UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Ignorant gaze : George Macartney's negotiation with China in 1793 Zhang, Angela M.


Preserved in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, the kesi (silk tapestry) of the British Embassy has been exhibited in the context of Europe’s economic, cultural and exploitative encounters with the Americas, Africa and Asia. The kesi, which has contributed to the misinterpretation of China’s practice of foreign relations, provides invaluable insight into the political strategies of the Qianlong Emperor in the face of British imperialism. The work commemorates the infamous meeting between the Emperor and the English ambassador George Macartney in 1793. The event marks the failed negotiation between two incommensurable power systems due to conflicting interests and grave misunderstandings on both sides. Yet in English and Chinese language histories, the failed negotiation is often attributed to the backwardness of China’s practice of foreign relations. Within the context of historical writing and museum display, the kesi is made to emphasize the Emperor’s cultural blindness and ignorance of the changing world beyond China. A closer reading of the kesi will reveal that its image and inscription integrates the zhigong tu genre (the official documentation of China’s foreign relations) and li (the guiding principle of China’s foreign relations). I will argue that the emperor employed the zhigong tu genre and li to assert the power of the Qing Empire and divert his criticism of British imperialism. Pictorially the kesi follows the power structuring process of li by emphasizing the contingent relationship between the supreme lord (the Qianlong Emperor) and the lesser lord (George Macartney). The kesi’s inscription, composed by the Emperor himself, embodies the core of China’s tributary practice: “In my kindness to men from afar I make generous return.” Thus far, the kesi channels the conventions of zhigong tu and manifests the principles of li. During the Qing Dynasty, the Qianlong Emperor’s materialization of his power through the appropriation of zhigong tu and li was necessary to foster domestic confidence. The kesi, marking the end of China’s tributary practice, can be alternatively understood as the Emperor’s last capacity to maintain internal stability through the Chinese tributary system.

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