Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

"PRISONERS IN SILKEN BONDS": Obligation, Trade, and Diplomacy in English Voyages to Japan and China

Academic journal article Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies

"PRISONERS IN SILKEN BONDS": Obligation, Trade, and Diplomacy in English Voyages to Japan and China

Article excerpt

Formerly Portugal presented tribute;

Now England is paying homage.

They have out-traveled Shu-hai and Heng-chang;

My Ancestor's merit and virtue must have reached their distant shores.

Though their tribute is commonplace, my heart approves sincerely.

Though what they bring is meagre, yet,

In my kindness to men from afar I make generous return,

Wanting to preserve my good health and power.

-Qianlong, Emperor of China, 1793 (Macartney x)


The poem above, composed by the Chinese Emperor Qianlong to mark the arrival of Lord George Macartney's embassy in Jehol, China, in 1793, invokes a cross-cultural language of gift exchange, reciprocity, and obligation that informed early modern conceptions of international trade and diplomacy. In the mind of the emperor and in accordance with a long-standing Chinese cultural self-perception, Macartney's appearance at the Imperial Court, his letter from King George III, and the presents he offers register solely as a tributary offering: the gesture of a barbarian race to acknowledge and to celebrate China's cultural and religious superiority, and to reinforce the emperor's supreme virtue.1 Acknowledging precedent for the honor by inyoking Portugal's diplomatic standing as a country that has recognized China's greatness and therefore gained the privilege of a trading monopoly in Macao, the emperor interprets the gifts Macartney brings as a sign of deference to a more powerful and advanced society, one whose merit has extended across the globe. Although the gifts the English bring are viewed as "commonplace" and their commercial value in China "meagre," the emperor shows respect for the distance the embassy traveled and the tributary offering they transported by making what he considers an adequate and "generous return" -namely, his kindness. The English perceived the emperor's return of kindness, however benevolent and commensurate it appeared from the Chinese point of view, as an unequal exchange. Their mission-although they understood that China expected a tribute-was to gain in exchange for their innovative and scientifically advanced gifts a diplomatic trading treaty, commercial ports of trade, and compensation for the grievances of the English merchants. However, the emperor's language implies that his reciprocity derives solely from a benevolent nature, that he gives in return out of respect, not out of obligation. This distinction slyly displaces momentarily the obligation implicit in any gift exchange; in other words, Qianlong does not consider himself indebted to the English or required to make a return. Yet, almost simultaneously, the emperor does acknowledge an obligation, though not to the English. The emperor's return gift of hospitality is a submission required of him to a divine authority and to ancestral good fortune, both of which have endowed him with the power to give generously. Furthermore, the emperor anticipates a return for this obedience to authority as well-he gives adequately to the English to preserve the kingdom's honor and so that he may maintain in return "good health and power." Thus, the notion of the gift as an ostensibly disinterested gesture of civility-of an equal exchange between reciprocally respectful nations-becomes problematic: what the English viewed as civility the Chinese interpreted as a ritual of subjection.

Qianlong articulates the complex intersections among trade negotiations, diplomatic gift exchanges, and cultural authority. The poem invokes notions of honor, reciprocity, and return, a vocabulary that in seventeenth-and eighteenth-century mercantile and political narratives repeatedly qualifies profit-based concerns in the relationships the English sought to establish and extend in the Far East. The English gave to the emperor in expectation of an equal return, an expectation that they articulated only in order to obligate the emperor to grant their requests. Although the English accepted his gifts and other amenities while in China, their expectation of an equal and satisfactory return necessitated an ongoing diplomatic exchange that deferred the commercial negotiations they sought literally at their own expense. …

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