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Imperial Twilight

Format: Hardcover, 592 pages
Publisher: Knopf
On Sale: 05/15/2018
Price: $35.00
ISBN: 978-0-307-96173-0
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open close ABOUT THE BOOK
As China reclaims its position as a world power, Imperial Twilight looks back to tell the story of the country's last age of ascendance and how it came to an end in the nineteenth-century Opium War.

When Britain launched its first war on China in 1839, pushed into hostilities by profiteering drug merchants and free-trade interests, it sealed the fate of what had long been seen as the most prosperous and powerful empire in Asia, if not the world. But internal problems of corruption, popular unrest, and dwindling finances had weakened China far more than was commonly understood, and the war would help set in motion the eventual fall of the Qing dynasty—which, in turn, would lead to the rise of nationalism and communism in the twentieth century. As one of the most potent turning points in the country's modern history, the Opium War has since come to stand for everything that today's China seeks to put behind it.

In this dramatic, epic story, award-winning historian Stephen Platt sheds new light on the early attempts by Western traders and missionaries to "open" China—traveling mostly in secret beyond Canton, the single port where they were allowed—even as China's imperial rulers were struggling to manage their country's decline and Confucian scholars grappled with how to use foreign trade to China's advantage. The book paints an enduring portrait of an immensely profitable—and mostly peaceful—meeting of civilizations at Canton over the long term that was destined to be shattered by one of the most shockingly unjust wars in the annals of imperial history. Brimming with a fascinating cast of British, Chinese, and American individuals, this riveting narrative of relations between China and the West has important implications for today's uncertain and ever-changing political climate.

"Masterly . . . [Platt's] book is important reading not only for those interested in China's history but also for anyone seeking to understand the explosive intersection between trade and politics today."
—Julian Gewirtz, The Wall Street Journal

"Everyone with experience in China has heard about the legacy of the Opium War and subsequent ‘Century of Humiliation.’ But Stephen Platt presents the buildup to this confrontation in a vivid and fascinating way, which challenges many prevailing assumptions in both China and the West (including some of my own). This is narrative and analytic history of a high order, which will be read with enjoyment by audiences around the world.”
—James Fallows, author of Our Towns and China Airborne

"A vivid picture of the history of relations between Britain and China from the mid-18th century up to the outbreak of the war... This thoroughly researched and delightful work is essential for anyone interested in Chinese or British imperial history."
—Joshua Wallace, Library Journal (Starred Review)
"A deeply researched study of an early clash of civilizations, when England attempted to impose its will on East Asia… A fluent, well-written exercise in revisionism, one of interest to students of modern geopolitics as well as 19th-century history."
"A fresh perspective on the first Opium War, the conflict that allowed Western merchants to pry open China’s riches and gain unprecedented trading privileges… Platt's research is impeccably presented in this winning history of British and Chinese trade."
Publishers Weekly
STEPHEN R. PLATT is a professor of Chinese history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His last book, Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom: China, the West, and the Epic Story of the Taiping Civil War, was a Washington Post Notable Book, a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice, and won the Cundill History Prize. Platt lives with his wife and children in Northampton, Massachusetts.
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Chapter 1

A Time of Wonder


On the morning of September 26, 1792, several days of cold English rain came to an end, a light wind picked up from the north, and HMS Lion, a sixty-­four-­gun ship of the line, unfurled its sails and weighed anchor to depart the harbor at Spithead. It was a time of peace for Great Britain, and the First Lord of the Admiralty felt he could spare the vessel for a two-­year voyage to China to ensure that Lord Macartney, the ambassador who sailed on board, would arrive at the court of the Chinese emperor in a suitably impressive fashion. The Lion carried four hundred passengers and crew, and was accompanied for its journey by the Hindostan, a fifty-­six-­gun East Indiaman (a merchant ship of the East India Company’s fleet, armed as well as many a naval man-­of-­war), which carried the members of Macartney’s large entourage who couldn’t fit as passengers on the Lion, as well as most of the six hundred crates and packages of cargo that he was bringing to China as gifts for the emperor. If the voyage should meet with success, Macartney would be the first ambassador from Great Britain ever to pay his respects in China; his lone would-­be predecessor, a Lieutenant Colonel Charles Cathcart, had sailed from England five years earlier but died at sea on the long outbound journey.

Macartney had had a long if somewhat rocky career as a diplomat. A courtly and determined man with a square jaw and sharp eyes, he had been knighted at age twenty-­seven and in his younger years served as an envoy to Russia, where he would have been made ambassador if he hadn’t managed to seduce not one but two women of Empress Catherine’s court while in the country.3By the time of the embassy to China he was middle-­aged and a bit on the portly side, but still considered a fine example of British manhood. Since Russia, he had served as governor of Grenada and spent a contentious term as governor of Madras. At the end of his service in Madras he was offered, but declined, the governor-­generalship in Bengal. Macartney was proud and optimistic, and imagined himself fully prepared to accommodate the strange customs and practices of the country to which the king now sent him.

In excited anticipation of the Oriental splendor of the Chinese court—­at least as he had read about it in fanciful accounts and extrapolated from his experiences in India—­Macartney had prepared the most colorful and grandiose outfit he could muster: “a suit of spotted mulberry velvet,” as his valet described it, “with a diamond star, and his ribbon; over which he wore the full habit of the order of the Bath, with the hat, and plume of feathers, which form a part of it.”  Dressed up like a peacock, he felt certain to make a grand impression in a country that he, and most of his entourage, to say nothing of his countrymen, had only ever encountered in their imaginations.

Macartney’s mission was a joint venture of the British government and the East India Company, the latter of which bore its costs. Its primary goal was the expansion of British trade into Chinese ports north of Canton—­the same request James Flint had brought to the emperor more than thirty years earlier, with such discouraging results (though some, including Macartney himself, believed that if Britain had sent a royal ambassador to Beijing back in 1759, rather than a mere interpreter, things might have gone differently). Nevertheless, the situation for British traders in China had improved considerably in the intervening years. By 1792, the East India Company’s share of the Canton trade had grown to eclipse that of all of its continental rivals. The young United States had sent its first trading ship to Canton in 1784, almost immediately upon achieving independence, but compared to the mighty fleet of the East India Company, which sent six ships to Canton for every one of theirs, the upstart Americans still posed no competition worth speaking of.

Best of all for the East India Company, in 1784 the British government had dramatically lowered its tariff on tea imports to combat smuggling from Europe, reducing the tax from upwards of 100 percent to a flat 12.5 percent across the board, so profits were pouring in. The Company’s tea imports had tripled, and British cotton textiles were selling well to Chinese merchants in exchange. The London Times in 1791 noted hopefully that the China trade was “in the most flourishing state. All English Manufactures find a ready sale there; and the Chinese begin to think that our cottons are superior to their own.”  Thus the Company itself was actually quite lukewarm about the embassy. Its directors were comfortable in their supremacy, suitably rich, and deeply aware of precedent (or rather the lack thereof) in their direct relations with the Chinese throne. They worried that any new requests from Britain might be taken as impertinence, offending the emperor and damaging rather than advancing their trade in Canton. But industrialists in northern England were demanding expanded markets for their goods, so an optimistic home secretary made sure that the mission went forward against the Company’s misgivings.

The sailing routes from England to Macao and Canton in south China were well known thanks to a long history of direct trade, but the Lion’s planned course beyond Canton, up the coast of China and through the Yellow Sea to Beijing, was as yet uncharted by European sailors. So to command the Lion, Macartney chose a Royal Navy captain, Sir Erasmus Gower, who had been around the world twice and was experienced at the careful business of navigating large ships through unknown waters. No expense was spared; the government gave Gower the freedom to choose all of his own officers, of whom he brought an outsized complement of what one member of the embassy proudly described as “young gentlemen, of the most respected families, glowing with all the ardour and enterprise of youth.” 

Dangers aside, the unknown nature of the waters through which they were planning to sail was one of the main attractions of the voyage, an ancillary goal of which was to gather naval intelligence. The Yellow Sea was bordered by both the Qing Empire and Korea, and “no fairer occasion,” one passenger noted, “could offer for penetrating into it, and adding so much to marine knowledge, without creating suspicion or giving offence to the court of Beijing.”  After all, there was no way for Macartney to get to Beijing without sailing through that unknown sea, unless he were somehow to disembark in Canton and travel a thousand miles overland to the capital with his entire retinue and many tons of fragile baggage. If nothing else, a basic chart of the coastline would open the way for other British ships in the future, of which they hoped there would be many.

The essential strategy of Macartney’s mission was reflected in the presents that crowded the hold of the Hindostan. Some were industrial goods—­textiles and manufactures—­that the British hoped Chinese traders might be induced to purchase, thus opening new avenues of commerce. Even more important, though, were the scientific and mechanical gifts, which represented the most recent technological developments in Europe. The British assumed that these were unknown in China, and since the public at home viewed them with wonder there was no reason to think they would amaze and delight the Chinese any less. Macartney, and the British government, hoped that the mission’s technical marvels (to say nothing of the combined 120 guns of the Lion and Hindostan) would gently impress upon the emperor of China the power of British civilization and, consequent to that, convince him of the great value and importance of the two countries’ trade.

Among those presents was a gigantic planetarium that had taken thirty years to build and was deemed “the most wonderful piece of mechanism ever emanating from human hands.”  There were giant lenses of every description. There were globes of the stars and earth, two carriages even more ornate than the king’s own (one for the emperor’s use in summer and the other for winter), “chemical and philosophical apparatuses,” several brass field guns, a sampling of muskets and swords, howitzer mortars, two “magnificent” lustres (elaborate chandeliers that could illuminate a room) packed in fourteen cases, vases, clocks, an air pump, Wedgwood china, artwork depicting everyday life in England, paintings of military battles on land and sea, portraits of the royal family, and other articles worth a total of £14,000. Beyond just impressing the Chinese with the greatness of British science and industry, the Times expressed a wish that men of letters could go along with Macartney as well. “We could almost wish Boswell were to take a trip with them to China,” it said, “provided he kept, during the voyage, a literary log book.” 

The embassy’s mechanical expert was a Scot named James Din­widdie, an astronomer and natural philosopher. He was respon­sible for the elaborate planetarium as well as the demonstrative experiments—­including a diving bell and a hot-­air balloon—­that he planned to show off to Macartney’s Chinese hosts. The balloon was a new invention, and it was dangerous (one could fall out, crash, get swept away by a storm, explode if using hydrogen, or strand oneself in a treetop), and in England Dinwiddie refrained from going up in one himself. Nevertheless, by the time of Macartney’s embassy he had established himself as one of the foremost experts on such devices in Europe. He was just the man, in the later words of his grandson, “to surprise the Chinese with the power, learning, and ingenuity of the British people,” and when the ambassador invited him along to China he immediately said yes, resolving that he would make his very first ascent in a balloon in Beijing, for the benefit of the Chinese emperor and the awe of his people.

The ships’ most important cargo of all, however, was a letter from King George III to Qianlong, the emperor of China. It was a wondrous example of overblown diplomatic language in which the British monarch bent over backwards to address Qianlong as he imagined Qianlong might wish to be addressed. Thus King George referred to him as “the Supreme Emperor of China . . . ​worthy to live tens of thousands and tens of thousands thousand years.” He declared that the English had come to China not for conquest (which was true), and neither had they come for mere profit (which was not). Rather, he claimed, Britain’s sole purpose in sending the mission was for the sake of discovery and to better their own civilization. He spoke of China in the most glowing terms. “Above all,” he insisted, “our ardent wish has been to become acquainted with those celebrated institutions of your Majesty’s populous and extensive empire which have carried its prosperity to such a height as to be the admiration of all surrounding nations.” 

The king’s lofty language wasn’t just a show for his royal counterpart—­it appeared in his private instructions to Macartney as well. There, he described the Chinese as “a people, perhaps the most singular upon the globe, among whom civilization had existed, and the arts been cultivated, through a long series of ages, with fewer interruptions than elsewhere.”  Likewise, the chairman and deputy chairman of the East India Company in London, in a separate private communication to Macartney, referred favorably to “the known character of the Emperor for wisdom, justice and equity.”  The corruption and difficulty of working with local officials in Canton was well known, but the British in both government and trade at this time shared a deep admiration for China’s overall imperial system of governance and faith in the personal virtue and wisdom of its ruler.

One of the most challenging obstacles to mounting the mission had turned out to be language. Macartney needed an interpreter, but in 1792, as far as the organizers of the mission could tell, there was not a single person in Britain or any of its far-­flung territories who could speak Chinese.18 James Flint had recently died, and in the thirty years since his arrest and banishment the East India Company had given up encouraging its personnel to study the language. When in the country, they relied entirely on native interpreters, but nobody knew for sure whether any of those linguists had a vocabulary sufficient for diplomatic niceties, nor whether they would even be willing to accompany a foreigner to Beijing given the well-­known fate of Flint’s Chinese teacher.

The job of finding an interpreter fell to Macartney’s longtime secretary, Sir George Leonard Staunton, an old friend who would be the number-­two-­ranking member of the embassy. Staunton, a baronet, was a physician with an inordinately large nose who saw the quest for a Chinese interpreter as a fine chance to improve the education of his eleven-­year-­old son, George Thomas Staunton, who had never in his life seen a Chinese person but would be coming along as Macartney’s page. Young George (who shared his father’s nose) was a sickly and timid child, and Staunton had determined that what the boy lacked in physical strength he would make up for in education and worldliness. Perhaps to compensate for having been absent in India with Macartney for the first four years of the boy’s life, Staunton doted on his son and made him into something of a philosophical experiment. He took him to scientific lectures, hired private tutors instead of enrolling him in ordinary schools, forbade him to read fairy tales, and tried to indoctrinate him with a grounded love of the natural world. The two traveled throughout England to see and learn about the latest developments in agriculture, mining, and manufacturing—­a living education if there ever was one.

It was toward this end that he brought the boy along with him on his hunt through Europe in the winter and spring of 1792 to find someone who could speak Chinese. Catholic missionaries from the continent had in small numbers been traveling to and from China since the early seventeenth century, and were generally the only thread other than trade to link those two ends of the world. Staunton’s best hope of finding one was in Italy, which had long been a base for the Jesuit missions to China until they were driven out by Qianlong’s grandfather in the early eighteenth century (and later suppressed in Europe as well). The Vatican was said to employ a handful of educated Chinese to curate its collection of Oriental manuscripts, so that was their fallback destination. But France was closer, so for their first step father and son sailed the Channel in the wet chill of January 1792 and took a carriage overland from Calais to see if they could scrounge up a returned missionary in Paris.