cover image The Immobile Empire

The Immobile Empire

Alain Peyrefitte. Knopf Publishing Group, $30 (630pp) ISBN 978-0-394-58654-0

French historian Peyrefitte's extraordinary account of the members of the British expedition that tried, unsuccessfully, to open China to Western trade in 1793 is at once a marvelous adventure tale, a dramatic reenactment of a decisive confrontation between East and West and a revealing comparative study of two cultures, each believing itself the world's most civilized. Self-assured Lord George Macartnay, leader of the mission, refused to kowtow before Chinese emperor Qianlong, who viewed the British as barbarian vassals and Macartnay as a common merchant. Members of the British delegation--among them doctors, painters, scholars and technicians--were amazed by China's wheat production methods but appalled by its approval of polygamy, infanticide, the mutilation of women's feet and its resistance to innovation. Peyrefitte sees the Celestial Court's rejection of Britain's gambit as a great missed opportunity for them, one which helps explain China's later decline. Illustrated with color plates and maps, the narrative follows China's ensuing chaos, exacerbated by opium smugglers, British naval assaults and indigenous rebellions. History Book Club alternate. (Nov.)