CHAPTER 17Corps de Ballet

One should never give a clock as a present, it is said, because song zhong, the act of gifting a clock, is a memento mori, or a symbol of death. The Chinese superstition is of fairly recent vintage, however, and we know this because it was never referenced as an explanation for the failure of England's first trade mission to the country in 1793.

Lord George Macartney, His Majesty's envoy to the Middle Kingdom, carried with him more than 600 bundles of presents on the maiden voyage, and a great deal has been written about several custom‐made clocks that were presented to the emperor. In his famous letter to King George the Third at the conclusion of the diplomatic event, the Qianlong emperor dismissed the British and what they had to offer: “We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures.” Many believe the reference here is to the clocks, which were presumably brought as evidence of England's technological advancement.

Although chronometry was not exactly prevalent in eighteenth‐century China, it would be wrong to conclude that a modern clock had never before been seen in the Forbidden City. Macartney noted that members of his mission caught sight of several sing‐songs (as musical clocks were called then) in the emperor's pavilions.

Of all the gifts that Macartney brought, the one that he placed the greatest emphasis on was an automatic planetarium, which Chinese translators at the time incorrectly ...

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