On the political plane, the illusion […] projected as “patriotism” is still “the last infirmity of noble minds” as well as “the last refuge of a scoundrel”. In the Western World of our day, almost every Englishman, Frenchman, Czechoslovak, and Lithuanian is influenced in his political feelings, thoughts, and actions by the irrational assumption that his own national state is a more precious institution than his neighbour’s. Similarly, on the cultural plane, we have hardly yet begun to suspect that our own civilization may not, after all, be the consummation of human history or a synonym for Civilization itself. Indeed, we people of the West, so far from shaking ourselves free from the illusion as it besets us in this form, have apparently sunk deeper into this slough of error in the course of our history. In the so-called Middle Ages we portrayed one of the three Magi as a negro and looked forward to the intervention of an Oriental champion of Christendom called Prester John. In the eighteenth century, when we had degraded the negro to the role of a slave, we were still capable of admiring the culture of the Far East. To-day, after dismissing the artists and philosophers of China to the limbo – or corral – which we have constructed for “Natives”, we are apparently even losing our admiration for Hellenism, the civilization to which ours is “affiliated”. When we have closed this last door against the humanities, we shall have touched the nadir of our fall from grace.
The best cure for such insanity is ridicule, and we can apply it by observing how exquisitely ridiculous our “Anglo-Saxon attitude” [Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass] looks when it is struck by other people. Consider, for instance, the following missive which was presented in A.D. 1793 by the philosophic Emperor Ch’ien Lung to a British envoy for delivery to his master the mad King George III of Britain:
“You, O King, live beyond the confines of many seas; nevertheless, impelled by your humble desire to partake of the benefits of our civilization, you have despatched a mission respectfully bearing your memorial. … I have perused your memorial: the earnest terms in which it is couched reveal a respectful humility on your part, which is highly praiseworthy.
“In consideration of the fact that your Ambassador and his deputy have come a long way with your memorial and tribute, I have shown them high favour and have allowed them to be introduced into my presence. To manifest my indulgence, I have entertained them at a banquet and made them numerous gifts. …
“As to your entreaty to send one of your nationals to be accredited to my Celestial Court and to be in control of your country’s trade with China, this request is contrary to all usage of my Dynasty and cannot possibly be entertained. … If you assert that your reverence for Our Celestial Dynasty fills you with a desire to acquire our civilization, our ceremonies and code of laws differ so completely from your own that, even if your Envoy were able to acquire the rudiments of our civilization, you could not possibly transplant our manners and customs to your alien soil. Therefore, however adept the Envoy might become, nothing would be gained thereby.
“Swaying the wide world, I have but one aim in view, namely, to maintain a perfect governance and to fulfil the duties of the State. Strange and costly objects do not interest me. If I have commanded that the tribute offerings sent by you, O King, are to be accepted, this was solely in consideration for the spirit which prompted you to despatch them from afar. Our Dynasty’s majestic virtue has penetrated into every country under Heaven, and kings of all nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.” [Footnote: Quoted from Whyte, A. F.: China and Foreign Powers (London 1927, Milford), Appendix, p. 41.)]
Alec Guinness for the role?
The Emperor’s attitude evokes a smile to-day when we read his words in the light of all that has happened during the period of rather more than a century that has elapsed since those words were indited. It seems scarcely credible to us, here and now, that a Manchu philosopher-king, receiving a plain announcement of the approaching impact of the West newly armed with the tremendous weapons of Industrialism, should have shown himself so blind to the signs of the times. Yet there is no doubt that Ch’ien Lung was an able and experienced statesman with a distinguished mind; and the sequel to the episode does not really expose him as a fool. Rather, it suggests that a contemporary Western statesman of equal ability, if he had been standing in Ch’ien Lung’s shoes, would have reacted in the same way; and this suggests, in turn, that our own attitude towards “Natives” may come to appear equally obtuse a century hence.
The Hochaltar (1493) in the eleventh-century Benedictine monastery in Blaubeuren, southern Germany
A Study of History, Vol I, OUP, 1934