1796 Barrow Plan of the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan), Beijing

Plan of the Hall of Audience and the Adjacent Courts in the Emperor's Gardens at Yuen-Min-Yuen. - Main View

1796 Barrow Plan of the Old Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan), Beijing


A lovely palace, before it was burned and looted.


Plan of the Hall of Audience and the Adjacent Courts in the Emperor's Gardens at Yuen-Min-Yuen.
  1796 (dated)     22 x 15.25 in (55.88 x 38.735 cm)     1 : 480


A lovely example of Sir John Barrow's 1796 schematic of the main audience hall of the Yuanmingyuan or 'Old Summer Palace,' an impressive complex of palaces and gardens built for the Qing emperors just outside of Beijing. It appeared in George Leonard Staunton's An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China, recounting the Macartney Embassy, a failed British attempt to gain expanded trading and diplomatic rights in China.
A Closer Look
This diagram depicts the main audience hall (正大光明 or 正大光明殿) of the Yuanmingyuan, located near the main southern gate (大宮門) of the complex, designed for receiving prominent guests including foreign visitors. Typical of Chinese palace architecture, especially structures intended for the emperor's use, visitors passed through a series of courtyards and gates laid out according to fengshui principles before approaching the emperor himself.

The audience hall itself was designed with the aim of facilitating the giving of gifts by visitors to the emperor. In this respect, Macartney's Embassy followed ritual protocol, gifting the Qianlong Emperor clocks, a telescope, watches, and other Western goods, largely of a mechanical nature. Qianlong was decidedly unimpressed. This is often attributed to his lack of appreciation for modern wares, though it was just as likely due to the fact that he was already well-aware of such goods due to the long presence of European Jesuits at the Qing Court, some of whom brought mechanical items from Europe or constructed them on site in Beijing. Likewise, the gifts given to Macartney, consisting mostly of silk, porcelain, and tea, were not especially novel as most could be acquired in Europe via Canton, albeit for a handsome price.

Despite the audience hall's intended function, Macartney did not meet Qianlong here, though the British did leave gifts in the hall as dictated by proper ritual. When the British arrived in Beijing, Qianlong was undertaking a regular hunting expedition, a symbolically important activity for Qing emperors laden with ritual, north of the Great Wall. Thus, after depositing their gifts at the Yuanmingyuan, the embassy proceeded to another Qing summer palace at Chengde (Rehe), also north of the Great Wall, where the Qing emperors often received delegations from vassal states at a similar audience hall. On September 14, 1793, after considerable debate over whether Macartney would kowtow to the emperor, the embassy met Qianlong, exchanged more gifts, delivered a letter from King George III, and had a relatively pleasant meeting, though they failed to gain the main concessions desired from the Qing.
The 'Old Summer Palace' - Yuanmingyuan 圓明園
The Yuanmingyuan, originally known simply as the 'imperial gardens,' was a magnificent garden and palace complex that was constructed by the Qing rulers of China beginning in the early 18th century. Started under the reign of the Kangxi Emperor, the complex was expanded considerably by his son, Yongzheng, and grandson, Qianlong, to eventually reach some 3.5 square kilometers. One of the most novel features of the complex was the inclusion of hybrid Chinese-Western style structures (西洋楼) designed by European Jesuits in the service of the Qing emperors.

Located some five miles northwest of the walled city of Beijing, the Yuanmingyuan was a resplendent retreat for the Qing emperors and provided a venue for impressive displays of their grandeur for visitors. Aside from the Jesuits, who were understandably partial to the complex, Lord Macartney's mission was among several foreign delegations to visit the gardens. They made such an impact on European visitors that they influenced European gardens of the 18th century, most notably Kew Gardens in London. The name 'Old Summer Palace' in English and other Western languages resulted from the construction of multiple imperial gardens northwest of Beijing under the Qianlong Emperor, including the Yiheyuan 頤和園, known in Western languages simply as the 'Summer Palace.'

In one of history's great tragic ironies, the Yuanmingyuan, which had been designed in part by European Jesuits, was burned down by European (British and French) soldiers during the Second Opium War in 1860. That war was a complicated diplomatic and political seesaw, with the British and French supporting the Qing against the Taiping Rebellion while also fighting them over opium and trade. After initially signing a series of 'unequal treaties' to end the conflict, the hapless Xianfeng Emperor was convinced to take a hard line, which to Western eyes looked like a repudiation of the just-negotiated treaties.

Whereas the earlier fighting had been confined to Canton (Guangzhou) and nearby parts of southern China, this time the British and French went for Beijing itself in order to 'send a message.' After capturing outlying coastal forts and Tianjin, the combined British and French force prepared to move on Beijing, but sent ahead a delegation to negotiate a possible Qing surrender. Instead, acting on information that their own envoy had been arrested in Tianjin, Qing officials arrested, interrogated, and tortured the British delegation, killing more than a dozen of the group. In retaliation, the British commander, James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin (son of Thomas Bruce, famous for 'procuring' marble columns from Greece), ordered the destruction of the Yuanmingyuan, a process that took several thousand troops three full days. Treasures from the palace soon found their way back to Europe and were kept as family heirlooms or went to auction houses and museums (the Yiheyuan was also looted). Even many contemporary European observers recognized that the act was extreme and in particular condemned the wanton looting by British and French soldiers.

For their part, the Qing hoped to rebuild the complex but were hardly in a financial position to do so (the gardens suffered additional damage during the Boxer Uprising and other upheavals of modern Chinese history). The destruction of the palace became a rallying cry for Chinese nationalists in the 20th century and the palace ruins were deliberately left unreconstructed as a reminder of China's 'national humiliation.' The ruins are now maintained as a sort of open-air museum and are an obligatory stop for groups of schoolchildren and government workers sent to learn about the perfidy of foreign imperialists.
The Macartney Mission
The Macartney Embassy was a diplomatic mission by Great Britain to the Qianlong Emperor of the Qing Dynasty meant to expand British trading rights in China and establish a permanent embassy in Beijing. Thirty-five years earlier, British traders of the East India Company (EIC) were confined to trading with an officially sanctioned set of Chinese traders in Canton (Guangzhou). Although the Canton System was profitable, the EIC found it too cumbersome and restrictive, while also feeling that a direct line to Beijing was necessary to resolve disputes, rather than working through several layers of intermediaries and bureaucrats. A mission led by Charles Cathcart had been sent to Beijing in 1787, but Cathcart died before reaching China and the embassy was abandoned.

George Macartney's mission left Britain in September 1792 with a retinue of translators, painters, secretaries, scholars, and scientists. The embassy traveled via Madeira, Tenerife, Rio de Janeiro, the Cape of Good Hope, Indonesia, and Macau, before moving up the Chinese coast and reaching Beijing on August 21, 1793. Macartney's second in command was George Leonard Staunton who served as the expedition's secretary and chronicler. Staunton's eleven-year-old son, George Thomas Staunton, nominally the ambassador's page, learned Chinese during the voyage, became very adept at the language, and served as a translator for the mission alongside the Catholic priests Paolo Zhou (周保羅) and Jacobus Li Zibiao (李自標). The younger Staunton later became chief of the East India Company's factory at Canton, translated works between Chinese and English, and helped found the Royal Asiatic Society. Barrow, the embassy comptroller who had previously been the younger Staunton's mathematics teacher, also picked up enough Chinese to help translate and became something of a Sinologist in the years after the embassy's return.

The embassy was poorly managed from the beginning and, despite considerable pomp from the English perspective, appeared poor and rag-tag to the Qianlong Emperor. Partly through lack of preparation, partly through arrogance, and partly due to the emperor's distaste for the British, the embassy failed in all its primary objectives. This disappointing result was compounded by a now-famous letter from Qianlong to King George III that chided the British monarch for his audacity in making demands of the Qing and his ignorance of the Chinese system, ending with a reminder not to treat Chinese laws and regulations lightly, punctuated with the memorable phrase 'Tremblingly obey and show no negligence!' (a common phrase used by the emperor in communications to his own subjects).

Macartney's Mission highlighted cultural misunderstandings between China and the West, and has often been taken as a turning point in Chinese history. Qianlong's dismissal of foreign objects as mere toys and his insistence of the centrality of China in the world's hierarchy of kingdoms have been seen as sign of Chinese intransigence and a harbinger of China's awful course in the 19th century. At the time the embassy visited, Qianlong had been in power for nearly sixty years and had increasingly turned over management of the empire to a small group of self-serving officials, particularly Heshen, remembered as the most corrupt official in Chinese history. In the countryside, overpopulation and famine provoked millenarian religious movements and uprisings. On the southern coast, the EIC began importing opium in larger and larger quantities, eventually causing a severe social and economic crisis throughout southern China. In retrospect, both Chinese and foreign historians of every ideological bent have seen the Macartney Mission as a missed opportunity for the Qing to recognize the tremendous changes taking place in Europe and address the underlying problems that would eventually sink the empire. However, recent research has challenged the established view that Qianlong haughtily dismissed the British as unimportant barbarians or that the embassy failed due to Macartney's refusal to kowtow in the customary fashion to the emperor. As is often the case, subsequent history has caused historians (both Chinese and foreign) to ascribe meaning and implications to the meeting that are not evident from the archival documents themselves.
Publication History and Census
This diagram was drawn by John Barrow, a member of the embassy, and engraved by James Baker for inclusion in the first edition of George Leonard Staunton's An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China, published in London by George Nicol in 1797. It is not independently cataloged in the holdings of any institution, while the full Authentic Account is well-represented in institutional collections.


John Barrow (June 19, 1764 – November 23, 1848) was an English statesman, cartographer, and writer active in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Barrow was born in the village of Dragley Beck, in Ulverston, Cumbria. His first recorded work was as a superintending clerk at a Liverpool iron foundry, but by his early 20s, transitioned to teaching mathematics at a private school in Greenwich. One of his pupils, the young son of Sir George Leonard Staunton, favored him and he was introduced to Lord George Macarteny. Barrow accompanied Macartney as a comptroller of household, on his 1792-1794, embassy to China. Having acquitted himself well, Barrow was hired by Macartney as private secretary on a political mission to the newly acquired Cape Colony, South Africa. Barrow was given the difficult task of reconciling Boer settlers with the indigenous African population. In the course of this voyage he traveled throughout the Cape Colony, coming to know that country well. There he married botanical artist Anna Maria Truter, and, in 1800, acquired a home with the intention of settling in Cape Town. Following the 1802 Peace of Amiens, the British surrendered the colony and Barrow returned to England where he was appointed Second Secretary to the Admiralty, a post he held with honor for the subsequent 40 years. In his position at the Admiralty Barrow promoted various voyages of discovery, including those of John Ross, William Edward Parry, James Clark Ross, and John Franklin. The Barrow Strait in the Canadian Arctic as well as Point Barrow and the city of Barrow in Alaska are named after him. He is reputed to have been the initial proposer of St Helena as the new place of exile for Napoleon Bonaparte following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. He was a member of the Royal Society and the Raleigh Club, a forerunner of the Royal Geographical Society. In 1835 Sir Robert Peel conferred upon him a baronetcy. Learn More...

George Nicol (1740 - June 25, 1828) was a Scottish bookseller and publisher active in in 18th-century London. Nicol was born in Scotland, but relocated to London in 1769 to work with his uncle, the Strand bookseller David Wilson (17?? - 1777). The two eventually became full business partners, enjoying immense success. When Wilson died in 1777, Nichol took over the business in full. In 1781, Nicol was appointed official bookseller to King George III, a position he maintained until 1820. In 1787 he relocated to Pall Mall, acquiring 51 and 58 Pall Mall, one as a shop and the other as living quarters. Around 1800, his son George Nicol joined the firm, and it was renamed George and William Nicol. When the elder Nichol died in 1828, the firm continued as William Nicol until 1855. Learn More...

Joseph Baker (1767 - 1817) was a British naval officer and explorer best known for his service under George Vancouver during the historical Vancouver expedition to map the Pacific Northwest. Vancouver was born in the Welsh border counties. He joined the Royal Navy in 1787 where he met and befriended then-Lieutenant George Vancouver and then-Midshipman Peter Puget. When Vancouver was commissioned to complete the exploration of the American Northwest Coast, he chose Baker as he 3rd Lieutenant and Puget as his 2nd Lieutenant. During the course of the expedition Baker was assigned the task of converting surveys into working maps and his name appears on many of Vancouver's most important maps, including the first complete map of the Hawaiian Islands. Baker, along with the expedition's naturalist Archibald Menzies, completed the first recorded ascent of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano. Mt. Baker, in modern day Washington, is also named after him. In his journals Vancouver wrote admiringly of Baker's work:

…my third Lieutenant Mr. Baker had undertaken to copy and embellish, and who, in point of accuracy, neatness, and such dispatch as circumstances admitted, certainly excelled in a very high degree.
Following the Vancouver expedition Baker briefly retired from naval service until being recalled and made Captain in 1808. Assigned to the ship HMS Tartar, Baker was charged with escort duty in the Baltic. There, in a series of skirmishes with Danish privateers, Baker fell afoul of his British superiors and was court-martialed. Although acquitted of the court martial, Baker never again served in the Royal Navy. He retired to Presteigne where he maintained a long standing friendship to Puget, who moved to the same town on his own retirement. Learn More...


Staunton, G., An Authentic Account of an Embassy from the King of Great Britain to the Emperor of China, (London: G. Nicol) 1797.    


Very good. Fairly evenly toned. Light foxing in the margins, especially at bottom-right.


Harrison, H., 'The Qianlong Emperor’s Letter to George III and the Early-Twentieth-Century Origins of Ideas about Traditional China’s Foreign Relations' The American Historical Review, Volume 122, Issue 3, June 2017, pp. 680–701.