THE IMMOBILE EMPIRE by Alain Peyrefitte

THE IMMOBILE EMPIRE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 A painstakingly researched, gracefully written, but far too leisurely account of the misadventures of an 18th-century British royal delegation to the Celestial Court of the Chinese Emperor Qianlong. Peyrefitte (The Trouble with France, 1981, etc.) is a diplomat/historian who has served as a foreign envoy under de Gaulle and three other French presidents. Having gained unprecedented entree to the Imperial Archives of Beijing's Forbidden City, and drawing on contemporary English accounts as well as on the previously unpublished diary of a precocious 12-year-old member of the delegation, Peyrefitte is able to present a stereoscopic view of the events that took place between September 1792 and September 1794. Along the way, he analyzes such matters as the loggerhead created when the British sense of superiority met the Chinese conviction that theirs was the perfect, and hence unchangeable, society. This cultural impasse found its most ludicrous expression in the nearly interminable maneuverings that resulted when the Chinese Emperor insisted on the traditional kowtow from British ambassador George Macartney, and the English Lord refused to perform the ritual abasement; Peyrefitte describes the resulting fuss at length. Also investigated are such matters as the sexual implications of foot- binding; the efficiency of the Chinese postal system as compared to its snail-paced European counterparts; the establishment of the opium trade; and the Chinese puzzle box of Imperial Court etiquette. Moreover, Peyrefitte uses many of these topics as springboards to discuss recent Chinese history, and he concludes with a summary of later developments in Sino-European relations. A smooth, frequently understated, and disarming translation. But while Peyrefitte's nearly day-by-day account will fascinate Sinologists and students of East-West affairs, it may prove too detailed for the average reader. (Sixteen pages of full-color illustrations and six maps--not seen.)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-394-58654-9
Page count: 624pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1992