When Lord Macartney came face to face with the Qianlong Emperor in 1793, his hope was to open up broader lines of communication between West and East. He was not the first to harbour this ambition. Leaving aside Marco Polo and many other Europeans and Middle Easterners who had settled in China under the Mongols, what might be called the modern era of contact had begun in the 16th century, when Portuguese ships arrived in the South China Sea. The Chinese found it hard to distinguish them from other pirates who ravaged their south coast, but in 1557 the Ming government gave them a base on the small peninsula of Macao in the hope that they could be contained there.
Macao soon became the point of entry into China for Christian missionaries of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), first sent under the auspices of the Portuguese crown and later of France. By the time the Order was disbanded by the Vatican in 1773 a total of 456 priests had worked in all parts of China. Their prime aim, of course, was to spread the Christian gospel, but they also acted as scientific and cultural conduits between China and the West. They shared this role with merchants, chiefly those of the East India Company.
Through the 17th and 18th centuries the principal commodities imported into Europe from China were porcelain, silk and tea. To help pay for the latter the Company developed an extensive opium trade from Bengal which soon began to undermine the Chinese economy as well as the health of its people.
In Europe, the taste for Chinese luxuries turned into the craze for 'chinoiserie', prompting not only the collection of genuine Chinese artefacts but also their imitation by manufacturers such as Joseph Wedgwood. The huge quantities of porcelain brought up by modern marine archaeologists from sunken ships engaged in this trade shows how extensive and valuable it was. Chinese factories produced goods to satisfy what they believed to be European taste, a curious hybrid genre now known as export ware.
East India Company ships were restricted to trading through Guangzhou and Macao. This was one of the limitations that Lord Macartney hoped to remove. When Qianlong rejected his requests, commercial contacts which had been mutually profitable and reasonably good-tempered began to slide into frustration and misunderstanding. The British government was not to be thwarted, and in 1839 the First Anglo-Chinese War broke out. The Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) which concluded it in 1842 was the start of the Western exploitation of China. It is perhaps best known for ceding to Great Britain the island of Hong Kong, which quickly became the principal Western base in East Asia. It also forced China to open up Treaty Ports. These served as the point of entry for Western manufactured goods, and were also sources of cultural influence both beneficial and harmful to Chinese society. It was here, for example, that Western-style schools first opened, and that education would first extend to Chinese girls. It was also where a minority of unscrupulous Protestant missionaries showed disregard for the law by leaving the confines of the ports to try and gather converts in the Chinese interior, even smashing Buddhist statues in the process.
A second 'Opium war' against China broke out in 1856. In the course of this, British and French troops entered Beijing itself and the emperor's Summer Palace, five miles to the north-west, was looted and destroyed. It had been a great repository of traditional arts of all kinds, and many of the Chinese treasures now to be seen in Western museums were carried away from it at this time. The war ended in 1860 and opened the Chinese interior to foreigners for the first time. From then onwards Western merchants, missionaries, diplomats, scientists, and simple (but sometimes daring) tourists penetrated much of China. Although the Chinese now tend to condemn them all as imperialists, and the behaviour of some deserves condemnation, there is no doubt either that others worked unselfishly for the sake of China's modernisation. Nevertheless, anti-foreign feeling mounted as the major Western Powers appeared to parcel regions of China out among themselves in quasi-colonies (known as 'spheres of influence'), and in 1900 popular resentment erupted in the Boxer Rising, during which many Westerners and Chinese Christians were killed.
In 1877 the first Chinese embassy was opened abroad, in London. Others quickly followed in the United States, Japan, and other European countries. The Chinese government began sending students abroad, especially to Japan and America. Artists who benefited from the chance to study in the West included the great painter Xü Beihong, who worked at the École Nationale Supérieuredes Beaux-Arts in Paris for eight years from 1919. He was skilled at painting in both Chinese and Western styles, and urged his compatriots to learn new techniques from the West and incorporate them into the great Chinese traditions of the brush. His advice was not universally welcomed in China, and it would not be until much later in the 20th century that artists in the People's Republic would really begin to free themselves from the constraints of traditional Chinese concepts of art.Prof. K. Pratt | Sep 2002