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  • Print publication year: 2015
  • Online publication date: May 2018

5 - Expansion, reform, and communication in the agrarian empires of Asia

from Part II - 1700–1850: Revolution and reform


In 1712, the Manchu official Tulisen left Beijing for the shores of the lower Volga River, in Russia, to visit a Mongolian khan. It was a distance of over 3,000 miles, and it took him nearly three years to get there and back. The emperor of China had sent him to explore Russian territory and look for an alliance against other Mongolian rivals. He was not invited to see the tsar (the ruler of all Russia), but he wrote a detailed account of the topography, ethnography, and history of all the regions he had crossed.

Seven years later, John Bell, a Scotsman in the service of the Russian tsar, set out from St. Petersburg for Beijing, covering much the same route as Tulisen in the opposite direction. He, too, reported accurately on the region’s geography, politics, and history, gathering scientific knowledge and military intelligence at the same time. Others followed them, like Ivan Unkovski, a Russian officer, who visited the Mongolian khan in Zungharia in 1722, and the French Jesuit Gerbillon, who accompanied the Chinese emperor on his military campaigns in the middle of the century. At the end of the century, the Englishman George Lord Macartney arrived by sea in Beijing in 1793 to negotiate the opening of formal trade relations between Britain and China.