Sino-British exchanges were relatively limited before the eighteenth century. It was not until the first half of the seventeenth century that China and Great Britain began trading directly with one another. In 1637, merchants from the East India Company (a.k.a. British East India Company) initiated direct Sino-British trade when their ships first arrived in Guangdong.
Cultural exchanges between the two countries grew strong during the eighteenth century. This is clearly seen in the popularity that Chinese tea and tea culture found in British society. A “China craze” came over Britain. Chinese style architecture and furnishings became popular at this time. Meanwhile, Western-style architecture began appearing in China. The publication of the Orphan of China adapted from the French translation of Zhaoshi gu’er (Orphan of Zhao), and Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World purporting to be the correspondence of a Chinese philosophy was enthusiastically received in British society. The latter work is an example of an English author writing essays with a “Chinese flair.” In the eighteenth century, the Royal Society began active correspondence with European naturalists in China. Royal Navy officer George Anson (1697–1762) recorded first-hand accounts of what he had seen and heard in his Voyage Round the World. When the Macartney Embassy visited China in 1793, the two countries made their first formal diplomatic contact. In the eighteenth century, Sino-British exchanges shifted from being indirect to direct, from positive to negative, and from active to passive. In the first half of the eighteenth century, the British, despite limited knowledge of China, were full of curiosity about the country and its customs. As Sino-British exchanges increased, the British acquired a more-in-depth understanding of China. In addition to the drastic changes that the industrial revolution brought to Britain, the attitude of the self-confident British towards China began to change. It can be said that the eighteenth century had a unique position in the history of Sino-British exchanges and marked an important turning point in cultural contact between the two.
In the nineteenth century, wars prompted an increase in Sino-British cultural exchanges. Protestant missionaries continued to carry out religious and cultural activities in China. British Sinology also made great progress in this period. At the same time, British diplomat and colonial administrator William Amherst (1773–1857) was sent to China as ambassador extraordinary, which further deepened the British understanding of the Qing government (1644–1911). He was able to provide more accurate, first-hand information at the time the British government decided to launch the Opium War.
The Opium War shocked Chinese intellectual and cultural circles. Some scholars and intellectuals began to reflect on the Qing government’s own problems; they hoped to find a way out from the rise of the West. After the Second Opium War, the Westernization Movement grew. It advocated “Chinese learning for the foundation; Western learning for practical use.” Qing intellectuals began to learn English which they used to make translations of books and papers coming from Britain. Near the end of the nineteenth century, the first Delegation to the West made a successful visit to the United Kingdom. More and more intellectuals from the Qing court traveled to England to tour and study.
In the first half of the twentieth century, China went through a period of intense turmoil. At that time, the British government, acting in its own self-interest, made attempts to undermine China’s sovereignty. However, cultural exchanges between the two countries continued to grow; for example, the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) and the playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) visited China. Money from the Boxer Indemnity allowed a group of Chinese to study in England. Meanwhile, numerous works of English literature continued to be translated into Chinese.
During the Second Sino-Japanese War, despite the British government’s appeasement policy, it supported, to a certain degree, the Chinese people in their fight against the Japanese. In particular, the anti-Japanese actions of the British cultural community encouraged and supported the spirit and material resources of the Chinese. It was quite commendable.
After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Great Britain was the first Western country to recognize China. In 1972, the two countries established formal diplomatic relations. Later, the return of Hong Kong to China was also a bright spot in the history of Sino-British relations, and a significant turning point in Hong Kong history.