British imperial attitudes towards China, 1792–1840

This book examines British imperial attitudes towards China during their early encounters from 1792 to 1840. It makes the first attempt to bring together the political history of Sino-Western relations and cultural studies of British representations of China, as a new way of understanding the origins of the Opium War – a deeply consequential event which arguably reshaped relations between China and the West for the next hundred years. The book focuses on the crucial half-century before the war, a medium-term (moyenne durée) period which scholars such as Kitson and Markley have recently compared in importance to that of the American and French Revolutions.

This study investigates a range of Sino-British political moments of connection, from the Macartney embassy (1792–94), through the Amherst embassy (1816–17) to the Napier incident (1834) and the lead-up to the opium crisis (1839–40). It examines a wealth of primary materials, some of which have not received sufficient attention before, focusing on the perceptions formed by those who had first-hand experience of China or possessed political influence in Britain. The book shows that through this period Britain produced increasingly hostile feelings towards China, but at the same time British opinion formers and decision-makers disagreed with each other on fundamental matters such as whether to adopt a pacific or aggressive policy towards the Qing and the disposition of the Chinese emperor. This study, in the end, reveals how the idea of war against the Chinese empire was created on the basis of these developing imperial attitudes.

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in Creating the Opium War

This chapter explores some important but understudied aspects of the Macartney diplomatic mission to China. Unlike previous research that focused on the controversy of kowtow or the embassy’s political implications, this chapter investigates the underlying contention among the embassy members on the transactions and outcome of the mission. By comparing accounts left by different orders of men who took part in the embassy, it shows that some key facts were selectively documented or ignored, particularly by the leaders of the embassy, in order to suit the author’s own needs and prejudices. Although it is understandable that all observers have their own perspectives, it is worth noting that some of the key perceptions of the embassy’s members were at least partly constructed to justify certain standpoints and actions of the authors of them, rather than being entirely objective observations as they might appeared to be.

in Creating the Opium War
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The Amherst embassy to China has long been viewed as a major diplomatic failure in Britain’s early relations with China. This chapter concentrates on the greatly overlooked aspect of the Amherst mission – the delegation’s discoveries in China after the official proceedings were concluded. Since the embassy was given unprecedented freedom of movement during its four-month return journey from Beijing to Canton, British observers were able to explore the interior of China and to communicate more fully with the Chinese government and people than ever before. As a consequence, the Amherst embassy not only provided valuable first-hand observations which increased and improved Britain’s knowledge of China, but developed the view that the Qing government was the chief obstacle to the progress of Chinese civilisation and to the general welfare of the Chinese people. These important perceptions laid the foundation for future changes in Sino-British relations and led, indirectly, to the outbreak of the Opium War.

in Creating the Opium War

This chapter examines a significant debate on China and the Chinese market held within the British mercantile community in the early 1830s. Occurring in the years before the East India Company’s monopoly over China trade was abolished in 1834, this debate has received much less attention than the Macartney embassy and the rise of the opium trade. This chapter shows that, in order to suit their own economic interests, supporters of the EIC and the ‘free traders’ presented rival images of China and the China trade to lead the governing authorities and the wider public to understand the country and its people in a way most favourable to themselves. Compared to the earlier European accounts of China, which examined different aspects of Chinese civilisation and were at least to some degree academic, this debate within the British mercantile community was clearly aimed at influencing the country’s commercial policy in China. Although neither side was genuinely interested in discovering the ‘real’ China, this competition in image-building was crucial to Britain’s relations with China in the era leading to the First Opium War.

in Creating the Opium War
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This chapter examines public reactions to the Napier incident and the discussion about Britain’s China policy within the British community in China in the mid-1830s. This period has received much less attention than the Napier incident itself and the immediate causes of the Opium War. Based on popular publications available in Canton in this period, the chapter investigates the debate over the cause of Lord Napier’s failure, including the ‘show of force’ theory as well as other ‘minor’ voices. It reveals that, although ‘show of force’ was the most prominent attitude at the time, the mid-1830s should be considered as a period of confused thinking with regard to Britain’s China policy, rather than a clear stage in the preparations for an open war.

in Creating the Opium War

This chapter focuses closely on the origins of the Opium War, particularly its immediate trigger(s).The chapter examines how the Sino-British opium trade and its related issues were imagined and disputed in the immediate run-up to the First Anglo-Chinese War. It reveals that although the opium trade was closely interwoven with the ensuing confrontations, the debates on the subjects of opium, crisis and war can each be examined in its own right. Moreover, despite the fact that, in April 1840, the Whig government won the vote on its motion for war by only a small majority, the actual inclination to vigorous invention in the dispute with China was in fact greater than the voting results appear to indicate.

in Creating the Opium War