East meets West

The series of meetings that took place outside Beijing in September 1793 between Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Great State and George Macartney, envoy from George III, did not go well. Macartney’s insistence that full respect be shown to his monarch ruffled Manchu feathers, and the emperor’s categorical refusal to make trade or diplomatic concessions frustrated British ambition. Every concession that Macartney lobbied for, Qianlong turned down. Every regulation that Qianlong confirmed, Macartney wanted removed. The two regarded each other across the gap that imperial presumption opened up between them, a gap that both men understood, albeit based on very different experience and knowledge of the world. Qianlong understood himself as presiding over the largest, most powerful policy in the world, which was close to the truth. Macartney saw himself as representing the most expansive and dynamic policy in the world, which was also close to the truth. But as Macartney was the supplicant and Qianlong was on home ground, the summit went Qianlong’s way.

We are still under the long shadow of that meeting, and it is worth asking why. It used to be thought, back in the 1960s and 1970s, that Qianlong was hopelessly out of touch with the world beyond his borders. But that’s too simple. He had people around him who knew about Britain’s ascendancy in South Asia. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was thought that Macartney was out of his depth in misjudging the nature of a Manchu polity whose doors he hoped to push open, allowing British goods and merchants to enter. The rise of global history over the past two decades has put both judgments in abeyance. We now see Great Britain and the Qing Great State as co-generators of a global shift in wealth and power. Qianlong’s empire was heading towards a financial crisis he had yet to detect. George’s empire was experimenting with financial networks that would more than make up for the loss of the United States, to a degree neither the king nor his advisers could yet perceive. The contraction of the one and the expansion of the other resulted in conflicts that would haunt the next two centuries and beyond: opium wars, imperial collapse, two world wars, Communist revolutions – almost anything else you want to include. The poltergeists are still in the building.

Did this have to happen? Did imperialism, slavery and civil war have to define the modern world? Many historians, and I am one, do not find it useful to treat what happened as what had to happen. There is too much contingency at every moment of human interaction and political life to declare that history had to take the path it took, that the present is the only possible outcome of the past. The past is essential to analysing how we got here, but that doesn’t mean here is the destination we had to reach.

Henrietta Harrison agrees. In this closely documented return to that meeting in 1793, she seeks answers not by invoking big ideas and grand forces, or great men and their follies, nor by retreating to earlier historiographies. Instead she turns to the little people who shaped the all-important details and nuances of that meeting, the minor actors without whom the great drama could never have unfolded, and certainly not in the ways it did: the interpreters. Harrison singles out two young men in particular. One is Li Zibiao, born in 1760 in northwest China, who entered the College of the Holy Family in Naples, known as the Chinese College, at the age of thirteen. The other is George Thomas Staunton, born in 1781 to an ambitious Anglo-Irish family, who at the age of twelve, having been taught Chinese while accompanying his father as part of Macartney’s mission, was put before the emperor to say a few polite words by way of greeting. The two met in 1792, when George’s father traveled to Naples looking for Chinese interpreters for the Macartney delegation. Harrison digs equally in Chinese and European archives, finding abundant vivid material from which to reconstruct their stories, weaving them together to rewrite the opening chapter of Sino–British relations as a series of unfortunate events in which a word, a look or a gesture could alter the course of the encounter.

Harrison anchors her interest in what she calls the perils of interpreting, perils arising from the key problem of diplomacy: trust. Not only do negotiators not trust each other, they tend to distrust their interpreters, whom they are ready to blame when their messages don’t produce the effects they want. This distrust is only compounded when the interpreter is someone born in the target culture, as was Li Zibiao when interpreting for Macartney. Even an interpreter born in the home culture is vulnerable to being suspected of “going over to the other side”, a taunt Staunton faced for the rest of his otherwise privileged life. When the interpreter does indeed go over to the other side, as some Chinese felt Li had done by dressing as an English gentleman for the mission, then smuggling himself back into China as a Catholic priest, where that interpreter find refuge in an imperial culture that thrives on sowing distrust of foreigners? Neither Li nor Staunton could have imagined, when they first crossed over into the inscrutabilites of the other language and culture, the difficulties of living in two worlds.

The heart of the issue is difference. Should interpreters diminish the differences across the language gap to bring interlocutors into empathy, or should they accentuate what each side relies on to distinguish its interests and absolutize its position? Li and Staunton both listed to the side of empathy, yet even there they did so to different ends. Staunton was a trusting twelve-year-old hoping to please the grown-ups, though he would go on to use his Chinese to build his fortune. Li was a canny adult who exploited the trust he enjoyed from both sides to pursue his own mission, adding religious toleration for Catholics to the list of six requests Macartney presented to Qianlong. Only when Qianlong explicitly rejected all his requests did a puzzled Macartney learn that he had rejected seven, not six.

Watching the interpreters at work allows us to view great events as they were taking place on the ground. It’s an invigorating re-vision, though how it revises the bigger picture is not entirely obvious. Harrison’s strength is in narrating lives lived and reminding us that the consequences were never preordained. Li and Staunton were lucky to survive their perils into old age. The two empires were less fortunate. As the war is currently under way reminds us, what unfolds in the geopolitical stratosphere is not only geopolitics. We forget the contingencies and costs to individual lives at our peril.

Timothy Brookis professor of history at the University of British Columbia. His most recent book isGreat State: China and the world2019

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