The Canton commercial system of trade had been in place informally since the 17th century. Essentially, the guidelines restricted formal trade to being conducted through a handful of merchants selected by the government. These were commonly called Hong merchants. As trade intensified, disputes broke out between the British traders and the Hong merchants. This forced local authorities to issue edicts formalizing the system of trade and its restrictions.
By the late 18th century, the British traders were feeling confined by the restrictive system. In an attempt to gain greater trade rights, they lobbied for an Embassy to go before the Emperor and make requests. The first Embassy, the Cathcart Embassy of 1788, was called off with the sudden death of Cathcart before his arrival in China. Another Embassy was quickly organized, with Lord Macartney as its head.
The Chinese Empire had always considered all other states to be tributary to itself. However, the Macartney Embassy was given special notice for two reasons. First, it was sent by Britain on the pretext of commemorating the Emperor's 80th birthday. Second, the Embassy had traveled a great distance, and had not previously come before the Emperor's Court. The matter was complicated somewhat by the Embassy's insistence on meeting with the Emperor without previous announcement, and Macartney's refusal to observe Court traditions. Nonetheless, the Emperor instructed his officials to lead the Embassy to him with the utmost civility.
The embassy was ultimately not successful. This was not due to Macartney's refusal to kowtow in the presence of the Qianlong Emperor, as is commonly believed. It was also not a result of the Chinese reliance on tradition in dictating foreign policy but rather a result of competing world views which were uncomprehending and incompatible. After the conclusion of the embassy, Qianlong sent a letter to King George III, explaining in greater depth the reasons for his refusal to grant the several requests presented to the Chinese emperor by Macartney. These included a call for the relaxation of the restrictions on trade between Britain and China, the acquisition by Britain of "a small unfortified island near Chusan for the residence of British traders, storage of goods, and outfitting of ships"; and the establishment of a permanent British embassy in Beijing.
The Macartney Embassy is historically significant because it marked a missed opportunity by the Chinese to move toward some kind of accommodation with the West. This failure would continue to plague the Qing Dynasty as it encountered increasing foreign pressures and internal unrest during the 19th century.
The painter William Alexander accompanied the embassy, and published numerous valuable paintings. He is sometimes described as the first image reporter of all times.
Although the Macartney Embassy returned to London without obtaining any concession from China, the mission could have been termed a success because it brought back detailed observations. Sir George Staunton was charged with producing the official account of the expedition after their return. This multi-volume work was taken chiefly from the papers of Lord Maccartney and from the papers of Sir Erasmus Gower, who was Commander of the expedition. Sir Joseph Banks was responsible for selecting and arranging engraving of the illustrations in this official record.