When Wei Yuan was born, the Qing Dynasty was at the apex of its power, as the Qianlong Emperor neared the end of his six decade reign. Under Manchu-led Qing rule, China had more than doubled in size thanks to brutal military campaigns in the 17th and 18th centuries, described by Peter Perdue in China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Economically, China’s wealthiest regions rivaled standards of living in the richest parts of Europe, according to Kenneth Pomeranz’s groundbreaking book The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy.
Just months before Wei Yuan’s birth, Emperor Qianlong received Lord George Macartney, a British emissary, in Beijing. Qianlong dismissively informed the British that China had no need for any English goods or inventions, and sends him back to King George III empty handed. This dismissal would prove a defining moment in Sino-Western relations, with the British left desperately searching for other ways to balance a massive trade deficit fueled by British demand for tea.