“Embassies to China: Diplomacy and Cultural Encounters before the Opium Wars” by Michael Keevak


When the British ambassador, Lord Macartney, presented himself before the Chinese emperor Qianlong in 1793, he exhibited, along with his Chinese hosts, the classic “disconnect” between the two cultures which Michael Keevak discusses in his excellent study of embassies to China. “Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance,” Qianlong told Macartney, “therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own products.”

And that was that. In his journal, Macartney compared China to “an old, crazy first-rate Man-of-War,” which “may, perhaps, not sink outright.” He continued, “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.” Macartney’s mission, which Keevak does not discuss in detail as it is so well-known, he nonetheless calls “a perfect example of two systems or world-views that seem to be utterly disparate.”

This book, which tells us about Portuguese, Dutch, Papal and Russian efforts to open trading relations with China, is premised upon how these “disparate” world-views continued to operate within China-Europe relations from medieval times down to the 18th century, and how from purely mercantile interests, the westerners began to assert ideas of imperialist domination and influence over China, which would come to fruition in the 19th century.

Keevak engages with his subject from both cultural and political angles, asking what it was that European envoys understood about China, or, even more importantly, what they did not understand and what they took for granted. Macartney assumed, for example, that the Chinese emperor would be interested in such things as mechanical clocks and other products of the industrialized western world, and was probably surprised at the response he got.

But it was not just “stuff” that was the problem. The Chinese wondered why the West would want to trade with them, and for their part they did not understand European terms such as “peace”, “religion” or even “diplomacy” in the same way that the Europeans did. Westerners too often took it for granted that everyone, Chinese included, saw these concepts exactly the same way they did.

In the end it wasn’t the mechanical clocks that mattered, or even the furore about whether Macartney should kowtow to Qianlong, but the meaning behind the crucial words in diplomatic or trading proposals. A simple example is that the Chinese saw any foreign embassy as bringing “tribute” to the emperor—why else would they be giving him presents? Qianlong referred to the English as “barbarians”, perfectly normal from his side, but offensive and arrogant to the English. And, as early as 1245, Keevak tells us, we find Pope Innocent IV writing to the Great Khan Güyük, telling him that he should obey God’s will, submit to Christ and stop his incursions into other lands; the Khan simply told him that God’s will was that Christians of all lands should submit to the Mongols.


Embassies to China: Diplomacy and Cultural Encounters Before the Opium Wars, Keevak, Michael (Palgrave Macmillan, July 2017)
Embassies to China: Diplomacy and Cultural Encounters Before the Opium Wars, Michael Keevak (Palgrave Macmillan, July 2017)

Keevak divides his book into five sections, with an Introduction and Epilogue. Each section deals with a European nation and is coupled with a particular word, thus underlining the importance of linguistics and showing the different emphasis of each Western country in their attempts to open relations with China. In medieval times, “Peace” was essential to the West; Portugal, whose conquests began in the 15th century, is associated with “Empire”, Holland with “Trade”, the Pope with “Religion” and Russia with “Diplomacy”, although Keevak does not imply, for example, that the Portuguese were uninterested in anything but expanding their empire. He argues that misunderstanding of the meanings of these words on both sides underpinned the failure of Western embassies to China, and of course reminds us that the British were by no means alone in attempting to establish some kind of contact with the Celestial Empire. We know, as Westerners, what we believe these words mean, but how did the Chinese interpret them? And how did the West react to the Chinese reception of their embassies? Keevak’s book provides us with answers to this fascinating question, and as such is a very welcome addition to cultural scholarship on earlier times.

A major sticking-point was the question of the “rites”. This is discussed in Chapter 5, and is concerned with the all-important question of religion. Westerners believed that there was only one true religion—theirs, but there was a huge problem, as Keevak points out, namely that the Chinese had no words for either “religion” or God”. Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism were practiced in China, and together they formed the basis for Chinese social life. Families followed Confucian precepts such as filial piety, and any religions that existed in the Chinese Empire were simply absorbed. As Keevak points out, what one believed didn’t matter as long as these precepts were observed. Westerners failed completely to understand this.


The overall impression one gets from this book is that the Chinese came out of the negotiations with the West keeping the upper hand, although Keevak argues plausibly that this may have been at least partly due to the fact that the embassies were always to China, not from there, giving the Chinese the home advantage. Anything resembling an embassy from China to the West is hard to find, although the Chinese did send a delegation to a Mongol tribe living within the Russian Empire, and when they did send anyone it was usually a Jesuit missionary rather than a native who went.

This didn’t mean that the Chinese were closed-minded about the West; indeed, most of the envoys came from the Kangxi Emperor, who sent four of them to Rome, and honored his emissaries when they came back precisely because “they had come back … into the Chinese bureaucratic system.”

The nearest they ever came to sending a real embassy was the delegation sent by the Yongzheng Emperor in to congratulate Tsar Peter II of Russia on his coronation, which had to change its course when the Tsar died suddenly in 1730 and was succeeded by Empress Anna.

Keevak’s book ably spells out the reasons why embassies to China failed, and it would make relevant reading for some of today’s diplomats, whose understanding of Chinese cultural norms are all-too often clouded by their Western assumptions. For those of us who are not diplomats, it’s a fascinating account of why for so long “East is East and West is West / And never the twain shall meet,” as Kipling observed not so long ago. But they could meet, if they took the trouble to shed their respective prejudices, both political and cultural.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.