As Gale has applied the revolutionary Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) technology to the digitisation of this enormous archive, scholars around the world – especially new students and those from non-English-speaking regions – will be able to unlock the hidden value of this largely handwritten manuscript collection, allowing for new discoveries and revisionist scholarship, challenging and even subverting traditional views about some historical events like Lord Macartney’s embassy to China, the first (unsuccessful) British diplomatic attempt to open China for trade in the late 1790s.

Two decades after Lord Macartney’s failed embassy, the British government made a second attempt in February 1816 by dispatching a new mission led by Lord Amherst to “encourage and promote that [commercial] intercourse [with China].” After nearly half a year of travel, the mission arrived at Tianjin in July of the same year, where Lord Amherst and the Chinese Mandarins dispatched to receive him entered into an intense argument about the protocol to be followed for the audience with the Chinese emperor Jiaqing. To the Chinese side’s insistence that the British ambassador extraordinary should practice the ceremony of making nine prostrations, Amherst followed his predecessor Lord Macartney by firmly refusing. As a result, the Amherst mission experienced even greater failure, being refused entry into Peking, let alone having an audience with the emperor. Based on his new knowledge gained in the process of communicating with the Chinese officials, Amherst concluded that he had been misled by all the official and personal accounts of Lord Macartney’s embassy. Among Amherst's reports is one written from Batavia to Lord Canning, governor-general of British India, on February 12, 1817, on his way back to Britain, in which he questioned the authenticity of the widely believed reason behind Macartney’s embassy’s failure—refusing to kowtow to the Chinese emperor: “I have since been given to understand that on an occasion subsequent to his first audience, Lord Macartney multiplied his bow nine times in conformity to the usual number of prostrations made by the Chinese.”




Western missionaries, especially protestant missionaries, formed a unique yet active group of stakeholders in the history of China–West interactions. They played many different roles: evangelists, language and cultural interpreters, educators, doctors, and even spies. Karl Gutzlaff (郭士立; 1803–1851) is a case in point. As a pioneering sinologist, he was involved in the translation of the Bible into Chinese along with John Robert Morrison, Elijah Bridgeman, and Walter Henry Medhurst. However, at the same time, he did not hesitate to offer his translation services to Western merchants and even the British army during the first Opium War. He was one of the interpreters to the British Plenipotentiary Sir Henry Pottinger in negotiations leading eventually to the signing of the landmark Treaty of Nanking in 1842. He composed a series of reports to help the British government understand the inner workings of Chinese society and government. In this page extract , he introduced the Chinese government department for dealing with foreigners, the so-called 理藩院or Office of Foreign Affairs. This is a good example of the early intelligence-gathering activities carried out by the Western powers in China. 

In the 19th century, Western Chinese-language experts or translators were made up of two groups—missionaries like Gutzlaff who picked up the Asian language to better spread the gospel among the Chinese, and diplomats who started their careers as low-ranking Chinese clerks, translators, or secretaries. Thomas Wade (威妥瑪; 1818–1895) belongs to the second group. During the second Opium War (1856–1860), he worked as the Chinese secretary for Lord Elgin, British High Commissioner and Plenipotentiary, and rendered Elgin’s letters into Chinese and Chinese officials’ letters into English, as shown by the page of  this letter from the Chinese imperial commissioner Kwei-liang (桂良) to Lord Elgin on the exchange of ratifications of the Treaty of Tientsin. Such rigorous training on the job laid the groundwork for him to become a prominent sinologist after retiring from his diplomatic career—better known as Cambridge University’s first professor of Chinese and inventor of the Wade-Giles romanization system.




As diplomatic communication is always bidirectional, it is natural to find a small number of Chinese-language files contained in this archive of largely English correspondence between British ministers and consuls in China and the Foreign Office in London. These Chinese documents usually take the form of letters from Chinese government officials or diplomats and are included in the correspondence as enclosures.

China established her first overseas legation in London in 1875. Guo Songtao (郭嵩焘; Kuo Song-tao; 1818–1891) was appointed the first Chinese minister to Britain. As China’s diplomatic representative, Guo communicated with his British counterpart often to defend China’s national interests. In 1877, the British colonial government in India appointed Robert Shaw as the British Resident at Kashgar, located in the Tarim basin of Xinjiang. This came to the attention of Guo. To uphold China’s territorial integrity, he wrote a letter to the British Foreign Secretary the Earl of Derby on June 15, 1877, protesting that the appointment had violated the law of nations or international law as it implied British recognition of Kashgar’s independence from China. Elements of International Law (1836) by Henry Wheaton was translated by American missionary William A.P. Martin (丁韪良), at the suggestion of American minister to China Anson Burlingame, into Chinese as 万国公法and published in Peking in 1864. The book was widely circulated among Chinese officials and diplomats like Guo Songtao and played a part in the Chinese government’s efforts to defend its national interests in international negotiations.

In his letter of protest, Guo argued that “Kashgar was originally Chinese territory and had a dully appointed governor. At the time, when internal [Taiping] rebellion raged in China, and finances to meet war expenses fell short, the Amir took the opportunity to seize the territory, causing for more than ten years uninterrupted commotion and great suffering to the people. Of late years, however, the rebellion has been suppressed and China is about to re-establish order and control in the regions beyond the Tarim. Kashgar is one of the regions of which China ought indisputably to regain possession, and nothing has been made known to the effect that the establishment of an [independent] nation has been consented to.”

Guo’s letter can be viewed here, in Chinese and also with the English translation to the British Foreign Secretary on the issue of Kashgar, Xinjiang, FO 17/768

Guo was recalled by the Chinese government in late 1878 and his replacement was Marquis Zeng Jize (曾紀澤; Tseng Chi-tse; 1839–1890) — the son of Zeng Guofan, a prominent high-ranking official of the late Qing period. While Zeng’s best-known diplomatic achievement was his success in renegotiating the infamous 1879 Treaty of Livadia with Russia and replacing it with the more favourable Treaty of Saint Petersburg, he had also been involved in numerous cases of protecting the rights of Chinese living overseas. In January 1881 there occurred an anti-Chinese riot in Lima, the capital of Peru and the Chinese community there suffered a lot. As there was no Chinese consul at the time, the Chinese merchants asked the British minister Sir Spencer St. John for help to forward a written account of their sufferings to Zeng. Upon receipt of the account forwarded by British Foreign Secretary Earl Granville on September 26, 1881, Zeng wrote a formal letter of thanks and explained why no Chinese consul was available in Peru. There is also an English translation of this letter in the archive.  


Anti-Christian activities in China started in the 1860s after the signing of the Tientsin Treaty—which lifted all the restrictions on the movement of Western missionaries in China—and reached the first peak in the 1870s, as epitomized by the Tientsin Massacre of 1870, and eventually led to the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. In the tragic Tientsin Massacre many French Catholic priests and nuns were killed by a group of enraged Chinese misled by rumours of French missionaries kidnapping or purchasing children and “taking out their eyes for medicine.” Imperial China and the West Part I contains a clipping from the Hong Kong-based China Mail Extra, reporting on this tragedy. Such clippings form a small yet lively subset of this largely handwritten manuscript archive. 


In addition to the predominance of textual records, Imperial China and the West Part I contains a sizeable collection of colourful historical maps. These are all rescanned from the original source to help users fully appreciate their beauty. This example is a map of Shanghai in 1862. Here we can clearly see the American and British settlements and the French concession as well as the old Chinese walled city. After the first Opium War, China was forced to open five treaty ports for trade, including Shanghai. Given its strategic location and great potential, the Western powers flocked there to establish their consulates and enclaves. The British and American settlements were merged in 1863 into the International Settlement managed by the Shanghai Municipal Council while the French concession remained separate.

Thanks to the unmatched advantages of railways over traditional means of transportation in facilitating trade in China, Britain and other Western powers had been eyeing the rights of railway construction in the country for a long time. China’s first railway line was constructed in 1876, but Britain started its planning well before that. Here is the China Railway Sketch Map drawn by China Railways Company (Limited)—a largely British-controlled company—in 1865. The map reveals an ambitious plan to build a vast network of railway lines connecting all the major cities in China, such as Peking, Shanghai, Hankow (Wuhan), and Canton (Guangzhou). At the same time, the company wanted to extend the network to the British colonies abutting China in the south and west—Burma and India. Moreover, the company also had a long-term plan to link Asia all the way to Europe and UK, building a railway-connected global empire. This somehow reminds us of China’s belt and road initiative today, aiming to promote the connectivity of all countries concerned.


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