TWO hundred years ago King George III's ambassador to the Emperor of China set foot on Chinese soil on a mission that ultimately failed but had a long-term impact neither side could see. The Dutch and the Russians had sent embassies to the Middle Kingdom before; but they had achieved absolutely nothing. Lord Macartney was chosen as the British ambassador. Macartney was a cultured man. He was a friend of Dr Johnston and Voltaire. He had been Envoy Extraordinary to Catherine the Great of Russia and Governor of Madras. If Russian Empresses and Indian Nawabs succumbed to his Irish charm, why not the Son of Heaven? All the British wanted to do was to talk; to be treated as equals, to sort out a few problems facing their merchants in Canton and perhaps set up a permanent legation in Beijing. China was an almost closed country at the time. Macartney's party included sinologists, astrologers, mathematicians, botanists and a number of artists. As the embassy was taken up the river in a fleet of barges, a banner appeared on the leading junk announcing in huge Chinese characters: ''Tribute Embassy from Red Barbarians.'' Macartney was not pleased. They were accompanied by the Emperor's Legate whose main job appeared to be to try to persuade Lord Macartney to kowtow to the Emperor. The symbolic act of an ambassador grovelling before the Dragon Throne implied that King George III was a cringing subject of Chien Lung, the then Emperor of China. As one of the main objects of the Macartney's mission was to persuade the Emperor that the King of England was his equal - this was unacceptable. Macartney decided to write directly to the Emperor saying that he was quite willing to perform the kowtow ceremony provided that a mandarin of equal rank kowtowed before an oil painting of King George III. It was a brilliant solution; but there was a snag - he couldn't get anyone to write the letter for him in formal Chinese. His interpreter, who was a Chinese christian from Naples, was unfamiliar with the elaborate court style of Chinese which was required; and everyone else was too frightened to help. Eventually a capable translator was found and bribed to compose the letter. It had to be done in secret. If his identity was discovered, he would have been executed. So his draft had to be ''copied, fare, by Master George Staunton'' the 12-year-old son of Macartney's secretary Sir George Staunton. The boy was a gifted linguist and had spent his time on the voyage to China learning to read and write Chinese. Young George Staunton's ill-written letter was accepted by the Grand Secretary, Ho Shen. The Emperor must have been curious because he unexpectedly agreed that it was unnecessary for Macartney to perform the kowtow. At dawn, a few days later, Lord Macartney, Sir George Staunton and young George Staunton were ushered into the Emperor's presence. Macartney on bended knee (just one knee bent) presented a letter written in Latin from King George to the Emperor. After accepting the letter the Son of Heaven graciously exchanged a few words with young Staunton. Then they all had breakfast and the audience was over. Macartney having seen ''Solomon in all his glory'' immediately tried to get down to business. He did not realise at first that, as far as the Chinese were concerned, the sole purpose of the embassy had been completed; the barbarian had given his wretchedtribute to the Emperor and there was nothing further to discuss. Neither the Emperor nor the Grand Secretary showed any willingness to talk. Eventually the Emperor's arrogant reply to King George was handed to Macartney. It seemed to instruct King George that his only duty was ''perpetual submission to the Dragon Throne''. Further efforts to open talks were met with an order to leave China immediately. If Lord Macartney thought that he had created a precedent by not kowtowing to the Emperor he was sadly mistaken. When Lord Amherst arrived in Beijing a few years later, he was told by the mandarins that as Macartney had kowtowed to the Emperor, he must follow suit. There is nothing new about rewriting history. And it seems that trying to hold talks with China was as difficult two centuries ago as it is today.