Abstract: This article explores early Chinese perceptions of Britain prior to the 1840s. It shows that, from the Qianlong reign to the eve of the Opium War, although knowledge of Britain in China was indeed limited, this was not a period in which Chinese understanding of Britain was either negligible or unchanging. As contacts between the two nations increased, both the local elite in the south‐eastern coastal areas and the elite at the imperial court in Beijing obtained credible as well as inaccurate information on Britain and the British people. Although in these years a potential challenge from the British was becoming increasingly imaginable and China’s attitude towards Britain was quickly changing, the Qing government did not pay serious attention to studying Britain as an emerging world power. Nor did it institute a wide‐ ranging investigation of British power and influence as a preparation for self‐defence. As a result of some misperceptions, the Chinese government and people were largely unprepared for serious aggression from Britain, even though they had been aware of Britain’s naval ambition for decades.
Keywords: China, Britain, perceptions, encounter, the Opium War