The Qing Dynasty ruled China during the 18th century, a time when each new emperor was selected from amongst the royal family based on merit. In 1736, it was the fifth son of the recently deceased ruler who won the competitive succession process and became known as the Qianlong Emperor.
What merit did the Qianlong Emperor possess that earned him the throne? Among other skills, he was an expert archer, winning many competitions with his longbow.
Flash forward 57 years. A diplomatic team from England, known as the Macartney Mission, is sent to China by the infamous King George III to negotiate trade agreements with the Qianlong Emperor. The delegation arrived with a proposal to trade China large quantities of British guns for the royal army in exchange for items that were desirable in the West.
Although China had invented gunpowder almost 1,000 years earlier, as of the 18th century, Chinese manufacturing of guns was still primitive and their weapons far inferior to those made in England.
But that didn’t matter much to the Qianlong Emperor, who was largely uninterested in guns and preferred to equip his armies with his beloved longbows. In fact, he had discouraged divisions of his military that were experimenting with improving Chinese firearm design and manufacturing.
When shown a demonstration of how easily and reliably the British rifles being offered in trade could be aimed, fired, and reloaded, he is reported to have remarked that they seemed more like a weapon “for children,” not for serious warfare.
At the end of the visit, the emperor wrote a letter to King George as formal rejection of the British proposal that stated: “I set no value on your objects strange or ingenious and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”