The Burlingame Mission

How an 1867 Embassy Prefigured Chinese and American Power

An 1868 portrait of diplomats from China. Burlingame stands at center. library of congress

In November 1867, China credentialed its first diplomatic mission to the West. Although it was only authorized to stay abroad for one year, the mission took nearly three. It visited San Francisco, New York, Washington, London, Paris, Stockholm, Copenhagen, The Hague, Berlin, St. Petersburg, Brussels, Florence, Madrid, and Suez, concluding a treaty revision with the United States, receiving an official declaration of policy from the United Kingdom, and dazzling its audiences everywhere.

That the first Chinese mission to the West visited the United States before moving on to Europe was no coincidence. The man commissioned to lead the mission had been educated at the University of Michigan and Harvard Law School. But he was not an early haigui, or “sea turtle”—the name given today to Chinese students who study abroad and then return to China to build their careers. He was an American.

His name was Anson Burlingame. A three-term member of the House of Representatives from Massachusetts, Burlingame lost his seat in the election of 1860 that brought Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. His consolation was an ambassadorship. Lincoln at first appointed him minister to Austria-Hungary but withdrew that commission because Vienna objected to Burlingame’s earlier support for Hungarian independence. So he was instead sent to Beijing, where he became the United States’ second permanent diplomatic representative in China.

Burlingame served almost seven years in that post. On November 21, 1867, he abruptly tendered his resignation. Two days later, he sent a short telegram to U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward:

Chinese empire appointed me envoy to treaty powers. Accepted. Leave at once for San Francisco.

And with that, Burlingame went from being the representative of the United States in China to being the representative of China to the world.

The Forbidden City in Beijing, December 2011. Jason Lee / REUTERS


When Americans think about the 1860s, they tend to focus on the momentous struggle of the Civil War and the contentious politics of Reconstruction. But Washington’s foreign affairs continued despite the fighting at home, and

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