agreed that Macartney would kneel before the Emperor, just as he would in the presence of George III. When the contents of the Emperor’s letter to George III became known, the kowtow was seized upon as the reason for the embassy’s failure.
The dispute over the kowtow was, however, a canard. Some Chinese officials were upset that the British had flouted proper protocol, but the Chinese were not so inflexible as to risk a potentially lucrative partnership by insisting on strict adherence to diplomatic niceties. Indeed, a subsequent Dutch Embassy was similarly rebuffed despite having performed the kowtow. In reality, there were good reasons for China to continue to keep the British at arm’s length. In the late eighteenth century, the Qing Empire was plagued by continual internal unrest. With revolts flaring up on the margins, there were real fears that Britain, triumphant in India during the American War, would push north from the subcontinent into restive areas of Western China. With its empire reduced in the Atlantic, Britain was an empire on the make in Asia, and as the tendrils of British imperialism spread through India, Malaysia, and Indonesia, there was cause to be concerned about Britain’s seemingly unceasing ambitions. When Sir Thomas Roe arrived at the court of the Mughal Emperor Jahangir in 1615, the English were mere supplicants simply hoping for trade concessions. By 1792, they had transformed a string of trading posts held at the sufferance of the Mughals into a runaway territorial empire that would soon consume the subcontinent. With his once-great empire weakened, internally fractured, the Qianlong Emperor turned to the false promise of isolationism and protectionism in hopes of staving off the emerging power that was knocking on its door.
Whatever its actual cause, the rejection of the Macartney embassy proved disastrous for China. Popular belief that a breach of protocol was central to the rejection of British overtures helped to transform perceptions of China in the West. Where once writers like Voltaire had held up China as a model of rational, efficient governance, in the wake of Macartney’s mission, the Middle Kingdom began to be stereotyped as backward, rigid, and blinkered, an enemy of progress rather than its embodiment. As Macartney famously said, “The Empire of China is an old, crazy, first-rate Man of War, which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers have contrived to keep afloat for these hundred and fifty years past, and to overawe their neighbors merely by her bulk and appearance. . . . She may, perhaps, not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom.” This sea change in attitudes toward China in turn helped Western Powers—especially Britain and the United States—rationalize their heavy-handed treatment of China in the century to come.
Even before the rejection of Macartney’s embassy, British and American merchants had turned to opium as a way of righting their trade imbalances with China. At first this illicit trade operated beneath the surface, not officially encouraged by British or American authorities fearful of upsetting the Chinese. After the rejection of Macartney’s overtures, it became clear that Western powers had little to lose and much to gain from openly pursuing the opium trade. In the early nineteenth century British and American merchants flooded the Chinese market with opium, transforming a high-status drug into a widely available scourge. When China responded to this public health emergency by seizing Western opium in 1839, Britain, tacitly supported by America, responded with force. The Opium Wars that followed—two state-sponsored wars for drugs—ensured that Chinese markets remained open to British and American opium and ended any pretense that China controlled its trade policy or its foreign affairs. For the Chinese, the period came to be known as the “Century of Humiliation.”
As President Trump wields the weapons of protectionism against an emerging economic rival, America finds itself in the midst of its own trade war with China. This time, however, the roles have been reversed. America now finds itself in the unwelcome position of the empire on the cusp of decline, a foundering Man of War hoping to stave off a new imperial rival with protectionist policies. There are certainly real grievances to be addressed—from currency manipulation to industrial espionage to copyright infringement—but, as was the case for the Qing Empire, America’s aggressive protectionism is unlikely to succeed. There is an underlying sense that the President’s tactics are desperate and defensive, the product of a potent mixture of hubris and fear. China’s is an economy on the rise, and empire resurgent, but as alarming as that may be to many, it will not be blunted by an American withdrawal behind the flimsy façade of tariffs and jingoism. For China remembers keenly its Century of Humiliation and has responded to new heavy-handed attempts by the West to direct its economy accordingly. The Trump administration has yet to heed the lessons of history. In his terror of a diminished empire and foreign displacement, President Trump’s own act of hubris has perhaps helped speed the United States down the path to its own century of humiliation.
Matthew Lockwood is assistant professor of history at the University of Alabama and the author of The Conquest of Death: Violence and the Birth of the Modern English State.