24 May 2014

British Artistic Impressions of Qing Dynasty China

The First British Embassy to China, 1793-1794

Part II – The Art

William Alexander was one of only two artists who were officially appointed to record Lord Macartney’s embassy to China. Of the two he was the junior draughtsman, yet his artistic impressions of China have since become the most familiar depictions of the mission. He made over two thousand sketches and paintings whilst travelling through China; and, rather like David Roberts, his near contemporary’s paintings of Egypt made some 50 years later, Alexander’s sketches and paintings of China have become quintessential as representations of the Western encounter with Asia. They were primarily done to illustrate Sir George Leonard Staunton’s official report of the mission (1797), as well as Sir John Barrow’s Travels in China (1804), but Alexander also published two notable books of his own, The Costume of China (1805) and Dress and Manners of the Chinese (1814), both of which proved to be very popular. Alexander was apparently able to support himself for a decade after returning from the mission on the proceeds of exhibiting and publishing his China works. Between 1798 and 1804 he exhibited thirteen watercolours at the Royal Academy. In stark contrast, the principal artist of the embassy was Thomas Hickey, who was a portrait painter and a personal friend of Lord Macartney, although noted as a great conversationalist Hickey’s idleness has since been remarked by historians as rather curiously he apparently painted only one picture in the entire course of the trip – whereas his junior colleague had managed to draw and paint around 270 sketches of the voyage before the mission had even set foot on Chinese shores.

William Alexander was born in Maidstone, Kent in 1767, the son of a coachmaker. He moved to London at the age of fifteen to study art and was later admitted to the Royal Academy Schools where his talent was duly noticed by Sir Joshua Reynolds. He was 25 years old when the Macartney mission set out for China, and his diary of the mission shows he was an energetic and engaged member of the party – yet he was rather underrated and overlooked by Macartney himself. Indeed, much to Alexander’s disappointment, Macartney left the two artists in Peking when he went to meet with Qianlong for the first time at Chengde, and so it seems likely that he only once, very briefly got to glimpse the august figure of the Emperor, and so he had to rely on the descriptions furnished by other members of the party when completing some of his more famous portraits and landscape views such as those of the Great Wall. It is perhaps because of this reason that the accuracy of some of his likenesses were later criticised by Sir George Staunton. This fact not withstanding, the overwhelming majority of Alexander’s artworks are clearly keenly observed; indeed, as were his diary descriptions too. The following is an extract in which he describes glimpsing Qianlong on the occasion of the Emperor’s return to the capital, Peking:

“As soon as the Emperor and his retinue was seen in the distance, the Ambassador and his suite moved toward the road and were placed within the line of soldiers. Once the Royal procession was in earshot the Chinese band struck up a martial air interrupted as ever by the most discordant percussion … His Imperial Majesty was preceded by a body of horse. His sedan, surrounded by Mandarins and cavalry, was of a rich yellow carried by 8 bearers … He looked eminently towards us kneeling on one knee and bowing, and as he passed he sent a message to the Ambassador regretting the Ambassador was not well, and as the cold weather was approaching it would be better for him to return immediately to Peking, rather than make any stay at the Yuan Ming Yuan … Next followed his Chief Minister in a green sedan chair. He gave the Ambassador a very gracious salute … The Mandarins employed and connected with the Embassy stood behind us, dressed in their habits of ceremony, while we were kneeling when the Emperor passed by. One of these, thinking my bow was not sufficiently respectful to his monarch, actually put his hand behind my neck and lowered my head almost to the ground. Perhaps my eagerness to see all that was possible of this splendid sight might shorten the inclination of the head on this memorable occasion.”

The last few lines are fairly striking in view of the fact that the ceremony of the kowtow was such a major point of contention for the British. Indeed, Alexander had a similar run-in of his own with this particular matter of court etiquette when he met a Qing official of the Imperial family on the road whilst out on one of his trips to record scenes of Chinese country life, he was forced to dismount but then refused to kneel and kowtow in the mud. On the whole though, Alexander’s depictions of China and the Chinese speak for themselves, and much as his verbal descriptions, they tend to be acutely observed, largely accurate and even handed in their representation – and, as such, they remain an invaluable record to modern scholars of the period. On his return to England he went on to enjoy a successful artist’s career as a professor of drawing, teaching at the Military College at Great Marlow, and then subsequently becoming the first Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department at the British Museum.

Once the embassy had returned to Britain it did not take long for the information its members brought back to gain a wide circulation. Indeed, just four months after their return this painting (above) of the Emperor Qianlong was done by Mariano Bovi (an Italian artist then working in London) and curiously, although nothing is known of how it originally came to be produced, it is clearly a very faithful likeness of one of Qianlong’s official court paintings (below) – which were painted on silk and mounted on hanging scrolls, an example of which from the Palace Museum’s own collection was included in the Britain Meets the World exhibition in 2007.


The European fascination with China goes back a long way. From first contacts with Chinese wares brought along the Silk Road trading routes as far back as the Roman era to the well-known travel accounts of Marco Polo in the 13th Century; however, it wasn’t until the Jesuit missions of the late 16th Century that sustained contact was established. Much of Europe’s earliest knowledge of China came from the accounts returned by these Jesuit priests, most notably Matteo Ricci. The Jesuits gained quite a significant footing in China where their scientific knowledge, particularly in the disciplines of mathematics, astronomy, geography and cartography, were highly esteemed and utilised by Chinese scholars and court officials.

Chinese commodities, such as silks, porcelain, and spices, were highly prized items in Europe from the 14th Century onwards. And even as early as 1604 the first Chinese books found their way into the collections of the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Such curious wares naturally fuelled an interest in a seemingly fabled faraway land of scholars and artists, and the tantalising glimpses these items gave blended with fantasy and stirred the desire to know more. From the 17th Century onwards European craftsmen began to design ceramics, fabrics, and furniture based on Chinese archetypes. At the start of the 18th Century the French painter, Antoine Watteau, devised a fanciful decorative style known as chinoiserie which soon became all the rage in Europe. A vogue for all things ‘Chinese’ from porcelains and interior décor to pagodas and dragon motifs adorning parks and palaces ensued. A Chinese-style bridge was even built over the River Thames at Hampton Court.


The fashion for chinoserie in Britain initially peaked in 1750s and 1760s, but was revived by the excitement surrounding Macartney’s embassy, and perhaps reached its apogee in the manifestation of George IV, the Prince Regent’s sumptuously extravagant and distinctly over the top Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Built between 1787 and 1823 in the “Hindoo style”, looking rather like the Taj Mahal outside, inside it was decorated (in 1802) with a profusion of Chinese motifs, some of which were directly based upon William Alexander’s artworks from the embassy, as well as an enormous chandelier weighing over one ton which was decorated with silvered dragons. Such lavish ‘orientalizing’ provided ample fuel for stoking contemporary satires, mocking both Macartney and the famous contretemps over the kowtow and later on mocking George IV by depicting him as an ‘oriental despot’ surrounded by opulence and ‘oriental luxury’ whilst receiving Lord Amherst, Britain’s second failed Ambassador to China in 1816. 

Such images, whether scientifically framed – as was the case with those produced by the members of the Macartney embassy, or those which were exaggerated or embellished in the contemporary trends of chinoserie and political satire, speak reams to the cultural divide between East and West in the early modern era and the notions of the objectified ‘self’ and ‘other’ (as proposed by scholars such as Edward Said) which informed the Western view of the world at a time when distances and barriers between peoples – for better or worse – were beginning to be bridged or broken down.



Aubrey Singer, The Lion & The Dragon: The Story of the First British Embassy to the Court of the Emperor Qianlong in Peking, 1792-1794 (Barrie & Jenkins, 1992) – contains a good selection of artworks from the embassy by William Alexander and other members of the party

Qian Chengdan & Sheila O’Connell, Britain Meets the World, 1714-1830 – The Palace Museum (The Forbidden City Publishing House, 2007)

Edward Said, Orientalism (Routledge, 1978)


18 May 2014

The First British Embassy to China, 1793-1794

Earlier this week I gave a talk on the first British Embassy to China. My talk looked at how historians in the West have viewed the embassy, as well as a short survey of some of the imagery which was created during and after the mission, including a brief look at an exhibition I worked on in Beijing in 2007, which featured some of the original gifts that were given as part of the embassy in 1793. Adapted from my talk, this present blog post will take a look at the embassy, the exhibition, and the theme of  'cross-cultural' exchange. And then my next post will examine the work of William Alexander, an artist who accompanied the embassy, as well as some of the artistic responses to the mission once it had returned to Britain.

Part I - The Embassy

As with the first British mission to Japan 182 years before, the embassy sent to China in 1793, which was led by Lord George Macartney, set out in three ships – the Lion, the Hindostan, and the Jackall (which became lost in heavy weather in the Bay of Biscay, but happily managed to rejoin the group again in the Sunda Straits, near Batavia). The purpose of the mission was to try to open China up to the burgeoning new system of global ‘free-trade’ which was then being forged by the nations of the West. Several European nations had already established trading hongs (warehouses) at the southern Chinese port of Canton (Guangzhou), the only place in China at that time where foreign sea trade was permitted (there was also an inland trading post, officially sanctioned by the Chinese court, at Kiakhta, where Russians came overland to buy and sell goods). But the British in particular were not content with this single point of exchange, they very much wanted to expand their access and trade network to other parts of the vast Qing Empire. The Qing, on the other hand, were very wary of this and they consistently refused such overtures. Other western nations had already sent diplomatic missions to China, notably the Dutch, the Portuguese, and, of course, the Russians, as already mentioned. ‘The Macartney Embassy’, as it's now more commonly remembered, was the first trade mission which sought to break the mould of those which had gone before; and, as such, it has become a notorious episode, often cited, in the history of East-West relations.


Traditional historiography has consistently framed the encounter as a spectacular failure on the British part, best summed up as the result of a clash of cultures, in which the British and the Qing simply failed to understand each other. My talk and the seminar which followed looked at this traditional view and examined how more recent historiography has since sought to balance this perception by looking at various Chinese archival sources relating to the famous encounter. In the past, and even quite recently (cf. Peyrefitte), historians have taken contemporary Western reports of the mission very much at face value. The idea being that rational, ‘progressive’ Westerners were seeking to engage with irrational, ‘backward’ Easterners by impressing them with their advanced scientific knowledge and new technologies. But as the Emperor Qianlong famously stated in his letter to King George III, replying to this overture for closer international relations: “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.”

The rebuff was not taken lightly, and Macartney’s certainly was not the last British trade mission to China either – another was led by Lord Amherst in 1816 but was refused an audience with the Emperor entirely. As many historians have stated the major point of contention between the two sides was a question of differing cultural perceptions. The British believed in a new world order of sovereign nation-states whose authority was derived from a secular-based system of laws; and so, with the precedent already established in Europe, the British duly presumed to expect that they should deal with other great nations on an equal diplomatic footing – indeed, in their eyes, this was very much the mark of civilised societies. The Chinese world order, however, maintained that China was the centre of civilisation and the Emperor was the ‘Son of Heaven’, therefore all the peoples of the world owed varying degrees of fealty to the Emperor. The Emperor, of course, was a just and benevolent ruler, and as for those distant, outer barbarians (such as the Europeans) who were not fortunate enough to come under the Emperor’s direct rule, it had been decreed that they were permitted to acknowledge the Emperor’s universal supremacy by periodically offering tribute. As such, Qianlong viewed Macartney’s trade embassy as a mission to deliver tribute. There were certain protocols and ceremonial rituals which needed to be adhered to, naturally – and as the British mission progressed, travelling through China to meet with the Emperor himself, the Qing knowledge network sent back reports to the Manchu Court which seemed to present certain frustrations. It appeared that the British were entirely ignorant of these rituals and so they would need to be guided onto the right path.


However, from the British point of view it was these ‘archaic rituals’ and protocols which became the major sticking point. There was one ritual in particular which did not align with their ideals nor their intentions. It became a stubborn point of pride – it was of course the ritual of the kowtow, in which the British envoys were expected to ceremonially prostrate themselves before the Emperor. This, of course, was seen as an acknowledgement of inferiority, and consequently it was something which the British plenipotentiaries simply could not countenance. The Qing were quite rightly baffled – the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the Russians before them did not seem to have had any problems with performing this ritual gesture. Interestingly enough and perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, after much discussion it seems the Qing did eventually give way – as according to some accounts Lord Macartney simply went down on one knee when he met the Emperor (other accounts state that when finally admitted into the august Son of Heaven’s presence Lord Macartney was naturally overwhelmed by the great Emperor’s majesty and so he instinctively performed the kowtow without any hesitation).


The attitudes on each side are worth considering in more detail. Macartney was no inexperienced envoy, he had served overseas in various British domains and he had been a successful ambassador to the Court of Catherine the Great in Russia. Similarly he had certainly done his homework on the voyage out, reading as much as he could of contemporary accounts of China from a well-stocked library on-board his ship put together for this express purpose. His journals initially seem quite sympathetic towards the Chinese, yet he appears to have made no effort to learn the Chinese language; as he rather condescendingly states: “We are quite ignorant of their language (which, I suppose, cannot be a very difficult one, for little George Staunton has long since learned to speak it and write it with great readiness, and from that circumstance has been of infinite use to us on many occasions).”

‘Little’ George Thomas Staunton was the 12 year old son of the embassy’s principal Secretary, and the young boy’s command of the Chinese language (which he’d learnt from native-born teachers on the voyage out) certainly seems to have impressed the Emperor Qianlong, who it is reported broke with protocol again by directly bestowing a gift upon the boy from his own hand. Indeed, Qianlong himself was by 1793 already a long-lived and therefore highly astute ruler. He observed of the British that: “Among the Western ocean states, England ranks foremost in strength. It is said that the English have robbed and exploited the merchant ships of the other Western ocean states so that the foreigners along the Western ocean are terrified of their brutality.”

It’s intriguing to note that of all commentators, perhaps one of the most unlikely was Napoleon Bonaparte, who thought that Lord Macartney ought to have complied with the local customs as he believed each sovereignty had the right to dictate how it was to be diplomatically approached on its own soil. It was later claimed that the Qing’s arrogant insistence regarding its own sense of superiority over all other peoples was a rod which it made for its own back, and that this was the root cause of several subsequent, devastating conflicts with the West, not least the Opium Wars and the ‘gunboat diplomacy’ of the 19th Century. Yet recent historiography has sought to show that this was less of a clash of civilisations, nor the case of a simple cultural misunderstanding being conflated into an immoveable diplomatic obstacle; it was in fact more a case of a deliberate and wilful misunderstanding on the part of each party for its own political ends (cf. Hevia). This was ultimately a clash of two imperialist powers with similar colonial mindsets. Thus the British and the Qing actually had a lot more in common with one another than either of them openly cared to acknowledge.

In 2007 I was involved with taking an exhibition, entitled ‘Britain Meets the World, 1714-1830’, from the British Museum in London to the Palace Museum in Beijing (perhaps better known to many of its visitors as ‘The Forbidden City’). Curated by my colleague, Sheila O’Connell, the exhibition was billed as an ‘examination of how British artists, travellers, scholars, and traders engaged with new cultures through world exploration.’ It focussed on the 18th Century and the work of collectors and explorers such as Sir Joseph Banks and Captain James Cook, as well as the work of the Royal Society, and men such as James Cox, Josiah Wedgwood, and James Watt. The exhibition also contained a showcase that was filled with some of the original gifts which Macartney gave to Qianlong in 1793 and which are now part of the Palace Museum’s collection. It was fascinating for me working inside the famous ‘Forbidden City.’ I was fortunate enough to spend several weeks there over the course of the year, exploring parts of the palace complex which are off-limits to the public – I even rode a bicycle from one end of the Palace to the other, just as Puyi is famously depicted doing in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 film, ‘The Last Emperor.’ Interestingly enough, the exhibition was itself very much all part-and-parcel of the modern ‘cultural diplomacy’ which is increasingly taking place today. The exhibition was a direct result of the first ever cultural agreement between the UK and China, which was signed in the presence of the then Prime Minister Tony Blair and Premier Wen Jiabao in 2005. At the time, reporting on the opening of ‘Britain Meets the World’, The China Daily newspaper stated that: “Cultural cooperation and exchange are as vital as any other relationship between cultures … the more we understand each other the less we will clash. This is truly the message of culture.” Evidently Lord Macartney’s gifts are still serving a quasi-‘diplomatic role’ some 200 years after they were first given to China; hopefully remembering them and thinking about such historic encounters will indeed help to shape a better and less confrontational future … but then again, as the recent misunderstanding of cultural symbols evidenced in the wearing of Remembrance Day poppies during David Cameron's 2010 trade mission to China reminds us, diplomacy remains - even today - the most delicate and nuanced of arts.


Continue to Part II - The Art


Sir George Leonard Staunton, An Authentic Account of An Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China (W. Bulmer & Co., 1797)

Aeneas Anderson, A Narrative of the British Embassy to China in the Years 1792, 1793 & 1794 (J. Drebrett, 1796)

John King Fairbank, ‘On the Qing Tribute System’ in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, June 1941

Alain Peyrefitte, The Collision of Two Civilisations: The British Expedition to China, 1792-1794 (Harvill, 1993)

James Hevia, Cherishing Men From Afar: Qing Guest Ritual and the Macartney Embassy of 1793 (Duke University Press, 1995)

Jonathan Spence, The Chan’s Great Continent: China in Western Minds (W.W. Norton, 1998)

Joanna Waley-Cohen, The Sextants of Beijing: Global Currents in Chinese History (W.W. Norton, 2000)

Qian Chengdan & Sheila O’Connell, Britain Meets the World, 1714-1830 – The Palace Museum (The Forbidden City Publishing House, 2007)

Julia Lovell, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of Modern China (Picador, 2012)

12 May 2014

3 Little Known London Bookshops ...

… Which Are Well Worth Visiting

London has a large number of bookshops both big and small. From the big chains such as Waterstones, Blackwells, and Foyles which are dotted throughout the city to the small second-hand or specialist book emporiums which have long made London’s Charing Cross Road famous. But as with any city there are a strategic few which are always well worth seeking out if you are lucky enough to stumble upon them or be pointed in their direction. Several of my favourites are to be found in the area close to the University of London in the locale which leant its name to the eponymous Bloomsbury set. As a compulsive bibliophile these are three which I make regular pilgrimages to, and very rarely (if ever) do I come away empty handed.

First of these has to be Waterstones on Gower Street. Waterstones? Little known? Really? … Stick with me … Waterstones on Gower Street occupies a beautiful labyrinthine Grade 1 listed building designed by Charles Fitzroy Doll in 1908, which was described by Nikolaus Pevsner (1902-1983) as 'a wild block, very elaborately detailed in a restless, flamboyant, Franco-Flemish Gothic style'. It certainly serves the academic needs of the nearby University well with a diverse set of specialist academic departments which are well stocked for a variety of subject areas from medicine and the sciences to the arts and humanities, but for me the absolute gem hidden within this old Gothic pile is its Second-hand and Remainders Department which is forever overflowing with unexpected bargains. For me it is a dangerous place to venture into; the prices are perfectly pitched to make me part with my cash as I’m always convinced that I would be mad to pass up the opportunity of purchasing such quality books at such reasonable rates – and it would be madness – as it’s more than possible to stretch your £ in this part of the shop and come away with a generous stack of real bargains. Plus, if you are a London resident or staying in the city for some time, it is well worth following both the Gower Street branch itself, as well as its Second-hand and Remainders Department on Twitter, especially the latter as they regularly post notifications and reminders of their frequent half-price sales and other events.

Not too far from Gower Street there are two other second-hand bookshops which are a must to seek out. The first, a little way up the road heading north from Russell Square Tube Station, is Skoob Books. The entrance is tucked away around the back of the Brunswick Centre, which itself is great for shops and restaurants as well as an art house cinema. A staircase (& lift) from the entrance down to the basement level takes you into a veritable Aladdin’s Cave of books – strong on academic works, again with comprehensive coverage of all academic subject areas – the place is packed to the rafters. In places the books are so tightly crammed in that sometimes it takes quite a bit of effort to prise the books out of the stacks! It’s worth noting that there is a great turnover of stock too as this is the place where many London students come to acquire their books at the start of term, and they then return to sell them on at the end of the academic year (as I did at the end of my undergraduate degree in the mid-1990s when the shop was located on Sicilian Avenue), so it is a good place to regularly check back with if you have a wish list of certain titles as you never know what you might turn up there. Students get a 10% discount too. Their warehouse stock is also available to peruse on-line and you can request titles to be delivered to the shop for you to look at with no obligation to buy.

Again heading north from Russell Square Tube, a little further up the road, is Judd Books on Marchmont Street. You can't miss its prominent green awning with 'books' in yellow lettering covering its outdoor stalls laid out with boxes of clearance titles tempting you to stop as you pass by. This bookshop is like a mix of the two described above. Strong on arts, culture, and the humanities, Judd Books is well stocked with recent remainders as well as second-hand titles. Literature, Art, Film, Media, Architecture, and Music are on the ground floor. Downstairs the shelves cover History, Philosophy, Psychology, plus Economics and Politics, International Relations, etc. are housed in the back room. Again a good place to pick up a recently published bargain, and students get a 10% discount here too.

All three of these bookshops are within strolling distance of both Senate House Library and the British Library with plenty of nice cafes, pubs, and restaurants scattered in between, so if you are here either visiting the University or using the British Library they make a great diversion or adjunct to what might already be a very bookish day.

Read my reviews of recommended bookshops in Taipei, Taiwan & Portland, Oregon for the LSE Review of Books

UPDATE: (August 30th 2014) My friends at Waterstones Gower Street tell me that they are integrating their secondhand books with the rest of the shop. I'll miss the old Secondhand & Remainders Dept and its special 'shop-within-a-shop' feel, but hopefully this means they should be expanding their secondhand and antiquarian stock ... And also, it looks like I'm moving in there too! (see here)