Europe in China/Chapter 2


International Relations.

A.D. 1625 to 1834.

During the whole period above reviewed, the relations between the Chinese Government and the East India Company had been conducted on the express understanding, which for nearly two centuries was tacitly acquiesced in by the Company, that China claims the sovereignty over all under heaven; that trade, whether retail or wholesale, is a low degrading occupation, fit only for the lower classes beneath the contempt of the Chinese gentry, literati and officials; but that the Emperor of China, as the father of all human beings, is merciful even to barbarians, and as their existence seems to depend upon periodical supplies of silk, rhubarb and tea, the Emperor permits the foreign traders at Canton to follow their base instincts and allows them to make money for themselves by this trade, subject to official surveillance, restrictions and penalties. At the same time, though permitted to reside at intervals in the suburbs of Canton, foreigners must not suppose that they are the equals even of the lowest of the Chinese people; they must not presume to enter the city gates under any pretext whatever, nor travel inland, nor take into their service any natives except those belonging to the Pariah caste of the boat population (known as Ham-shui), forbidden by law to live on shore or to compete at literary examinations. So long as the Company's Supercargoes, and other foreign .merchants resorting to Canton, silently accepted the degrading status thus assigned to them, and tacitly acknowledged the political supremacy and the Heaven-bestowed jurisdiction of the Chinese Government, things went on tolerably and trade continued in spite of all restrictions.

The Chinese were confirmed in this low estimate of foreign character and culture by the to them singular fact that, with very rare exceptions, none of those foreigners seemed able to learn the Chinese language nor even to conceive any appreciation of Chinese history, philosophy or literature, besides shewing utter incapacity to comprehend the principles of Chinese polity, morality and etiquette. Nor did these barbarians exhibit any symptoms of religious life, so far as the Chinese could observe, to whom they appeared to have no soul whatever above dollars and sensual pleasures. The more the Chinese saw of foreigners, the less they found themselves able to classify them with other nations like the Coreans, Japanese, Loochooans, Annamese or Tibetans, all of whom readily appreciated and adopted Chinese culture and Chinese forms of religion and etiquette. Hence they could only characterize the barbarians from Europe or America as 'foreign devils.'

The first intimation the Chinese received of a superior moral power, inherent in the character of foreigners, was conveyed to them by contact with officers of the British navy. When the first British man-of-war, the Centaur, arrived in Chinese waters (November, 1741), the Hoppo's officers pretended not to understand any difference between a ship of His Majesty, and an East India Company's trader. They insisted upon measuring the Centaur, and coolly demanded the usual trade charges. However, her commander, Commodore Anson, very quietly and good-naturedly resisted all pretensions and by sheer force of character, combined with judicious menaces, brushed all objections aside, and forced his ship without positive hostilities through the Bogue and up to Whampoa. On arrival there, he fairly took away the breath of the Chinese officials by notifying them that he proposed to call in person on the Viceroy to pay his respects to His Excellency, which was his bounden duty as the Officer of His Majesty King George II. of Great Britain and Ireland, and that 'there must be no breach of etiquette.' The unparalleled boldness of this typical British tar was so novel to the Chinese Authorities that it cowed them completely. The Viceroy admitted the importunate sailor to a personal interview, treated him to cold tea and ice-cold etiquette, and not until the Commodore set sail and left Chinese waters did the Chinese Authorities recover their breath and resume their former policy of undisguised contempt for all foreigners. However, on the next occasion (February, 1791), when His Majesty's Ships Leopard and Thames arrived and desired to follow the precedent set by Commodore Anson, they found things changed. The Chinese officials now stubbornly refused to allow the ships to enter the Bogue and the officers had to content themselves with a flying personal visit to the port and suburbs of Canton. Nevertheless the next visitor, Captain Maxwell, of H. M. S. Alceste (November 12th, 1816), was determined to follow the example of Commodore Anson. On arrival at the Bogue, a Chinese officer boarded the Alceste and informed the Captain that, before proceeding any further, he must obtain the security of two Hong merchants and declare the nature of his cargo. The gallant Captain pointed to his biggest guns as his security and declared the only cargo carried by a British man-of-war to be powder and shot. Thereupon the frightened officer beat a hasty retreat and subsequently sent on board a stern refusal to allow the ship to enter the Bogue. In reply, Captain Maxwell politely informed the commanders of the Bogue forts of the exact hour when he intended to pass through the Bogue, and, after giving them ample time to make all their preparations, he gallantly ran the gauntlet of the Bogue forts, under sail, leisurely returning the fire of the forts after aiming and firing the first gun with his own hands. Though becalmed within range of the forts, he succeeded in pushing his way to Whampoa without serious casualty on his own side. After anchoring there, Captain Maxwell resumed his communications with the Chinese officials with the utmost good nature, and the Chinese Government, likewise ignoring what had happened, allowed him to do just as he pleased until he took his ship away. But no direct official intercourse was accorded to Captain Maxwell in spite of his bravery.

The several Embassies that were sent with autograph letters from King George III, accompanied by costly presents and much pomp of showy retinue, had even less effect upon the attitude which the Tatsing Dynasty assumed towards foreign commerce, than the servile bribes and presents of the East India Company's Supercargoes or the periodical demonstrations of British pluck by His Majesty's naval officers. Lord Macartney's Embassy (A.D. 1792), sent forth by George III, with strong complaints and sanguine expectations, was treated by the Chinese Government as a deputation of tribute-bearers, like those that periodically came from the Loochoo Islands. Lord Amherst's Embassy (A.D. 1815), vainly expected to result in the establishment of diplomatic intercourse with Peking, was treated politely but strictly as a tribute-bearing commission. When Lord Amherst lingered, hoping to be allowed to remain near the Court, he was quietly told that it was high time for him to petition for the issue of his passport and be off. Henceforth the chroniclers of the Tatsing Dynasty complacently recorded the fact of Great Britain having been formally admitted to a place in the list of the nations tributary to China by voluntary submission.

Nevertheless both the bold appearance of British frigates in Chinese waters and the humble presentation at Court of British Ambassadors had a certain amount of effect in impressing the Chinese people with the conviction that Europeans after all were considerably above the ordinary class of barbarians known to them.

Special instances of the steadily increasing importance of the British navy were not wanting. In the years 1802 and 1808 British marines occupied Macao to protect the Portuguese settlement against a threatened attack by the French. In the former year the troops were not withdrawn, in spite of irate protests by the Cantonese Authorities, until peace with Franoe was restored. In the hitter year Admiral Drury withdrew his men again and abstained from forcino- his way up to Canton in order to please the East India Company's Committee and to avoid interference with trade. Again, in the year 1814, H.B.M. Frigate Doris cruized in Canton waters to intercept American ships, and when the Viceroy instructed the Committee to order her off, the Committee, to the surprise of the Chinese officials, declared that they had no power whatever in the matter and were quite willing that trade, as threatened by the Viceroy, should be stopped. The Committee, moreover, by adroit management, improved the opportunity so as to obtain from the frightened Viceroy important concessions, viz. the right to send Chinese petitions to the Governor of Canton under seal, to employ native servants without restraint and to have their dwellings secure from Chinese intrusion.

The gradual development of the British navy not only impressed the Chinese authorities but served the purpose of enabling foreign merchants to take a firmer attitude towards Chinese pretences of political and judicial supremacy. Foreign merchants never consented to formally acknowledge their subjection to Chinese criminal jurisdiction, though they were often compelled by sheer force to submit to it. But not until the year 1822 were the Chinese distinctly informed that foreigners refused on principle to submit to Chinese jurisdiction.

In the year 1750 the French surrendered to the Chinese Authorities one of their seamen, and again in 1780. In 1784 the English surrendered a gunner who, in firing a salute, had accidentally killed a native, and they actually submitted to his being executed by strangling. In 1807 again a British sailor was surrendered, and though Captain Rolles, of H.M.S. Lion, obtained his release, a fine of $20 was paid. In 1821 the Americans surrendered a foreigner (Terranuova) to Chinese jurisdiction and submitted to his being strangled. But in the very next year, when two natives were killed in a scuffle with men of H.M.S. Topaze, the British commander, assisted by Dr. Morrison as interpreter, made it quite clear that a recognition of Chinese claims of jurisdiction over British seamen and particularly over men-of-war's crews was entirely out of the question. Thenceforth no foreigner was surrendered to a Chinese Court.

In 1831 a curious episode occurred, illustrating the strained international relations which had gradually arisen. In spring 1831 the Select Committee of the East India Company took upon itself to enlarge the garden in front of their factory by reclaiming a narrow strip of foreshore. Soon after, when the merchants had all retired to Macao for the summer, the Governor of Canton, resenting the unauthorized reclamation, came in person to the British factory and ordered the premises to be forthwith restored to their previous condition. Meanwhile he walked into the Select Committee's dining room where a life-size picture, representing George IV. as Prince Regent, was hanging. On being informed that it was the portrait of the then reigning King of England, the Governor took a chair and deliberately sat down with his back turned to the picture. The Select Committee reported this deliberate insult to their Directors and the merchants used various means of making their indignation known to the Chinese officials. One of their defenders publicly alleged (September 15, 1831) that the Governor disavowed any intentional disrespect and blamed the Committee for desecrating the picture by exhibiting it without a curtain of Imperial yellow and for omitting to place in front of it an altar with frankincense. Lord William Bentinck, then Governor-General of India, addressed (August 27, 1831) a letter to the Governor demanding an explanation, but took no further steps when the Governor, whilst refusing to notice Lord Bentinck's letter, issued (January 7, 1832), an edict denying the imputation. The picture in question (by Sir T. Lawrence) now graces the dining room of the Government House of Hongkong, whither it was removed from Macao in February 1842.

All these experiences impressed the Chinese Authorities with the conviction that the claim of extra-territorial jurisdiction was but a symptom of a deeper seated claim of international rights, the concession of which would be the deathblow to China's sovereignty over all the nations of the earth.