A right royal snub

Print edition : November 22, 2019

THE prize goes to the Chinese Emperor’s letter of October 3, 1973, to Britain’s insane King George III. It was sanitised by British officials. Here are extracts from the full text.

“We, by the Grace of Heaven, Emperor, instruct the King of England to take note of our charge.

“Although your country, O King, lies in the far oceans, yet inclining your heart towards civilisation, you have specially sent an envoy respectfully to present a state message, and sailing the seas, he has come to our court to kowtow and to present congratulations for the imperial birthday, and also to present local products, thereby showing your sincerity.

“We have perused the text of your state message and the wording expresses your earnestness. From it your sincere humility and obedience can clearly be seen. It is admirable and we fully approve.

“As regards the chief and assistant envoys who have brought the state message and the tribute articles, we are mindful that they have been sent from afar across the sea, and we have extended our favour and courtesy to them, and have ordered our ministers to bring them to an imperial audience. We have given them a banquet and have repeatedly bestowed gifts on them in order to show our kindness. Although the officers, servants, and others, in charge of the ships, more than six hundred in number, returned to Zhoushan and did not come to the capital, yet we have also bestowed gifts on them generally so that all should receive favours equally.

“As to what you have requested in your message, O King, namely to be allowed to send one of your subjects to reside in the Celestial Empire to look after your country’s trade, this does not conform to the Celestial Empire’s ceremonial system, and definitely cannot be done. Hitherto, whenever men from the various Western ocean countries have desired to come to the Celestial Empire and to enter the Imperial service, we have allowed them to come to the capital. But once having come, they were obliged to adopt the costume of the Celestial Empire, they were confined within the Halls [their assigned residences], and were never allowed to return home.

“These are the fixed regulations of the Celestial Empire, and presumably you also know them, O King. Now, however, you want to send one of your subjects to reside at the capital. But he could neither behave like a Western ocean man who comes to the capital to enter our service, remaining at the capital and not returning to his native country, nor could he be allowed to go in and out, and to have regular correspondence. So it would really serve no purpose.

“Moreover, the territories ruled by the Celestial Empire are vast, and for all the envoys of vassal states coming to the capital there are definite regulations regarding the provision of quarters and supplies to them and regarding their movements. There has never been any precedent for allowing them to suit their own convenience. Now, if your country retains someone at the capital, his speech will not be understood and his dress will be different in style, and we have nowhere to house him. If he is to resemble those Western ocean men who come to the capital to enter the Imperial service, we must order him, without exception, to change his dress to that of the Celestial Empire. However, we have never wished to force on others what is difficult to do. Besides, if the Celestial Empire desired to send someone permanently to reside in your country, surely you would not be able to agree to it. Furthermore, there are a great many Western ocean countries altogether, and not merely your one country. If, like you, O King, they all beg to send someone to reside at the capital, how could we grant their request in every case? It would be absolutely impossible for us to do so. How can we go so far as to change the regulations of the Celestial Empire, which are over a hundred years old [a figurative expression], because of the request of one man—of you, O King?

“If it is said that your object, O King, is to take care of trade, men from your country have been trading at Macao for some time, and have always been treated favourably. For instance, in the past Portugal and Italy and other countries have several times sent envoys to the Celestial Empire with requests to look after their trade, and the Celestial Empire, bearing in mind their loyalty, treated them with great kindness. Whenever any matter concerning trade has arisen, which affected those countries, it has always been fully taken care of. When the Canton merchant Wu Qiaoping owed money to foreign ships, we ordered the Governor-General to advance the money out of the Treasury and to pay his debts for him at the public expense, and to have the debtor-merchant severely punished. Presumably, your country has also heard about this. Why, then, do foreign countries need to send someone to remain at the capital? This is a request for which there is no precedent and it definitely cannot be granted. Moreover, the distance between Macao, the place where the trade is conducted, and the capital is nearly ten thousand li [mile], and if he were to remain at the capital how could he look after it?

“If it is said that because you look up with admiration to the Celestial Empire you desire him to study our culture, yet the Celestial Empire has its own codes of ritual which are different from your country’s in each case. Even if the person from your country who remained here was able to learn them, it would be of no use, since your country has its own customs and regulations, and you would certainly not copy Chinese ones.

“The Celestial Empire, ruling all within the four seas, simply concentrates on carrying out the affairs of government properly, and does not value rare and precious things. Now you, O King, have presented various objects to the throne, and mindful of your loyalty in presenting offerings from afar, we have specifically ordered the department of Foreign Tribute to receive them. In fact, the virtue and power of the Celestial Dynasty has penetrated afar to the myriad kingdoms, which have come to render homage, and so all kinds of precious things from over mountain and sea have been collected here, things which your chief envoy and others have seen for themselves. Nevertheless, we have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufacturers. Therefore, O King, as regards your request to send someone to remain at the capital, while it is not in harmony with the regulations of the Celestial Empire, we also feel very much that it is of no advantage to your country. Hence, we have issued these detailed instructions and have commanded your tribute envoys to return safely home. You, O King, should simply act in conformity with our wishes by strengthening your loyalty and swearing perpetual obedience so as to ensure that your country may share the blessings of peace.

“Besides giving both the customary and extra gifts, as listed separately, to the chief and assistance envoys, and to the various officials under them as well as to the interpreters, soldiers, and servants, now, because your envoy is returning home we have issued this special edict, and confer presents on you, O King—elaborate and valuable things all—in accordance with the usual etiquette. In addition, we have bestowed brocades, gauzes, and elaborate curios; all precious things. These are listed separately.

“Let the King reverently receive them and know our kind regard for him.

“This is special edict.” (Alain Peyrefitte, The Immobile Empire; pp. 289-292).

It was a right royal snub rejecting all the requests Britain had addressed to China.


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