As they finally stood up from the strange pas-de deux , grins of amused
stupefaction spread across their faces. Recognizing that something quite
unprecedented had just transpired on this stage, the Chinese audience, too, was
going berserk, clapping, laughing, hooting, and cheering in a state of
So, what was it that had happened?• • • • •
Ever since King George III dispatched George Viscount
Macartney of Dervock to Beijing in 1793 to exchange ambassadors with the Qing
Dynasty, interactions between China and the West have revolved around the
prickly historical question of who was stronger than the other and thus who
would genuflect to whom. After a long and complex negotiation over whether he
would kowtow to the Qianglong Emperor, Lord Macartney failed in his mission to
convince the still powerful Chinese to allow a British ambassador to take up
permanent residence in Beijing.
When Macartney appeared in Beijing to demand equal
relations, China was still strong and he was met by much imperial incredulity.
After all, the Middle Kingdom had never accepted emissaries from other
countries as anything more than inferior "tribute bearing" supplicants who
might periodically be allowed to travel to Beijing bearing gifts for the Son of
Heaven. Accepted as equals? Never! When Macartney was told that he must kowtow --
bow and touch his head to the floor -- before the emperor, he refused. "Being
the representative of the first monarch of the Western world, his dignity must
be the measure of my conduct," he wrote in his diary.
Two months of wrangling ensued over the vexing question of
the manner of genuflection Macartney would be required to make to the emperor.
The deadlock was at last broken when the Chinese thought to ask what the
"ceremony of presentation to the King of England." Macartney
explained that subjects kneeled upon one knee and then kissed his majesty's
hand. "Why then, cried they," Macartney reported his Chinese counterparts as
responding, "Can't you do so for the Emperor?"
"'Most readily,' said I," replied Macartney. "The ceremony I
perform to my own King I am willing to go through for your emperor, and I think
it a greater compliment than any other I can pay him."
Alas, another problem of equivalence emerged. "Soon after
the Legate arrived, and declared that it was finally determined to adopt the
English ceremony, only that, as it was not the custom in China to kiss the
Emperor's hand, he proposed I should kneel on both knees instead of it [one
knee]," wrote Macartney. "I told him I had already given my answer, which was
to kneel upon one knee only on those occasions when it was usual for the
Chinese to prostrate themselves."
It is easy to see in this exchange how difficult it was,
even during this first encounter, to bridge the culture gap and to work out the
niceties of relative East-West status. As Lord Macartney noted in his diary,
"Thus ended this curious negotiation which has given me a tolerable insight
into the character of this Court, and that political address upon which they so
much value themselves." Perhaps the main "insight" Macartney glimpsed was that
maintaining face in a culture where equality can never be presumed involves an
infinitely complex negotiation over symbolism. Before departing Beijing, Lord
Macartney was moved to conclude with some discouragement that, "The Chinese
character seems at present inexplicable."