British and European contacts with China 1700-1800

A previous piece covered the few contacts between the U.K. and China leading up to 1700. Many people still regard the first important contact was with the Opium Wars (1842-60) so it is interesting to continue to delve into the background of the events that led up it. The 18th century covered by this article saw a great change in attitudes to China in Britain while direct contact was still very limited.

To set the scene at around 1700 there were two strands of contact: mercantile and intellectual. British traders were keen to dislodge the Portuguese and Spanish from their very lucrative monopoly of trade with China. The ‘conquest’ of India was in the hands of the mighty English East India Company (EIC) became Britain’s main focus. Once India became the dominant cash cow bringing fortunes to many concerned with the trade, thoughts must naturally have turned to China. India had an ancient civilization that had fallen into decline; surely India's neighbor, China, might just as easily fall into Britain's lap?

However in the 18th century the general view of writers and intellectuals in Europe, including the UK, was one of admiration of China. It was considered to be an ancient and remarkable civilization, the epitome of wise government and makers of goods of great quality and beauty.

Trading with China

The traders who sailed the seas were there to make a profit. In 1557 Portugal had secured control of Macau and so a stranglehold of the Guangzhou (Canton) trade. However near the end of the century 1684 the English East India Company managed to establish their first factory (warehouse) at Guangzhou.

jakarta, dutch, massacre
Recreation of the Port of Batavia, where the terrible Massacre of the Chinese took place on the 9th of October 1740. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Image by ames Andries van der Laan available under a Creative Commons License

One event poisoned Chinese-European relations for a long time. This was the behavior of the Dutch at Jakarta (then known as Batavia), Java where a large overseas Chinese community had rapidly built up. In 1740 they revolted over poor pay and conditions and the whole Chinese community of 10,000 were brutally slaughtered. Trust in all European traders by the Chinese was greatly damaged.

In 1743 the British had an encounter which further soured relations. Commodore George Anson sailed the battle-damaged HMS Centurion (sixty guns) to Guangzhou to have his ship repaired towing a captured Spanish galleon laden with silver. As he was not trading he did not expect to pay harbor dues and wanted to meet the Viceroy. He was refused, so like Captain Weddell in 1637 he just sailed up the Pearl river to Guangzhou anyway without permission and with a very reluctant Chinese pilot held at gunpoint. At the city all Chinese help was refused and he ran short of food; he fired a large cannon twice a day to remind the Chinese of his ship's power. It was only when he helped the Chinese put out a large fire in the city that he was granted an interview with the provincial Viceroy and allowed to leave with provisions. On his return, his bitter report accused the Chinese of all forms of deceit and innate dishonesty. He thought that the use of Pidgin English gave the case for Chinese stupidity (pidgin was now in use rather than Chinese which Anson considered obtuse and impractical). He thought the Chinese were just imitators lacking creativity.

Centurion, Anson, Canton
The Capture of the 'Nuestra Señora de Cavadonga' by the 'Centurion', 20 June 1743. Royal Museums Greenwich, London. Image by Samuel Scott available under a Creative Commons License

In 1756 Frederick Pigou, a director of the East India Company (EIC), suggested that Shanghai would be a suitable site for development. These plans were to come into fruition in the next century. In the following year, 1757, Captain James Flint sent a petition to the Chinese Emperor complaining of being cheated of due payment by Chinese merchants as well as requesting the opening of trade at Ningbo, Zhejiang. He failed and the result was further restriction on trade and Flint's imprisonment. In the UK this became known as the notorious Flint Affair .

Flint's efforts led to the foundation of the Canton system in China to try to prevent further effrontery. The Guangzhou (Canton) system established in the mid 18th century was hugely corrupt. It was administered by a guild of ‘hongs’ who could demand whatever tariffs they wished on exported goods. It was so lucrative that the three year appointment as a hong had to be bought at a very high price. The first two year’s income went to pay the bribes to get the position, only the last year gave any profit to the hong. Above the hongs was the overall administrator the ‘Hoppo ’ who in the early days had to be a Manchu. He was immensely powerful and subservient only to the Governor of Guangzhou and Viceroy of Guang (Guangxi and Guangdong were then combined as one province).

canton, guangzhou, hong, factories
Chinese painting in gouache with view of the port of Canton in the 18th century. Image by Anon available under a Creative Commons License

Undeterred other European traders sought to set up trading posts elsewhere: Ningbo and Xiamen but the Qing government decreed all trade must be through Guangzhou, with very limited Spanish trade at Xiamen. The emperor considered it expedient to move the trade as far away from the capital as possible as he believed that foreign contacts, quite rightly, often led to conflicts and rebellions. In any case the traders at Guangzhou were keen to keep the monopoly and so fix prices as high as possible. Foreign ships were only allowed into harbor during the trading season, at other times they had to stay at Macau. Foreign hostility over these restrictions to trade continued to grow.

Then followed the Lady Hughes incident of 1784 where the accidental death of two Chinese fishermen further heightened diplomatic tensions. The Chinese demanded the British seaman who fired the cannon that killed the fishermen to be handed over. The British captain refused, so then the Chinese halted all European trade. After some delay the seaman was very reluctantly handed-over only to be summarily executed by the Chinese.

During the century Britain overtook Portugal, France and all others to become the major trading nation at Guangzhou, fueled by its expansion to India, the discovery of Australia by Captain Cook in the 1770 and other new territories in the Pacific. Britain formed a stranglehold on Chinese trade. However the East India Company was facing ruin over the tea trade because China demanded payment in silver and in the 1780s the newly independent United States was refusing EIC imports. This was a big deal, in 1759 the EIC bought 15% of all Chinese tea. It was then that the opium trade began in 1760 with only small amounts but the volume soon built up in the 1780s. Initially it was Chinese opium growers who were disadvantaged by the imports of pure, cheap opium, and so the government was pressured to protect domestic production. This topic is covered in our Opium Wars page.

The newly formed United States of America (1777) was also keen to set up trade with China in the 1780s. In 1784 the ‘Empress of China’ was their first vessel to dock at Canton. Initially the trade was in sea otter furs and sandalwood which became very popular in China. The loss of the American colonies forced many British sea traders to look elsewhere for their markets. They became increasingly desperate to break into the China then the most prosperous and most populous nation on Earth.

As far as most of these European and Americans traders were concerned China was a land of lofty isolation and aloofness brimming with self-serving officials full of self-conceit.

The end of the Jesuit mission

Emperor Kangxi, Qing dynasty
40 years old Emperor Kangxi. Image by Qing Dynasty book available under a Creative Commons License

Going back again to the start of the 18th century. The Jesuits had then high hopes in China during Emperor Kangxi's long reign (1661-1722). They took part in educating the Emperor's children in the western mathematics of Euclid as well as Christianity. However the Papal mission of 1705 split the Jesuit community, as well as other missions and alienated the Emperor. Then, in 1707, the Pope undermined the whole mission by deeming that ancestral worship was incompatible with Christian doctrine. The Emperor responded by banning Christianity, expelling the missions and the only churches allowed to remain were at Guangzhou and Macau. Kangxi's son and grandson condoned the persecution of Christians. The few remaining Jesuits were restricted to secular work - designing buildings (most notably the Old Summer Palace) and astronomy. In 1773 the Jesuits were disbanded by the pope and the remaining Chinese missionaries returned home or lived on in secret. So in the 18th century the direct link from the Chinese Imperial court to Europe was lost and mutual misunderstandings grew.

European thinkers

Daniel Defoe
Portrait of Daniel Defoe, 17th/18th century. Style of Sir Godfrey Kneller. Image by National Maritime Museum available under a Creative Commons License

Western intellectuals and writers were not interested in the woes of a few sea captains trying to make a fast buck in China, they wanted to learn about Chinese culture. The Jesuit mission had written extensively about China and the Vatican library held a great deal of information for scholars to study. From these the French Jesuit Jean du Halde produced his encyclopedic ‘History of China ’ in 1735 which became the standard text (translated into English in 1741).

The favorable Jesuit view of a land of wise rulers surrounded by educated scholars persisted in the European mind into the start of the 18th century, but some influential writers began to shift their thinking. Daniel Defoe in 1719 published ‘The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’ with rather negative attitudes about China, he considered them backward in religion, architecture and that the army, boats, scholars and farmers were not up to western standards. Defoe wrote that the Chinese have ‘Contempt of all the world but themselves’.

Only a few Chinese men came to Europe and these were all Catholic converts. Jonathan Spence has written a short book ‘A Question of Hu ’ all about the huge pressures of such a life. John Hu came to Europe in 1722 and was exploited by a zealous French priest to translate Chinese texts, Hu ended up abandoned, living in squalor in a mental asylum, so it is not a happy tale. One Chinese national who had a better time was Arcadio Huang who rejected his faith once in France (1704/5) and went on to influence the great writer and philosopher Montesquieu . He married a Parisian and was fêted by all the fashionable circles. Unfortunately his wife and daughter died in 1713 and he followed them shortly after in 1715. Huang's collaboration with Montesquieu helped produce ‘The Spirit of the Laws ’ (1748) with a wide ranging look at types of government including examples from Chinese history. It was a landmark in political theory that influenced the writing of the American Constitution.

A continental philosopher and mathematician of great influence in the whole of Europe was Gottfried Leibniz. He published a pamphlet ‘News from China ’ in 1699 full of praise. He considered Emperor Kangxi to be a great and learned ruler. He thought China surpassed Europe in many ways. Leibniz discovered binary arithmetic and was encouraged in this by studying the Yi Jing (I Ching) believing that ancient Chinese had discovered the binary system. As all modern computers are based on binary we can see how Chinese knowledge has contributing to technological advancement. Leibniz was keen to open trade and debate with China through Russia (he corresponded with Peter the Great ). All this Chinese knowledge stimulated Matteo Ripa to set up the first ever institute of Chinese Studies at Naples in 1732. There was an invitation for Chinese scholars to come to Europe but this was not carried out. History of relations might well have turned out somewhat differently if scholars had settled in Europe. However Leibniz in his later years (1716), did wonder if his enthusiasm had been too great and the Chinese system may be based slavish servitude rather than honor.

Orphan of Zhao, play, France
A page of Joseph Henri Marie de Prémare's L'Orphelin de la Maison de Tchao. Prémare's work is a French translation of the 13th-century Chinese original The Orphan of Zhao 孤兒 by Ji Junxiang. Reproduced in Jean-Baptiste Du Halde's Description of China. Image by Anon available under a Creative Commons License

In 1741 the ancient Chinese play ‘The Orphan of Zhao ’ was translated and put on stage and proved very popular across Europe. The French writer and philosopher Voltaire (1694-1778) produced his own version of the play. In it the Chinese are shown to have superior moral values compared to their Mongol overlords. Voltaire eulogized: ‘The Chinese for four thousand years when we were unable to read, knew everything essentially useful of which we boast at the present day’. Voltaire started with broad positive appreciation of China but later thought it had not developed to its full potential, for example, improvements to its many inventions. He thought it was held back by respect of the past, and its complex language. Later on though, in 1755, Voltaire changed his mind and thought Chinese science was empirical rather than based on sound theory. In France a major proponent of Chinese ideas was François Quesnay whose book ‘Le Despotisme de la Chine’ (1767) described his understanding of the Imperial system and the use of promotion by merit and universal education. It is Quesnay's attitude that may have brought the phrase ‘laissez faire’ into widespread usage - reflecting the laid back attitude of many officials in China. His description of Chinese intensive agriculture from Feng Shui and Daoist thought influenced French farmers. In general Chinese civilization and culture had wide application in Europe.

Voltaire, france
Portrait of Voltaire. H. Rousseau (graphic designer), E.Thomas (engraver) Published 1889. Image by Havang(nl) available under a Creative Commons License

The European view was shared by the U.K. at the start of the century. China was seen as the top nation with benign and well educated leadership. This can be seen in Oliver Goldsmith's (1728-74) work. In 1760-61 he published his ‘Citizen of the World’ better known as the ‘Chinese Letters’ which proved extremely popular. In these letters he pokes fun at English fashion, class and behavior from the perspective of a fictional Chinese gentleman. The fact that he chose Chinese as the nationality of a person who was erudite, cultured and perceptive speaks volumes about the general attitude to China at the time.

However the view about China changed in the U.K. before the rest of Europe probably from the experiences of traders and diplomats like Ansom and Flint. Horace Walpole (1717-1797) influential son of the longest serving Prime Minister Robert Walpole wrote a satire on the taste for everything Chinese: ‘Mr Li: A Chinese Fairy Tale ’ in 1785. it marked the turn away from idolizing China. Britain now chose Classical Rome and Greece as the civilization to be emulated rather than China.

Diplomatic Missions

In total there were six embassies to China in the period 1656-1753. Two were Dutch, two Russian and two Portuguese; only one of the Russian missions got anywhere near the Imperial court. As well as the sea route to southern China there was the overland, northern route through Mongolia into Russia and then to Europe.

 Charles Allan Cathcart, East India Company
The Honourable Charles Allan Cathcart, 1759 - 1788. Artist:William Sharp 1791. Image by William Sharp available under a Creative Commons License

Joining the Russian mission of 1714 was Scotsman John Bell . He had graduated as a doctor at Edinburgh University and then went to seek his fortune in Russia. He published his memoirs in 1763 in which he describes the trip in a matter of fact manner, in contrast to the religious/philosophic viewpoint of the Jesuits. He crossed the Great Wall and found it a very impressive construction. They were granted an audience with Emperor Kangxi for which they were forced to kowtow despite protests. Bell considered the Emperor sprightly for his age of sixty. He was impressed by the acrobats and jugglers he saw. Unlike Marco Polo he noticed how the women used foot-binding. Overall he was positive about China - he considered the people generally trustworthy but with a few idle liars. The Russian mission concluded that while they could quite easily conquer the country, they could see no point in disturbing the peace and good governance.

In 1727 Russia managed to sign a new treaty with China - the Treaty of Kiakhta - which was the main frontier post for the tea trade with Russia. Kiakhta is situated north of Ulan Bator on the Mongolian border. Russia had already signed a deal (written in Latin) - the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. The success of the Russians in signing treaties with China must have rankled with the other Europeans keen to do the same.

After 1753 a British mission to China led by Lt. Col. Charles Cathcart of the EIC set off in 1787. He unfortunately died in transit off Sumatra and the mission was aborted. This was soon followed by the massive Earl of MacCartney mission in 1793/4.


The thoughts of merchants, intellectuals and diplomats had little impact on ordinary people. In the UK the perspective, at the start of the 18th century, was China as an exotic almost mystical land far away. What they could see with their own eyes was the exquisite workmanship and taste of Chinese manufactures - particularly silk, ivory and lacquer-work. They were stunned by the light, thin porcelain. No heavy, dull European earthenware came close by comparison.

chinoiserie, wall design, brighton pavilion
Design for the South Wall of the Music Room, Brighton Pavilion by Frederick Crace (1779 - 1859). Image by Smithsonian Design Museum available under a Creative Commons License

So in the first half of the 18th century China supplied the must-have goods unmatched in Europe. The fashion for anything Chinese was born. The genuine Chinese goods were far too expensive for the masses so Europeans set about making cheap imitations. ‘Chinoiserie’ was the French term used for these wares that adapted Chinese style to European tastes. It is these rather strange mixtures of European and Chinese styles that make up the bulk of Chinoiserie. Initial designs were crude caricatures of the genuine articles, but over a hundred years the designs became much more like the real thing.

It was the rapid addiction to the new mania for tea drinking that gave Chinese style great impetus. What could be more appropriate than to drink Chinese tea in Chinese style teacups? Once people took to teacups then why not expand the style to the whole room in which to drink the exotic and very expensive new beverage? In the early days of tea drinking remnants of the formal tea drinking ceremony were followed, it was a rather formal affair. Among fashionable circles the competition to show off the finest and latest porcelain tea services became intense.

For more details all about the Chinoiserie style please see our separate article.

Ordinary people noted the change too. Porcelain began to be made at Sèvres in 1756 and Royal Worcester in 1751. European manufacturers began to be able to achieve the same fine quality as Chinese goods. Some commentators believe the European advantage was more efficient manufacturing and delivery of goods than in far away China. The transition to home-made goods began to see an acceleration now that the Industrial Revolution had begun in the UK. It was only the addiction to tea that made continued trade with China essential.

Qing ascendancy

Emperor Qianlong
The Qianlong Emperor in Ceremonial Armour on Horseback by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766). Painted 1758. The Palace Museum, Beijing. Image by Mondo Mostre available under a Creative Commons License

The 18th century in China is regarded as a spell of good government and continued overall improvement. The first four Qing Emperors Shunzhi; Kangxi; Yongzheng and Qianlong ruled long and skillfully, their reigns covered 150 years of relative prosperity for all in China. The Manchu people introduced some wise reforms and accepted Confucian orthodoxy in government.

The defeat of Mongol leader Galdan in 1696 at the battle of Urga pacified the northern border, and enabled the subsequent conquest of Xinjiang in 1759. The annexation of Tibet helped pacify the Mongols because they had embraced Tibetan Buddhism. Use of European designed artillery proved crucial to the military superiority of Qing forces. At around 1750 China remained the largest, strongest, wealthiest and most populous nation on Earth.

Most historians consider the decline of the Qing to begin after the death of Qianlong in 1795. He was followed by a series of short-lived and ineffective emperors who failed to modernize and adapt to the growing threat of the west.

Contending perceptions

All that the Chinese Imperial court could see in its dealings with Europeans (and Americans) were squabbling adventurers who behaved little different to the pirates which continued to harass shipping in the South China Sea. The different European ‘tribes’ were hard to distinguish and their different versions of Christianity baffling. China had often had issues with ships from far away but they had always been just a short term nuisance as the boats soon had to go back to their home shores. What China failed to notice was that the British now had a huge base on their western border - India. An army could be raised in India, it did not need an Armada to come all the way from Europe. The sheer number of ships that could easily reach China made previous calculation of threat out of date.

Lord Clive, Clive of India, East India Company
Lord Clive meeting with Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey. 1757. Painting by Francis Hayman (1708-1776). National Portrait Gallery, London. Image by Anon available under a Creative Commons License

From the British perspective they believed they had built a benign administrative system in India. The administrators made fortunes in India every bit as immense as the Canton hongs. To treat these British lords (‘Nabobs ’) as pirates was a severe Chinese miscalculation. The shift from just trading in India to ruling the country began in about 1740.

The famous Lord Clive of India arrived there in 1744 and began building a significant army recruited from among the Indian kingdoms. His experiences led Lord Clive to say in 1763 that it would be easy for Britain to conquer China. He considered China to be in little better condition than the Indian princely states that had been so easily subjugated. All this had been done under the aegis of a private company, the English India Company. A company with a large army seems a strange idea even today, this and other factors required structural changes that were to adversely affect China.

The Macartney Mission of 1794

By the end of the 18th century the roots of conflict in the following century were clearly set out. Europeans (especially Britain) and China viewed each other as inferior barbarians. In 1793-4 the great EIC mission of Lord Macartney set out to negotiate with the aging Emperor Qianlong. Macartney came well prepared, taking with him every book he could find about China, by contrast it seems China had little idea about even where Britain was located. Whole large books have been published about this momentous clash of civilizations and so the end date for this piece must be the eve of that momentous mission.