CHAPTER TWO The Chinese Foreign Office

THE Middle Kingdom, like the Holy Roman Empire and many lesser polities, indulged the illusion that its limits included all sublunary things. To do without a Department of foreign affairs was, accordingly, in older and better days, an economy that could be well afforded. There were no foreign affairs: the idea would have sounded like lèse-majesté. No wonder the Westerners found China an "Unclubbable" nation.

Before 1860 the Dragon resembled other primitive or prehistoric beasts in having its sluggish intelligence dispersed through its system, instead of focused in one organ. The victors of 1860 insisted on China's setting up a Department for the centralised control of her foreign relations, hitherto the province of a branch of the Ministry of Rites. The result was the Tsungli Yamen. It was intended to be the mechanism whereby foreign wishes could be carried smoothly into effect. It turned out to be the hearth and home of obstruction to those wishes.

The Tsungli Yamen was domiciled in no splendid palace, but (like the British Foreign Office not so long before) in a mean dilapidated house that some foreigners were disposed to take as an insult. The moral sentiments placarding the walls failed to mollify them. It could at all events be said of it that it was in slightly better repair than the "broken-down, weather-stained, rotting structure which housed the Board of War; and no more could be expected when the Han-lin Academy, the pride of the Empire, was sheltered in a shabby building like a set of stables.1 We hear in early days of grooms and understrappers peering in through the windows during conferences; while that other Foreign Office, the Yamen of the

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1
W. A. P. Martin, Hanlin Papers, ch. 1.

-23-

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