Art, Science, and Diplomacy: Imagery of the MaCartney Embassy to China

Chen, Shanshan 陳珊珊
Supervisor: Prof. G.M. Thomas

The Macartney Embassy to China  of 1793 is generally believed to mark a transition in the European attitude towards China from admiration to contempt during a process of increasing knowledge about China. Although the British mission failed in its efforts to open the sealed gate of China, it did gain an opportunity to observe China closely for the first time. During their journey, embassy members launched a project of cataloguing, describing, organizing, and evaluating new data of China through empirical and scientific means. From the initial preparation of the gifts for the Qianlong emperor to the embassy’s survey of the Qing empire, science played an indispensable role in accumulating knowledge and constructing the image of China. This thesis focuses on the role of art and image making in this scientific aspect of the Macartney Embassy. It examines the large volume of textual and visual records that were produced by the embassy in order to examine how artists and scientists understood, selected, and represented information on China, and how that information was reworked into works of art by artists, book illustrators, and publishers. I argue that  in contrast to either exotic Chionoiserie or the Utopian image pictured by the Jesuits, the artists and scientists on the embassy collaborated to create a more realistic image of China based on scientific and empirical observations of unprecedented accuracy. I show that these scientifically oriented images offered a distinct voice in the representation of China, sometimes offering more positive views than the embassy’s textual accounts. This negotiation of text and image reveals diverse opinions among embassy members, related to their distinct identities and purposes, which led to an ambivalent view of China in books and articles published in Britain. I also argue that despite the embassy’s many negative criticisms in text, China was treated differently than in Orientalist discourse; the British embassy and its advisors and sponsors regarded China as an equal and competing entity, one that offered much positive material for both scientific knowledge and artistic representation. In chapters one and two, I examine the gift exchange between the embassy and the Qianlong emperor and the representation of their historical meeting in both British and Chinese images. In chapters three to six, I examine how visual images created by British artists and draughtsmen were endowed with a scientific dimension stemming from the emergence of multiple new scientific disciplines in the late 18th century, including marine science, natural history, geography, archaeology, human science, and the history of science and technology. In the last chapter, I examine the publications of the embassy, some aspects of their reception, and the artistic legacy of embassy images, which exerted a major influence on subsequent ideas and images about China.