China and the Lure of Global Capitalism

Macabe Keliher in the Boston Review:

In September 1793, British envoy Lord Macartney was given a tour of the Qing summer palace north of Beijing. Earlier in his trip he presented the Qianlong emperor with gifts of two enameled watches of “very fine workmanship,” a telescope, Birmingham sword blades, and fine British clothes, among other items meant to awe the aging monarch with the superiority of British technology and manufacturing and convince him to sign a trade agreement.

When the emperor’s personal assistant and two of the Qing’s most decorated generals led him around buildings filled with treasures and mechanical devices, however, Macartney was aghast. “The pavilions are all furnished in the richest manner,” he wrote, “with spheres, orreries, clocks, and musical automatons of such exquisite workmanship, and in such profusion, that our presents must shrink from the comparison and ‘hide their diminished heads.’” Nor was the emperor impressed: he sent Macartney back with a stern reply to King George, “As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things . . . and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”

More here.