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The Immobile Empire Hardcover – October 20, 1992
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From Publishers Weekly
French historian Peyrefitte's extraordinary account of the members of the British expedition that tried, unsuccessfully, to open China to Western trade in 1793 is at once a marvelous adventure tale, a dramatic reenactment of a decisive confrontation between East and West and a revealing comparative study of two cultures, each believing itself the world's most civilized. Self-assured Lord George Macartnay, leader of the mission, refused to kowtow before Chinese emperor Qianlong, who viewed the British as barbarian vassals and Macartnay as a common merchant. Members of the British delegation--among them doctors, painters, scholars and technicians--were amazed by China's wheat production methods but appalled by its approval of polygamy, infanticide, the mutilation of women's feet and its resistance to innovation. Peyrefitte sees the Celestial Court's rejection of Britain's gambit as a great missed opportunity for them, one which helps explain China's later decline. Illustrated with color plates and maps, the narrative follows China's ensuing chaos, exacerbated by opium smugglers, British naval assaults and indigenous rebellions. History Book Club alternate.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Praise for Alain Peyrefitte's The Immobile Empire:
“A fascinating study of cross-cultural misunderstanding.”
—The Chicago Tribune
“A rollicking good story with obvious and immediate parallels for today.”
—The American Spectator
“Extraordinary . . . at once a marvelous adventure tale, a dramatic reenactment of a decisive confrontation between East and West and a revealing comparative study of two cultures, each believing itself the world’s most civilized.”
“An elegant, illuminating and delightful book.”
—South Florida Sun-Sentinel
“Painstakingly researched, gracefully written. . . . A smooth translation. . . . Peyrefitte's nearly day-by-day account will fascinate Sinologists and students of East-West affairs.”
—Kirkus Reviews --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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One of the essential tasks of a new dynasty taking power in China was to rewrite the history books, and destroy any records of the old dynasty that may have referred badly on the new. This has not been done by the present government of China, nor by the previous Republican government, the occupying Japanese, or any of the warlords of the early 20th century who had the opportunity. Even the Boxer insurrection of 1900 which burned most of the Imperial library in a separate part of the city of Peking left the Imperial archives (civil service records department) untouched. So Peyrefitte was able to read the handwritten (actually brush script) letters of Qianlong and his mandarins.
With the Chinese insistence on reclaiming Hongkong in 1997, I doubt this book could have been researched as thoroughly or written as dispassionately by a British author. The translation seems to have lost nothing, the narrative is forced along by the journey and events. Only in the last chapter, Conclusion, does the author allow himself some speculations on the course of history. I agree with him that all that has happened since the start of the Opium wars in 1840 is just a "normal" Chinese change of dynasty. My recent travels in rural China convinced me that in spite of the visible urban progress, the relationship between the peasants and the government is very much the same as in Qianlong's day.
It is useless to speculate what if Macartney had called at St. Helena on the outward journey, taken Napoleon's advice, and performed the kowtow. Macartney could never have done this as Napoleon was both French, and a self-proclaimed Emperor.
A very readable work, with comprehensive biographic and bibliographic notes; a must-have on the shelf of every Sinophile.