In practice of course few direct comparisons were ever made between China and Europe. Although there had been continuous contacts between the two parts of the world ever since the early sixteenth century these were limited by the profound Chinese scepticism of all things foreign.1 From 1720 onward overseas commerce was a monopoly controlled by a merchants’ guild in Canton and requests by Europeans to allow them the freedom to trade were angrily rebuffed by Qing officials. Ever ethnocentric, the Chinese knew preciously little about foreign countries and they had as we have seen no official interest in foreign trade. ‘We have never valued ingenious articles,’ as emperor Qianlong famously explained in an edict sent to King George III after he in 1793 had been approached by the British envoy George Macartney:

nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufacture. Therefore, O king, as regards your request to send someone to remain at the capital, while it is not in harmony with the regulations of the Celestial Empire we also feel very much that it is of no advantage to your country.2