British-Chinese encounters: changing perceptions and attitudes from the Macartney mission to the Opium War (1792-1840)
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This thesis examines British-Chinese encounters in the half century before the Opium War, an under-researched medium term period that had profound consequences for both China and Britain. Unlike previous studies on China’s early relations with Britain or the West, this thesis is conducted closely from a perceptional point of view, with its principal focus on British people’s first-hand impressions of China and attitudes towards Chinese affairs as a result of these encounters. It shows that British perceptions of China, by and large, increasingly worsened throughout this period. During the two royal embassies to China, British observers from the Macartney and the Amherst missions presented similarly negative views of Chinese civilisation, but proposed conflicting measures in terms of realising Britain’s commercial and diplomatic objectives in China. In the run up to the Opium War in the 1830s, the image of a Chinese government manipulated by a capricious and despotic monarchy was gradually constructed and seen as the primary cause of China’s backwardness. China was hence increasingly envisioned as an isolated ‘other’ that could not be communicated with by appeals to reason or through normal diplomatic negotiations. In this context, a coercive line of action, supported by British naval force, was eventually regarded as a just and viable approach to promote the wellbeing of both British and Chinese common people. Although these developing unfavourable views about China did not determine the outbreak of the Opium War, they were certainly important underlying forces without which open hostilities with China would probably have been neither justifiable nor acceptable to the British parliament or people. This thesis also seeks to set this half-century of British-Chinese encounters in the context of Chinese history. It briefly describes how a changing image of Britain was developed by the Chinese government and people during this period. It shows that both local elites in the southeastern coastal areas and the elites at the imperial court in Beijing obtained credible as well as inaccurate information about Britain and its people. These early notions held in the southeast and in the Beijing sometimes had an impact on each other, but sometimes stayed distinct and unaffected. This situation partly explains why the Chinese government was caught off guard when a serious challenge from Britain occurred in the form of the Opium War.