Interpreting the Macartney Embassy in China Research Paper


Macartney’s refusal of the kowtow ceremony before the Chinese emperor has been a great source of discourse among politicians and historians. The English and the Chinese have their own version of the incident.

Most of the English resources uphold that Macartney did not perform the ritual to preserve the sovereignty of his King and that, perhaps, became the reason for the failure of the mission headed by him. However, Chinese resources proclaim that Macartney performed the ceremony of kowtow before the emperor (Pritchard, “Letters from Missionaries” 3).

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Since kowtow in Chinese culture was such an essential ritual that required every polished person’s observance, those who were notified of this official explanation, but who were out of touch with the British mission and merchants, might reasonably infer that Britain was just an uncivilized country (Hao, 75).

George Lord Viscount Macartney, an Ambassador from the British emperor George III, sailed to China with a commission having prospects of building trade relations with China. The mission focused on creating treaty-based Sino-British dealings, improving the prevalent commercial provisions at Canton, expanding trade in the north and central China, and making efforts to establish a perpetual embassy in China.

Considering the gravity of the mission, the British government had been very cautious in its planning as it could prove fruitful for the prospective British assignments in China. For better outcomes, an extremely efficient diplomat and colonial officer, Macartney was assigned the task of heading the mission.

The British knew that China considered all foreign embassies as the tribute-bearing missions and expected them to perform the prevailing Chinese rituals while meeting the emperor. However, dominant Western countries declined to be considered as the tributaries to any other country and tried to avoid performing any such rituals that forced them to surrender their sovereignty, and so was the case with Lord Macartney (Pritchard, “The kowtow in the Macartney” 170).

Several issues were raised with respect to the demeanor of the embassy headed by Macartney in China, including the refusal of Macartney to kowtow. Lord Macartney, being a British, refused to perform the ceremony of kowtow before the Chinese emperor, as he believed that doing so would disgrace him and his country as well. His rejection eventually affected the trade relations between Britain and China (Pritchard, “Letters from Missionaries” 25).

In this paper, an effort has been made to present the interpretation and significance of the ‘kowtow’ ritual in the Chinese context and whether Macartney’s refusal to perform it was appropriate or not from the Chinese point of view.

The Kowtow Ceremony

Kowtow literally means to show respect by knocking the head upon the ground. It signified the ceremonial of humble submission and respect present in almost all ancient states. All religious ceremonies and civil meetings in China involved this practice that emphasized the significance of the emperor as a mediator between man and nature.

The original and precise meaning is definitely buried in ancient Chinese history. However, its original objective was to draw a clear distinction between the subject and the emperor who relished a god-like state, however, in the course of time its early significance was forgotten, and it became a customary form of showing respect to the emperor (Pritchard, “The kowtow in the Macartney” 185).

The kowtow ceremony was performed to keep the respect and faith alive in the sovereignty of the emperor. It was an improvised verbal gesture that signified the communicative act in an epideictic speech.

The epideictic speeches were normally associated with ceremonial oratory that took place on various religious and academic events and also on public holidays. According to Kennedy (1998), these speeches, “console and inspire an audience by instilling or renewing values and beliefs and a sense of group identity” (As cited in Sample, 34).

Discussion on the Macartney’s refusal to kowtow before the Chinese emperor

Macartney’s conduct in performing the Chinese ritual raised many questions about the proposed business relations between Britain and China. Macartney handled the issue in a perfunctory manner. Initially, he did not show any discontent over the issues like changing his title from the imperial envoy to the bearer of tribute and rehearsing with the kowtow; however, while presenting himself before the emperor, he declined to perform the ritual (Fangyin, 5).

During the ceremony, the English and the Chinese both wanted to influence each other regarding the ceremonial gestures. The Chinese, consequently, allowed Macartney to perform the ceremony in a modified manner according to his own ritual. Apparently, this leniency by the Chinese was taken as a gesture of willingness for their requests by the British. However, China was indifferent towards the aims of the English and did not deviate from the tradition of considering the foreigners as culturally inferior to them (Sample, 36).

According to Fairbank (1941), the Chinese believed only in one kind of relationship with respect to international relations, and that was the suzerain-vassal relationship. Their belief that China held the position of the cultural and religious ritual leader for the rest of the world made them believe that other societies interested in building trade relations with China were inferior to them. Hence, the tributary system was fostered in international relations.

However, they did not consider this inferior treatment of foreigners as humiliating. For them, it was an expected order of things that benefitted both the parties.

The Chinese conception of suzerainty was cultural and not political, and they believed that the embassies and presents were delivered by the West to express their respect for the superior Chinese culture. However, Macartney did not recognize this aspect and refused to kowtow on political grounds as it degraded him and sovereignty of his King (Pritchard, “The kowtow in the Macartney” 190).

In China, the rulership skills were based on the nine principles of Confucian teachings that recommend that the lords and vassals should be appeased. These principles foster the consolidation of the emperor’s power at the center. The principles also advise that people from remote places should be treated in an appealing manner. The Confucian principles were ingrained in the concepts of rulership in China and characterized in the form of a tributary system with respect to foreign affairs.

According to the Chinese rulers, China was the only center of civilization, and they thought that people living in other countries were barbarians. This inappropriate image of ‘others’ in the mind of the Chinese rulers signified their ignorance regarding the rest of the world and their arrogance too. They believed that the ceremonially mandatory gesture of kowtow was essential for foreigners (barbarians) for maintaining the tributary relationship with them (Zhang, 41).

Pritchard believes that the Chinese considered the ambassador’s refusal of the kowtow ceremony as an expression of bad manners. From the Chinese point of view, the kowtow was not an indication of humiliating or degrading others.

It was the normal gesture of respect for the representative of God on earth, which, obviously, made them take it as the submission of the ambassador and the sovereign both. This belief of the Chinese was completely ethnocentric. The British too maintained the same ethnocentric idea that there was nothing like the suzerain-Vassall relationship (“The kowtow in the Macartney” 197).

Macartney’s refusal to kowtow was the result of Westerner’s mind-set, his ignorance about the significance of the ritual, and his own belief that the ambassador’s acts are the acts of his emperor. Macartney’s assumption of the kowtow as an act of degrading him and his King was his own thinking and not that of the Chinese.

Chinese considered that sending an embassy with presents was a clear indication of the vassalage and compliance, and if the British did not abide by it, they should not have sent the embassy. Macartney, however, tried to safeguard the esteem of his sovereign by refusing to kowtow, but he did not succeed in getting his nation enlisted among the tribute bearing nations in the records and in the Chinese perception (Pritchard, “The kowtow in the Macartney” 198).

There is another facet of the problem, and that is the ignorance of the imperial government in Beijing about the fact that Britain was a rising global power and that the main objective of Macartney’s mission was not to acknowledge the rich and vibrant culture of China but to build trade relations with China. They believed that Britain was also inclined towards the refined and sophisticated culture of China and hence, had sent the envoy with valuable presents. Qianlong emperor wrote to the British King:

Although your country, O King, lies in the far oceans, yet inclining your heart towards civilisation you have specifically sent an envoy respectfully to present a state message, and sailing the seas he has come to our court to kowtow and to present congratulations for the imperial birthday, and also to present local products, thereby showing your sincerity (Cranmer-Byng, 1962 as cited in Hao, 75).

China saw itself as the supreme empire and the center of civilization. They cherished the belief that China was a self-sufficient kingdom that had evolved through years with its well-regarded tradition and ritual.

China did not welcome any outside influence that could disturb the Heavenly Edict. The Chinese viewed the world within the framework of China’s topography that led them to perceive “China as being surrounded by ‘four seas’ (the natural barriers), bordered by peripheral kingdoms with an interior composed of various feudal kingdoms” (Xiaomin & Chunfeng, 16).


Macartney’s refusal to kowtow demonstrated his own thinking that was highly influenced by western ideology. He could not realize that refusing to perform the ritual of kowtow could be so offensive for the Chinese who believed it to be a normal gesture of respect for the representative of God on earth and not an indication of humiliating or degrading others.

The Chinese, with the deep-seated Confucian principles within their rulership ideas, considered nothing wrong in asking for a gesture of respect for the emperor. Hence, Macartney’s assumption of the kowtow as an act of degrading the sovereignty of his kingdom was his own thinking and not that of the Chinese.

Works Cited

Fangyin, Zhou. “.” Chinese Journal of International Politics, 1.3 (2007): 447-474. Web.

Hao, Gao. “.” Journal of the British association for Chinese Studies. 3 (2013): 67-92. Web.

Pritchard, Earl. “Letters from Missionaries at Peking Relating to the Macartney Embassy (1793-1803). “T’oung Pao, Second Series. 31.1/2 (1934):1-57. Print

Pritchard, Earl. “The Kotow in the Macartney Embassy to China in 1793.” The Far Eastern Quarterly. 2.2 (1943):163-203. Print

Sample, Joseph Clayton, “Radically decentred in the Middle Kingdom: interpreting the Macartney embassy to China from a contact zone perspective.” Retrospective Theses and Dissertations. Paper 1121. 2004. Web.

Xiaomin, Zhang & Chunfeng, Xu. “.” Chinese Journal of International Politics. 1.3 (2007): 405-445. Web.

Zhang, Longxi. Mighty Opposites: From Dichotomies to Differences in the Comparative Study of China. California: Stanford University Press: California. 1998. Print

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