Sir George Macartney’s British embassy to the court of the Qiánlóng emperor in 1792-94 was a political and commercial failure. This essay seeks to think critically about Macartney’s failure as it pertains to his journal—the posthumously published Journal of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China in the Years 1792, 1793, and 1794 (1807)—and its imaginative engagement with Chinese culture. While Macartney’s narrative partakes of formal and aesthetic qualities associated with travel writing from the Grand Tour and with scientific exploration, it cannot wholly be identified with either. Instead, Macartney adopts a skeptical, self-conscious position with regard to his diplomatic and intellectual limitations in dealing with the Qing. Critical analysis of his narrative’s literary qualities, as well as manuscripts in the Charles W. Wason Collection at Cornell University, enable an appreciation of the sophistication and deliberateness of Macartney’s narrative. Thus, I argue that Macartney’s “failure” is predicated on his understanding and exploration of cultural difference—his narrative opens a space that brings British and Chinese representatives together while also revealing differences between the two cultures. To illuminate that rich yet liminal cultural space in Macartney’s narrative, I draw on a parallel moment in Sino-British cultural relations in the years leading up to the Opium wars—George Chinnery’s painting, Rev. Morrison Translating the Bible in to Chinese (1829). Reading Macartney’s narrative through the lens of Chinnery’s painting, a work that also represents a relationship between the two cultures, brings out the distinctive tone and historiographical understanding of Macartney’s An Embassy to China, 1792-94.

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