Three of the Total of Eight Documents

If I won a Genius award (not going to happen), I would spend my time turning published academic history articles into high school lesson plans. The Stanford History Education Group is probably the closest project to this, but I am not sure if their inquires are driven by specific academic works.

Henrietta Harrison’s recent article, The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-Century Origins of Ideas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations, would be my first project. Her work made me question everything I think I do well as a history teacher. On so many levels this article challenged everything I know and do about history. Here’s the skinny:

She begins by describing pretty much every textbook’s and teacher’s approach to teaching the Qianlong Emperor’s letter:

Since the 1920’s, historians, scholars of international relations, journalists, and teachers have used [the selection from the letter] to illustrate the failure of traditional China to acknowledge the rising power of the West: the Qianlong emperor foolishly imagines that George III is paying tribute to him, while his deprecation of the British gifts is interpreted as a rejection of Western science and even the industrial revolution. China’s foreign relations, associated with the giving of tribute and embodied in the ritual of the kowtow, are thus contrasted with the egalitarian diplomatic practices of the rising European states.

I would argue many textbooks and my class go further in using the letter to support the claim that the Qing Empire dismissed the strength of the rising industrial powers in Western Europe.

Prof. Harrison argues, through her laborious research, that the letter misrepresents the Chinese response to Europe and that in order to truly understand the letter you must understand the archival process following the collapse of the Qing Empire in 1911. Harrison writes:

What brought the Qianlong Emperor’s letter to public prominence was the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the rise of Han Chinese nationalism. In 1914, a translation was included in a new history of the Qing by two British writers living in China. It was from this English source that it was picked up by Chinese scholars, for whom the Qianlong emperor’s apparent ignorance and complacent fitted neatly with a revolutionary agenda.

Harrison describes the process of opening the archives and the influence of western historians on those visiting the Qing archives in the early 20th Century. In describing the process of the writing of the series Collected Historical Documents by Xu Baoheng, she notes:

Many of the documents about the military response to the [Macartney embassy] were in what was known as the palace archives, which contained the Qianlong emperor’s personal correspondence, but these had not been opened. The documents were there precisely because these defense issues were both important and secret, unlike the question of ceremony and ritual, which were part of the public presentation of Qing diplomacy.

. . .

Xu chose to publish three of the total of eight documents about the kowtow. His decision to do so gave the issue a prominence quite unrelated to its position in the archives as a whole and was directly affected by the longstanding British scholarship that emphasized protocol and ritual.

. . .

As a whole, the selection of archives published in Collected Historical Documents had the effect of depicting the Qing as ignorant and passive in the face of the rising power of the West.

So in short, world history textbooks’, and thousands of history students’, narrative of Qing naivety and weakness in the face of rising European threat is totally and completly  inaccurate because we rely on one letter from a massive archive that was selectively released for political purposes following the collapse of an empire. This would make an AMAZING SHEG lesson.

My other big takeaway is simply the amount of work that went into writing this one article. I am not super connected to the academic history world, but this article seems like a really big deal. I spent about an hour poking around the Internet and this was about the most I could find about Xu Baoheng. And it is a big deal because Prof. Harrison put in a ton of work; an amount of work I actually struggle to comprehend.

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