The Macartney Embassy to China, 1792-94

Paul Gillingham looks at a kowtow fiasco and a failure in Anglo-Chinese understanding.

Lining the boardroom of Coutts Bank in London's Strand is a striking and unusual wallpaper. Made of mulberry paper, a cross between rice-paper and silk, it depicts scenes of everyday life in Imperial China in the sort of detail that makes it a wallpaper equivalent of a documentary film.

Shopkeepers keep accounts with their abacuses, labourers collect birds' nests for making soup, women adorn a tea house-cum-brothel, bare-footed servants wait on their masters, and horses, dogs and children hang about courtyards. Tea is picked, dried, packed and sold and the stages of silk production are shown, from collecting cocoons off mulberry trees, to spinning and weaving.

Such is the wallpaper's importance to the bank that it has survived being moved twice since it was first hung nearly two hundred years ago. In 1978 it was found to be so firmly glued on that the walls were dismantled and rebuilt as part of the modern bank – just to save the wallpaper.

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