This is a follow-up question of Where can I find modern account of Macartney Embassy to China (1792–1794)?

After Lord Macartney returned from his mission to the Qianlong Emperor, he made a poignant but quite accurate assessment about Chinese had become semi-barbarian (I am Chinese and I say these with only admiration for him).

The translated Chinese words “自从北方或满洲鞑靼征服以来,至少在过去150年里,没有改善,没有前进,或者更确切地说反而倒退了;当我们每天都在艺术和科学领域前进时,他们实际上正在变成半野蛮人”

"Since the conquest of the North or the Manchurian Tatars, at least in the past 150 years, there has been no improvement, no advancement, but only backwardness; when we advance in the arts and sciences every day, they are actually becoming semi-barbarian."

BTW, his companion Sir John Barrow made the similar comments in his book "Travel in China", "While they are by nature quiet, passive, and timid, the state of society and the abuse of the laws by which they are governed, have rendered them indifferent, unfeeling, and even cruel"

He only made a small mistake about Manchurians as Tatar (Mongol descent)

But, given my experience with this other question, I would like to see his original words.

Another poignant but quite accurate assessment was "中华帝国只是一艘破败、疯狂的战船。如果说已在过去的150年间依旧能够航行,以一种貌似强大的外表威慑邻国,那是因为侥幸出了几位能干的船长"

”The Chinese Empire is just a dilapidated and crazy warship. If it is said that it has been able to sail in the past 150 years and deter neighboring countries with a seemingly powerful appearance, it is because a few capable captains were lucky enough to be able to sail."

I do believe Lord Macartney said those words. Many published books, papers (in Chinese) about the Macartney mission quote those words. So I don't have any doubt, like when I asked "Did Lord Acton ever say freedom faces four major challenges"?

I just like to see his original words. Thanks!

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    I believe "Tartary" was synonymous with Manchuria among western geographers at that time. I.e. not an mistake, rather just as correct as calling parts of the Caribbean "West Indies"
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 6:28
  • The wp article says "By the seventeenth century, however, largely under the influence of Catholic missionary writings, the word Tartar came to refer to the Manchus and the land they ruled as Tartary"" Which (I hope) is basically what I wrote above.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 6:48
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    It is like arguing that everyone who writes about Tajiks in China is making a mistake because Tajiks speak Persian and Tajiks in China speak languages that are closer to Pashto. It is not a mistake, it is just a different nomenclature.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 7:18
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    Don't you see that I have no interest in discussing this here?! If you really want, you can ask a question about that and I will answer to my best knowledge what that word mean in Chinese. Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 7:29
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    No need to get impatient. My whole point is that the meaning of that word in Chinese or any other language is irrelevant for deciding whether Macartney made any mistake. What is relevant is the meaning of the word in late 18th century English. That meaning is already reasonably well explained in the wikipedia article that you kindly provided at some point and then deleted again. I agree we do not really need to discuss this further. Though if the discussion bothers you so much, you could just edit out the offending sentence.
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 8:07

1 Answer 1


The quotes in question can be found in Macartney's Journal of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China. This journal was later (re?)published in Some account of the public life, and a selection from the unpublished writings, of the Earl of Macartney, Volume 2, which is available via archive.org.

The first quote can be found on p. 412–413. In this context, Macartney is discussing the attitude of Chinese leaders to the outside world, and hypothesizing that it may stem from the fact that they were more civilized than the rest of the world at one time.

When Marco Polo, the Venetian, visited China in the thirteenth century, it was about the time of the conquest of China by the western or Mongol Tartars, with Kublai-khan, a grandson of Gengis-khan, at their head. A little before that period the Chinese had reached their highest pitch of civilization; and no doubt they were then a very civilized people in comparison of their Tartar conquerors, and their European contemporaries; but not having improved and advanced forward, or having rather gone back, at least for these hundred and fifty years past, since the last conquest by the northern or Mantchou Tartars, whilst we have been every day rising in arts and sciences, they are actually become a semi-barbarous people in comparison with the present nations of Europe. Hence it is that they retain the vanity, conceit, and pretensions that are usually the concomitants of half-knowledge; and that, though during their intercourse with the embassy, they perceived many of the advantages we had over them, they seemed rather surprised than mortified, and sometimes affected not to see what they could not avoid feeling. In their address to strangers they are not restrained by any bashfulness or mauvaise honte [“false modesty”–ed.], but present themselves with an easy confident air, as if they considered themselves the superiors, and that nothing in their manners or appearance could be found defective or inaccurate.

The second quote can be found on p. 398. In this passage, Macartney is discussing the possible consequences of an armed conflict between England and China, and how it would (among other things) disrupt the British economy. He then notes that internal misfortune in China might also lead to a trade disruption, likening China to a warship.

But all these inconveniences and mischiefs, which I have stated as objects of apprehension, may happen in the common course of things without any quarrel or interference on our part. The empire of China is an old crazy first-rate man of war, which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers has contrived to keep afloat for these hundred and fifty years past; and to overawe their neighbors, merely by her bulk and appearance; but whenever an insufficient man happens to have the command upon deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship. She may perhaps not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed in pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom.

Note that the word "crazy" in this quote does not mean "insane" as it frequently does today, but instead is an older sense of the word meaning "full of cracks or flaws; damaged, impaired, unsound; liable to break or fall to pieces; frail, 'shaky'" (OED). Similarly, "first-rate" in the context of a warship means a particularly large warship (hat tip to @Jan for pointing this out in the comments.)

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    Macartney's vocabulary and phrasing are in something of an older style, so please let me know if any other words in the quotes or phrases above need further explanation. Commented Dec 10, 2021 at 18:20
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    Wow, the nuance of these words is quite different from OP's quote. Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 0:30
  • That may be because of my translation :$ English is not my native language. But I think the first quote is not that different, the second quote "The empire of China is an old crazy first-rate man of war" I wrote "The Chinese Empire is just a dilapidated and crazy warship". (with google translate's help to use the word dilapidated) Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 3:31
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    I check several China translated words for "The empire of China ..." they all emphasize 破败, i.e. "dilapidated", so I was surprised the original words was ""old crazy first-rate" Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 3:55
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    @Qiulang First-rate in this context probably just means "especially large", see en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/First-rate
    – Jan
    Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 6:16

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