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Britain, industry and perceptions of China: Matthew Boulton, ‘useful knowledge’ and the Macartney Embassy to China 1792–94

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 July 2006

Maxine Berg
Department of History, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK E-mail:


Global history has debated the emergence of a divergence in economic growth between China and the West during the eighteenth century. The Macartney Embassy, 1792–94, the first British embassy to China, occurring as it did at the end of the eighteenth century, was an event which revealed changing perceptions of China and the Chinese by different British interest groups from government, trade, industry and enlightened opinion. Many histories of the embassy recount failures of diplomacy and cultural misconception, or divergent ideas of science. This article examines attitudes of British industry to the embassy through the part played in its preparations by the Birmingham industrialist, Matthew Boulton, and revealed in correspondence in the Matthew Boulton Papers. The article uncovers debate among different interest groups over the objects and skilled personnel to be taken on the embassy. Were the objects purveyors of trade or tribute, or of ‘useful knowledge’ and ‘industrial enlightenment’?

2006 London School of Economics and Political Science

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