The generally excellent blog Jottings from the Granite Studio has an interesting post up on practical learning. The post is about the tendency of American universities to be too specialized, which I more or less agree with, but he uses a historical comparison I don’t much care for. Yes, it’s the Qianlong emperor’s reply to Lord Macartney, the most widely used quote from a pre-modern Chinese in Western writings on China, and perhaps the most often misused. Lord Macartney was sent to China in 1793 to negotiate the opening of more ports to British trade. The mission failed for any number of reasons, but it is constantly brought up as an example of the failure of the Chinese to comprehend the modern world. In particular Qianlong’s lack of interest in the clocks and mechanical devices the British presented them with is always presented as a repudiation of Science and Rationality in favor of Stasis and Tradition. Granite Studio
The Qianlong Emperor and his officials smirked at the pretty clocks the British kept presenting as gifts to the throne, dismissing them as mere toys, not realizing that the same precision instruments needed to make intricate clockworks are equally useful for making advanced artillery, rifles, and the instruments of war.
This is based on a couple of lines in the Qianlong emperor’s letter to George III, where he said.
The Celestial Empire, ruling all within the four seas, simply concentrates on carrying out the affairs of government properly, and does not value rare and precious things…[W]e have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your Country’s manufactures
I have a number of problems with this. I am not particularly interested in defending the honor of the Qianlong emperor, but the way this event is used, (and it is used a lot) is not very good history. For one thing, to expect anyone in 1793 to look at a mechanical clock and see the industrial revolution is wildly anachronistic. Clocks and clockwork go way back and nobody at the time even knew the industrial revolution was happening. Qianlong was in fact correct, there were few things that the British could sell in China at a profit (hence the opium trade.) Although Lord Macartney was proud of his nation’s manufactures and was in favor of an increase in Trade had you suggested to him that he represented the King of a nation of shopkeepers he probably would have had his servants give you a good thrashing. He was apparently much impressed with his hosts at the Qing court, and the whole mission is hard to fit into the modern stories we like to tell about the backward Chinese.
More importantly although the failure of the mission was later fit into narratives of Chinese backwardness and irrationality, that is not how the it was seen at the time. As Hevia p. 238 points out, this document was not even translated into English until 1896 and nobody at the time saw it as being of any importance. Quite a lot of interesting work has been done, by Hevia and others, on what the mission can tell us about the Qing, Empire, and such, but the old narrative still seems quite popular.