The debate surrounding the question of why Macartney failed in 1793 can easily become reductive by over-emphasising Macartney's failure to perform the kowtow to Chinese standards of ritual. This however explores only a partiality of the debate by solely focusing on the event and Macartney; which in turn becomes a westernised perspective with no in-depth understanding of the Chinese geo-political context during the Eighteenth-Century. The argument must take into account Western goals and aims surrounding Macartney's embassy venture to China, and why they conflicted with the values and principles of Chinese Confucianism, and the conformity of traditional Chinese culture by the Celestial Empire. As Byng and Levere (1981) surmise, 'the embassy's failure is shown to reveal fundamental differences in British and Chinese Eighteenth-Century responses to Science; and has wide cultural implications'. The article attempts to approach the debate of Macartney's embassy from the scientific context of cultural analysis rather than mere historical significance of the event which creates a transitory debate of Macartney's character and refusal to perform the kowtow.
Cultural and scientific understanding will be the approach of the debate put forward. As Attwell highlights, 'on the surface this failure appeared to turn on Macartney's refusal to follow Chinese protocol... in Chinese imperial terms, of the emperor's pre-eminent position in the Celestial hierarchy'. Attwell's argument demonstrates the importance of identifying the Celestial viewpoint of the Qing Empire, Chinese culture of traditionality and disinterest and ambivalence towards the 'Western Ocean barbarians'. This develops the argument that the mission due to the cultural conflictions of the two empires was doomed from the onset. But, importantly, retaining a comprehensive overview of the contexts from both Empires will be essential for understanding whether the mission was capable of success or not. The argument will take the position that Macartney was doomed to fail from the outset, not because of his failure of protocol kowtow, or his character, but because at this point during the eighteenth century the two empires were polar opposites geo politically and firmly rooted in their differing and conflicting world views. The 'embassy, indeed, was rejected before it arrived'.
Firstly, the rise of the British Empire during the eighteenth century explains the coinciding mentality of Enlightenment that the British increasingly adopted and applied domestically as part of its culture; and the measure of dealing with foreign powers to determine how civilized they were in comparison to British achievements. The values and principles of the Enlightenment were ones of rationality and observation; as a result the scientific method grew out of the Enlightenment period and spread to the use of state and fields such as historical enquiry. The British world view became increasingly scientific, and the 'scientific explosion' of knowledge during the eighteenth century contributed to Britain's growing faith in the Sciences. The Enlightenment and the promotion of continuous progression and Science was a concept completely alien to China; deeply imbedded in the world view of Confucianism and Celestial pre-dominance. As Attwell surmises, 'for Qing China... peoples were evaluated according to their level of civilization relative to the perfection of the Celestial Empire.
For the British, this positioning had to do with their level of scientific achievement'. The mere concept of the Enlightenment was the awakening of new ideas and methods, new norms of study and progress, which resulted in Britain adopting the method of industrialisation that would make Britain the largest empire during the eighteenth century. The Chinese on the other hand were not aware of the progress of Britain and Europe scientifically and economically as powers, this lack of awareness, and concern, is what makes the Macartney debate historically significant and interesting for enquiry because it marks the contrast between the two civilisations, particularly as a context of the times. The Chinese did not believe that those outside of its Celestial borders would contribute to the greatness of the heavenly empire, with the 'Son of Heaven' as the ruler. The Chinese as expressed by Gregory 'were secure and confident in their world'. These themes of cultural division, and cultural priorities, are themes which are directly at the core of Macartney's failure to secure the goals of Britain's embassy in 1792. These cultural differences and conflict of cultural norms is the root and essence behind the failure of Macartney's embassy, and it is because of these, that Macartney could not achieve a successful embassy regardless of a successful kowtow or no kowtow.
Another obstacle to the success of Macartney's venture was China's deep rooted Confucianism; these principles had existed within China for hundreds of years and were inherently part of the Chinese national identity and cultural life. The enlightenment contradicted the principles and virtues of Confucianism, particularly the Celestial power of the emperor which Confucianism bolstered, as highlighted by Byng and Levere 'according to Confucian theory, the virtue of the Emperor, as Son of Heaven and universal ruler, would inevitably attract the barbarians to his Court... see for themselves China's superiority'. The Chinese believed that through exposure to their country and through the tribunal offerings to the Emperor, foreigners were therefore accepting subservience to the Celestial Empire and accepting the hierarchy of the universal leader. The letter Chang-Ku ts'ung-Pien I, p.b. cited by Byng, provides an insightful understanding into the Chinese mind-set of interpreting Western motives. The letter is from the 'Grand Secretiat' to the governors of China, the letter reads, 'naturally we ought to grant their request in order that they may satisfy their sincerity in sailing across the seas in their longing for civilization'. The position assumes through the statement of 'longing for civilization' that the Chinese are the ones who possess this civilisation and that the foreigners are searching for it via the Celestial Empire's culture. The British however did not see China in this way, appreciating China with curiosity but not as a superior power. Macartney coincidentally would not accept this implied proposition of subordinating his sovereign King to a foreign Emperor. A conflict of British and Chinese world views became an ego conflict, each believing in their own superiority, however the British wished to open the Chinese to diplomatic acceptance of British power.