For many centuries China had little intercourse with other countries. Various European nations tried to form commercial relations with her, and there was buying and selling between them, but it was most unsatisfactory. The rules made by the Chinese were as fickle as the wind. Often the merchants, or 'foreign devils,' as the Chinese called them, were in danger of their lives. Several nations had sent representatives to China, and in 1793 England decided to send Lord Macartney as an ambassador to the emperor in the hope of establishing safe and reasonable relations of trade. Even before the ambassador landed, the Chinese contrived to run up a flag on the vessel that bore him up the Peiho, whereon was written 'Tribute-bearer from England.' This was quite in accordance with the Chinese custom of claiming all gifts as tribute. Another custom of theirs was that whoever approached the throne of the emperor must perform the kowtow, that is, must kneel three times, and at each kneeling must bow three times till his head touched the floor. This was the way in which the greater idols were approached and signified that the emperor was a god. Lord Macartney told the Chinese legate that he would not perform the kowtow unless a high officer of state would kowtow before a picture of the King of England. The emperor finally agreed to admit the ambassador, who bent his knee, as he would have done before his own sovereign.
Qian Long [Ch'ien Lung], (r. 1735-1795) ruled China for much of the 18th century, the last period in which China was strong enough to resist, or better, disdain external influence. Here is letter he sent in response to a request from George III of Britain (r. 1760-1820) as conveyed by Lord Macartney for trade privileges.As to your entreaty to send one of your nationals to be accredited to my Celestial Court and to be in control of your country's trade with China, this request is contrary to all usage of my dynasty and cannot possibly be entertained. It is true that Europeans, in the service of the dynasty, have been permitted to live at Peking, but they are compelled to adopt Chinese dress, they are strictly confined to their own precincts and are never permitted to return home. You are presumably familiar with our dynastic regulations. Your proposed Envoy to my Court could not be placed in a position similar to that of European officials in Peking who are forbidden to leave China, nor could he, on the other hand, be allowed liberty of movement and the privilege of corresponding with his own country; so that you would gain nothing by his residence in our midst.