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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.
jM A X I N E B E R G
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
be reproduced in China. Thus, Macartney’s comment ‘not withstanding their vanity and
conceit, they are not above being taught’.73
Aeneas Anderson, Macartney’s personal servant during the embassy, recounted
the unpacking of some of the presents, consisting of ‘plated goods, hardware and
cutlery’, and the ‘Whole was divided between the Emperor and the Grand Choulaa’.74
Macartney himself only mentioned lustres, globes, the orrery, Vulliamy’s clocks, figures
and vases as these were put up in the Palace of Yuanmingyuan at the end of August
1793. He observed the admiration of the Emperor for the model war ship with its canons,
‘The Royal Sovereign’, valued at only £142, and of the Emperor’s grandsons for the
Derbyshire porcelain vases; they asked him to compare Chinese and Derbyshire porcelain.
Macartney replied that the British porcelain was ‘considered to be very precious of its
kind’, but that Chinese porcelain was also greatly valued in Britain for so much of it was
imported.75There was no mention of the six vases sent by Wedgwood who was more
than pleased to be sending his ceramics to China. Macartney perceived the Chinese response
to the objects as ‘tribute’ when taken on a tour of the pavilions which
are all furnished in the richest manner, with pictures of the Emperor’s huntings and
progresses; with stupendous vases of jasper and agate; with the finest porcelain and
japan, and with every kind of European toys and sing-songs ... and in such profusion,
that our presents must shrink from the comparison and ‘hide their diminished heads’.76
Macartney’s Embassy failed. His hopes of staying in Peking much beyond the month
allotted came to nought, and the Chinese hurried him out of the capital and on an overland
route back to Canton. He left another letter for the Emperor again requesting more ports
where the English could trade with China, a permanent warehouse in Peking and lower
duties on the trade in Canton. He gained none of these, but the British still did not give
up, and in 1795 sent letters and ten cases of presents from the king to the emperor via an
East Indiaman going this time to Canton.77
What does this hugely costly expedition tell us about enhancing and transferring ‘useful
knowledge’? It could be argued that this is not what the embassy was about at all: tribute
and presents serve a purpose different from those of displays of new science and technology,
industrial exhibits and trade fairs. The British had long been well immersed in the protocols
of Asian tribute ceremonies, not just in China, but also in India.78Nevertheless there was
73 Hevia, Cherishing men, p. 103.
74 Aeneas Anderson, An accurate account of Lord Macartney’s embassy to China: carefully abridged from
the original work with alterations and corrections by the editor who was also an attendant on the embassy,
London: Vernor and Hood, 1797, p. 95.
75 Cranmer-Byng, An embassy to China, p. 99.
76 Cited in Hevia, Cherishing men, p. 179.
77Morse, The chronicles, vol. 2, p. 225; Cranmer-Byng, ‘Lord Macartney’s Embassy’, p. 180.
78Natacha Eaton, ‘Between mimesis and alterity: art, gift and diplomacy in colonial India, 1770–1800’,
Comparative Studies in Society and History, 47, 2004, pp. 816–44.
jM A X I N E B E R G
enough in the directives of the embassy, the rhetoric of government ministers and in the
assemblage of the goods themselves to indicate that this embassy was to convey a set of
goods and displays to China distinctive from those that had been carried before. Most con-
nected with the embassy saw themselves as bearers of ‘enlightened values’ and the goods
they brought as indicative of recent scientific and technological progress in Europe. The
links espoused, however, between science and the arts were not carried out either in the per-
sonnel on the voyage, or in the selection of goods taken.
Macartney, himself, reflecting afterwards on the embassy while he was in Canton, wrote
an extensive report on what he firmly believed to be serious prospects in Chinese markets.
He also set out descriptions of Chinese manufactures and technology. On consumer markets
Already worthless cloth and watches seem to be indispensable necessaries to every
Gentleman at Pekin, and even to his principal attendants. Markets for woollens and
stockings could easily be developed ... Besides such woollens as have hitherto been
sent thither, I conceive that no inconsiderable quantity of what is called fleecy hosiery
would find a vent in the Northern Provinces.
These would substitute for furs, and were cheaper.79
He also entertained real possibilities for other textiles: Irish tabinetts and other linens,
and fine Manchester cottons ‘for the women, for whom the men here seem at all times
anxious to procure ornaments of every kind; especially earrings and necklaces of different
coloured stones or of glass, or gold, or gilt’. He thought European paper and glass would
succeed, as would ‘a vast variety of our hardware’. And he acutely and presciently observed
‘when the number of Consumers in so vast and populous an Empire as China is considered
there are few articles so low priced when singly taken, as collectively to be insignificant, and
when demanded by millions they rise to be of value, and cease to be below the notice even of
a great commercial Company’.80
Indeed Macartney, when turning from the indifference of the Mandarins to the
embassy’s scientific and technological novelties on display in Rehe, and speaking of more
ordinary people was at least as optimistic about their consumerism as was Matthew
Boulton. He corrected some of his earlier preconceptions on the relative backwardness of
the Chinese, writing that ‘in general I have found no people more curious, more greedy after
novelty, or more eager to increase their personal convenience than the subjects of this Coun-
try. They soon perceive the preference due to the new objects presented to them before
whatever had hitherto supplied its place among themselves.’81
Macartney admired the division of labour practised in China’s large-scale manufactures
which, combined with their low wages, gave their goods advantages in international mar-
kets, but criticized her lower-level copper and tin manufacture. He provided detailed
accounts of cotton plantations, production and its rising consumption in China.82He had
79 BL, IOR, Factory Records, China and Japan, G/12/92, Macartney to the Chair & Deputy at Canton,
India Office Correspondence, p. 375.
81Ibid., pp. 376–7.
82 Ibid., p. 386.
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
the Viceroy collect specimens of porcelain to send to Joseph Banks for analysis by chemists
and skilled artisans to contribute to improvements in Britain’s own ceramics industry.83
Joel Mokyr bases his case for an ‘industrial enlightenment’ on the close integration of
theory and practice, on a ‘useful knowledge’ made up of propositional knowledge and
empirical practice. The industrial revolution happened, he argues, because of the close social
and cultural integration among those who knew things and those who made things.84This
optimistic perspective on the close integration of science and technology during the eight-
eenth century, of an enlightenment informed by empirical practice and an inventive culture
is very persuasive. But at the end of the day, Macartney’s Embassy failed to express and to
convey this image of ‘useful knowledge’ to the Chinese ruling elite. The inconsistencies of
those who planned and took part in the embassy over their own attitudes to knowledge
and commerce as well as their assumptions about the Chinese dissipated the wider-world
impact of ‘industrial enlightenment’.
Maxine Berg teaches History at the
University of Warwick, Coventry, UK.
84 Mokyr, The gifts of Athena, pp. 35–55, 63–74, 287–91.
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