Qian Long’s (Ch’ien lung) Letter to King George III

In my readings for my Chinese Law class, there is an excerpt of the letter written by the┬áChinese Emperor, Qian Long, dated 1793, to the British King George III as an answer to the latter’s request to post a representative to the imperial court and to expend the trade with China which until then, could only be conducted by foreign traders through the port of Canton and under strict regulations.

The tone employed by the Chinese Emperor is very condescending, reflecting the Chinese conception of the world order in which China is in the most civilized country and is surrounded by barbarians. Whereas Britain pretended to treat China as an equally sovereign country – George III addressed to Qian Long as a “brother” -, China clearly felt superior. Moreover, whereas tea, silk and porcelain appeared to be absolute necessities to European countries, they had nothing to offer the Empire except some silver.

In a tone filled with condescensions and threats, Qian Long clearly didn’t measure the “rapport de force” that was in play. He wrote: “by perpetual submission to ou Throne, you may secure peace and prosperity for your country hereafter…”, and “if other nations, following your bad example, wrongfully importune my ear with further impossible requests, how will it be possible for me to treat them with easy indulgence?”. He employs a very threatening tone in the end of the letter, saying “Do not say that you were not warned in due time! Tremblingly obey an show no negligence!”

Such a response contributed to the conflicts that followed between China and Great Britain, especially the Opium War, in which China realized its weakness in military.

That was a very interesting illustration of the problems of understanding between China and the Western countries. Differences in the perception of the world order and misunderstanding of the other’s position and interests led to war.

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