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Author(s): Maxine Berg
Article Title: Britain, industry and perceptions of China: Matthew Boulton,
‘useful knowledge’ and the Macartney Embassy to China 1792–94
Year of publication: 2003
Link to published version:
Publisher statement: None
Britain, industry and perceptions
of China: Matthew Boulton,
‘useful knowledge’ and the
Macartney Embassy to China
Department of History, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK
Global history has debated the emergence of a divergence in economic growth between
China and the West during the eighteenth century. The Macartney Embassy, 1792–94, the
first British embassy to China, occurring as it did at the end of the eighteenth century, was
an event which revealed changing perceptions of China and the Chinese by different British
interest groups from government, trade, industry and enlightened opinion. Many histories of
the embassy recount failures of diplomacy and cultural misconception, or divergent ideas of
science. This article examines attitudes of British industry to the embassy through the part
played in its preparations by the Birmingham industrialist, Matthew Boulton, and revealed in
correspondence in the Matthew Boulton Papers. The article uncovers debate among different
interest groups over the objects and skilled personnel to be taken on the embassy. Were the
objects purveyors of trade or tribute, or of ‘useful knowledge’ and ‘industrial enlightenment’?
The Macartney Embassy to China between 1792 and 1794 has an enduring legacy in the
long history of encounters between Europe and China. The embassy is once more of histor-
ical interest as China rises to a key place in global markets of the twenty-first century. Brit-
ish trade missions to China, a regular occurrence since the mid-1990s, have stimulated
renewed interest in this ‘first embassy to China’. The recent emergence of a new research
area in global history has also focused on problems of divergence in economic growth
between East and West and especially between China and the West. Historians debate the
extent to which the roots of such divergence were to be found in empire or in events and
economic trends of the eighteenth century.1The first embassy, occurring as it did at the
1 E. L. Jones, The European miracle: environments, economies and geopolitics in the history of Europe and Asia,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981; Kenneth Pomeranz, The great divergence: China, Europe and
the making of the modern world economy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Journal of Global History, (2006) 1, pp. 269–288 ª London School of Economics and Political Science 2006
end of the eighteenth century, was an event which revealed changing perceptions of China
and the Chinese by different British interest groups from government, trade, industry and
Separate historiographies have produced different narratives of the embassy. The
British goal of opening a permanent embassy in China after Macartney’s meeting with the
Qianlong Emperor failed, and interaction with China remained confined to trade mainly
via the East India Company through Guangzhou (Canton). Historians of China have treated
the embassy as a failure of understanding by the west of China’s achievements, of her atti-
tudes to the wider world, and of her own framework of diplomatic relations.2Economic his-
torians have made frequent references to the embassy as a turning point when China failed
to recognize the recent technological progress of the west, and turned her back on advances
in science and technology.3Some have also written on the embassy as an event in the diver-
gence between western and Chinese science, focusing especially on scientific and astronom-
ical instruments.4But there is little on practical technologies and capital goods, nor on
perceptions at the time of achievements in consumer goods production.
This article discusses the attitudes of British manufacturers and government policy-
makers towards their own new technologies and products as they confronted empire and
China at the end of the eighteenth century. Sending an embassy to China entailed choosing
suitable objects for gifts, tribute, display, and in the view of some, objects for future trade.
The purpose of such gifts was to impress, to engage interest and curiosity, and to provide
pleasure and thus to open personal friendship as a way to foster international connections.
Although the events of the embassy have been frequently recounted, there has been less con-
sideration of the objects taken on the embassy. A listing and valuation of these objects is in
the papers on the embassy in the East India Company records.5There is also a small, but
significant correspondence on the views of a major British industrialist, Matthew Boulton,
and of Britain’s foremost industrial lobbyist at the time, Samuel Garbett. These allow
us access to the perceptions of industrialists and to the part they played in decisions on
what objects and persons were taken on the embassy. This article will recount this
correspondence, which can be found in the Matthew Boulton Papers, Birmingham Central
2 Joseph Needham and Wang Ling, Science and civilisation in China: vol. 4, physics and physical
technology, part 2, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965, pp. 436–77; Mark Elvin, The pattern of
the Chinese past, London: Eyre Methuen, 1973, pp. 179–99; James L. Hevia, ‘The Macartney Embassy in
the history of Sino-Western relations’, in Robert Bickers, ed., Ritual and diplomacy. The Macartney mission
to China 1792–1794, London: Wellsweep, 1993, pp. 57–79.
3 Jones, The European miracle, pp. 202–22; Joel Mokyr, The lever of riches: technological creativity and
economic progress, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 209–38; David Landes, ‘East is east and
west is west’, in Maxine Berg and Kristine Bruland, eds., Technological revolutions in Europe: historical
perspectives, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 1998, pp. 19–38.
4For the most recent discussion see Simon Schaffer, ‘L’inventaire de l’astronome. Le commerce
d’instruments scientifiques au xviiie sie `cle (Angleterre-Chine-Pacifique)’, Annales: Histoire, Sciences Sociales,
60, 4, juillet–aou ˆt 2005, pp. 791–815. Another version of this article will be published as ‘Instruments as cargo
in the China trade’, History of Science, 44, 2006, pp. 1–30. On Chinese responses to the embassy as set within
wider frameworks of Chinese science, and especially astronomy, see Harriet Zurndorfer, ‘Comment la science
et la technologie se vendaient a ` la Chine au XVIIIe sie `cle. Essai d’analyse interne’, E´tudes Chinoises, 7, 1988,
5British Library, India Office Records (henceforth BL, IOR), ‘An account of sundry articles purchased by Francis
Baring Esq., Chairman ... consigned to the care of ... Lord Viscount Macartney’, Lord Macartney’s Embassy
to China. Miscellaneous Letters 1792–5, Factory Records China and Japan 1596–1840, G/12/92, pp. 545–86.
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Library,6and it will analyse the listing and valuation of objects gathered by Boulton. It will
argue that the projected embassy was an opportunity for an industrial and scientific exhibi-
tion, a showcase of Europe’s and especially Britain’s ‘industrial enlightenment’ as recently
conceptualized by Joel Mokyr in his The gifts of Athena.7The failure of the Expedition
was a failure in diplomacy, geopolitics and cultural understanding for its British partici-
pants. It was also, however, a failure to grasp the opportunity to display new British pro-
ducts and technologies as a part of enlightened scientific progress. The aims of
the expedition and the goods taken on it instead depicted confused issues of empire, tribute,
commerce and science. The gifts ultimately chosen for the embassy differed from those that
would have conveyed Britain’s distinctive advantages and prospects. Macartney’s own views
on what he was doing and what he saw, his correspondence with Britain’s industrial leaders,
notably Samuel Garbett and Matthew Boulton, and the descriptions and lists of items both
considered for and eventually taken to China need to be added to the official accounts.
The article first sets out European perceptions of China’s place in world trade in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, followed by a summary of the events of the Macartney
Embassy. Aspects of the embassy will then be addressed in some depth: the embassy as a dis-
play of enlightened knowledge; the background of the embassy in trade and empire; and the
preparations of the embassy, especially in gathering objects and people. The article will then
investigate Matthew Boulton’s role in the preparations, his perceptions of China, and the list
of objects he compiled for the embassy. This list will be compared with the list of objects
actually taken, and the article concludes with a discussion of British manufacturers’ percep-
tions of potential markets in China, and how they could be developed.
The Macartney Embassy – background
Consciousness of China’s commercial might and its impact on European society was not
something new to the eighteenth century. The voyages of discovery of the sixteenth century
and the East India Companies founded from the seventeenth century extended awareness of
and access to the fabled empire only reached previously via the overland silk route. The
voyages opened trade and a sense of a world economy. That world economy brought greater
access to Asian consumer societies. Asian consumer goods – cottons, especially muslins and
printed calicoes, silk, porcelain, ornamental brass and ironware, lacquer and paper goods –
became imported luxuries in Europe.
By the later eighteenth century the British had experienced China through the large-scale
importation and adaptation of luxury consumer goods. Products ranging from porcelain
and silk to lacquer and cane ware furnishings and wallpaper radically transformed upper-
and middle-class material culture. But it was tea drinking, and especially so after the
The Catalogue of presents is reprinted in J. L.Cranmer-Byng, ‘A case study in cultural collision: scientific
apparatus in the Macartney Embassy to China, 1793’, Annals of Science, 38, 1981, pp. 503–25, 520–3.
6 Birmingham Central Library, Matthew Boulton Papers, China Trade, Lord Macartney’s Embassy,
1792, MS 3782/12/93 (henceforth BCL, MBP, Macartney’s Embassy). On Matthew Boulton see
H. W. Dickinson, Matthew Boulton, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1937.
7 Joel Mokyr, The gifts of Athena. Historical origins of the knowledge economy, Princeton,
NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002, pp. 9–15.
B R I T A I N , I N D U S T R Y A N D P E R C E P T I O N S O F C H I N Aj
commutation of the tea tax in 1784, that placed China at the centre of the everyday lives of
almost all in Britain. Tea made enormous demands on outflows of bullion to China. The
British purchased £1,300,000 worth of tea in Canton in 1786, and paid out for nearly
half of this in silver bullion rather than other export goods.8
By the late eighteenth century British manufacturers had created a new range of consu-
mer products – textiles, earthenware, metal wares and machinery, paper goods, ornamental
ware and novelties. They sold in diverse markets at home, in Europe and in the Americas.
Policymakers and merchants now sought in China a potential market for a range of new
and very different British goods.
Part of the attraction of the new British products was in the modernity of their response
to the quantities and quality of Asian luxury products: by using different raw materials and
sources of energy such as coal, as well as sophisticated systems of division of labour and
mechanization, British manufacturers could substitute for Asian advantages. These were
the new consumer goods with which Britain by the beginning of the 1790s could claim
pre-eminence in Europe. They were fashionable, highly desirable and distinctively British.
The advances of science and technology with which they were associated made them a
part of the Enlightenment. Key figures of the Lunar Society, Matthew Boulton and Josiah
Wedgwood understood their achievement in comparison with China, and seriously enter-
tained the prospect of new markets for their products in the place that had originally
inspired their inventions and new products.9
The Macartney Embassy provided a conduit for the ideas held by British statesmen, mer-
chants and manufacturers on recent British advances in science, technology and consumer-
goods production. Joel Mokyr, in The gifts of Athena, placed these advances at the heart of
what he defined as the ‘industrial Enlightenment’. Close connections between a scientific
culture of ‘open science’ and scientific method on the one hand, and technological practice
and artisan tacit knowledge on the other, yielded a distinctive ‘useful knowledge’. This was
a ‘western useful knowledge’ which underlay the origins of the Industrial Revolution, and
provided another explanation for the divergence between Europe and Asia.10The Macart-
ney Embassy, however, reveals less unity in enlightened, political and mercantile approaches
to China. Ideas of scientific achievement were frequently at cross-purposes with the wider
concept of ‘useful knowledge’. The factors undermining the Macartney Embassy were cer-
tainly about misapprehension of cultural differences between East and West, and much
has been written about these. But they were also about missing connections between
scientific and technological cultures at home. Big differences in aspirations and practical
8 Holden Furber, Rival empires of trade in the Orient, 1600–1800, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota
Press, 1976, pp. 131, 177, 175; Hoh-Cheung and Lorna H. Mui, Shops and shopkeeping in eighteenth-century
England, London: Routledge, 1989, p. 250; Hoh-Cheung and Lorna H. Mui, ‘Trends in eighteenth-century
smuggling reconsidered’, Economic History Review, 28, 1975, pp. 28–43, p. 42; Also see Hoh-Cheung and
Lorna H. Mui, ‘Smuggling and the British tea trade before 1784’, American Historical Review, 74, 1968,
pp. 44–73; David Mackay, In the wake of Cook. Exploration, science and empire, 1780–1801, London:
Croom Helm, 1985, pp. 181–2.
9 See the case I have made for this invention of new British products in Maxine Berg, Luxury and pleasure
in eighteenth-century Britain, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. On Wedgwood’s and Boulton’s
responses to Chinese products, see Robin Reilly, Wedgwood, 2 vols., London: Macmillan, 1989, vol. 1,
pp. 87, 143; Rose Kerr and Nigel Wood, ‘Ceramic technology’, in Science and civilization in China, vol. 5:
Chemistry and chemical technology, part 12, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 740–72.
10Mokyr, The gifts of Athena, pp. 28–77.
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