China rejects an overture from Britain (1793)


In the late 1700s China came under pressure from European powers to open up to foreign trade. In 1793 the Qianlong emperor, the sixth Qing ruler of China, wrote to George III of Britain, rejecting these overtures:


“You, O King, live beyond the confines of many seas, nevertheless, impelled by your humble desire to partake of the benefits of our civilisation, you have dispatched a mission respectfully bearing your memorial [message of goodwill]. Your envoy has crossed the seas and paid his respects at my court on the anniversary of my birthday. To show your devotion, you have also sent offerings of your country’s produce.

I have perused your memorial. The earnest terms in which it is couched reveal a respectful humility on your part, which is highly praiseworthy. In consideration of the fact that your ambassador and his deputy have come a long way with your memorial and tribute, I have shown them high favour and have allowed them to be introduced into my presence. To manifest my indulgence, I have entertained them at a banquet and made them numerous gifts. I have also caused presents to be forwarded to the naval commander and 600 of his officers and men, although they did not come to Peking, so that they too may share in my all-embracing kindness.

As to your entreaty to send one of your nationals to be accredited to my Celestial Court, and to be in control of your country’s trade with China, this request is contrary to all usage of my dynasty. It cannot possibly be entertained. It is true that Europeans, in the service of the dynasty, have been permitted to live at Peking – but they are compelled to adopt Chinese dress, they are strictly confined to their own precincts and are never permitted to return home. You are presumably familiar with our dynastic regulations.

It behoves you, O King, to respect my sentiments and to display even greater devotion and loyalty in future, so that, by perpetual submission to our Throne, you may secure peace and prosperity for your country hereafter.”