China History Prior to the 1800’s, and before foreign influence, China was a powerful country, and had been ruled by many different dynasties starting with the Hsia dynasty in the second millenium B.C. to the Ching dynasty ending in 1911. (A Short History of China, pp. 12, 166.) Although dynasties had changed and several dynasties had been foreign, the Manchus (Ching dynasty) were the last foreign people to rule over China. The Manchus kept their own language and ethnic identity but maintained political order and military organization and thus insinuated themselves into China and gained the cooperation of the elite, the traditional educated gentry, who were the leading families in the communities and provided officials to the bureaucracy.
In the eighteenth century the Manchus and Chinese, along with many foreigners, saw China as the world’s greatest civilization, representing the highest possible attainment of humanity. China seemed to have lasting peace, a high standard of living, institutional stability, art and literature. (Imperial China,4-5.) China was considered a beautiful vast country, its people hard-working and sober, its land fertile and blessed with many lakes, rivers and canals, but so populous and crowded that most of the people lived in poverty. They worked continuously just to exist, many so desperate that they sold themselves and their families as slaves, hoping to redeem themselves at some future time. (Imperial China, pp. 115-19.) Over time the scholar-gentry ruling class became distanced from the peasant population, pursuing their private lives, not having any apparent interest in technological advances or the world outside them, becoming decadent, inept and corrupt, squandering resources. During the nineteenth century Taiping rebels decried the corruption in the system.
But Europeans also knew little about China, saw only its exotic products. Europe itself had undergone centuries of experimentation and innovation and seeking truth and action. But China felt they already knew the truth and failed to progress. (Imperial China, pp. 4-8.) The Chinese considered foreigners to be illiterate barbarians and forbade anyone doing business with them. Although they had been expelled from Chinese mainland ports, the Portuguese eventually became the first to trade with China, from a base on the off-shore island of Macao. The English tried to establish negotiations to remove trade restrictions and to install an ambassador in Peking.
The English representative refused to kowtow to the traditional manner of appearing before the emperor. The Manchus did allow the representative to compromise by kissing the hand of the emperor, which was the behavior expected before the English ruler. The upshot, however, was that China responded to King George III that it had no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own products. (A Short History of China, p. 170.) Although China was not interested in British products, including bronze figures, elastic garters, and fleecy hosiery, the British East India Company had illegally brought a huge stock of opium to China a year prior to the attempts of Britain to open trade.
(A Short History of China, p. 170.) Opium was originally used to stop diarrhea. The British imported silk and tea and porcelain from China, which they paid for with luxury items such as clocks and textiles but mostly with silver. China also exacted high customs duties upon foreigners. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries people in all classes began to use opium recreationally.
As the opium trade increased, more and more Chinese became addicted and the balance of trade shifted—more silver was going out than goods being exported. (Imperial China, p. 133.) China’s economy was failing. In 1800 the import of opium was forbidden by the imperial government. However, the opium trade continued to flourish. Privately owned vessels of many countries, including the United States, made huge profits from the growing number of Chinese addicts.
The government in Peking noted that the foreigners seemed intent on dragging down the Chinese through the encouragement of opium addiction. (A Short History of the Opium Wars.) In the meantime, the army became corrupt and the tax farmers cheated the people. The bureaucracy became more inefficient, and the weak emperors were unable to face any challenges of the time. In the 1830s more than 30,000 chests of opium (each about 150 lb.) were being brought in annually by the foreign powers. In 1839 Chinese authorities at Canton confiscated and burned the opium.
In response to the destruction of the opium the British occupied positions around Canton and declared war. The Chinese could not match the technological and tactical superiority of the British forces. In 1842 China agreed to the Treaty of Nanking. Hong Kong was given to to Great Britain, and other ports were opened to British residence and trade. The French and Americans approached the Chinese after the Nanking Treaty became known, and in 1844 gained the same trading rights as the British.
The advantages granted the three nations by the Chinese set a precedent that would dominate China’s relations with the world for the next century. The most favored nation treatment came to be extended so far that China’s right to rule in its own territory was limited. This began the period referred to by the Chinese as the time of unequal treaties—a time of unprecedented degradation for China. China’s treatment by foreign nations at that time affected its foreign policy in the decades that followed. Meanwhile, the opium trade continued to thrive. The British and French again defeated China in a second opium war in 1856. By the terms of the Treaty of Tientsin (1858) the Chinese opened new ports to trading and allowed foreigners with passports to travel in the interior. Christians gained the right to spread their faith and hold property, thus opening up another means of western penetration.
The United States and Russia gained the same privileges in separate treaties. (A Short History of the Opium Wars.) The Taiping Rebellion (from 1850 to approximately 1864), turning into civil war, was based on the distorted and hallucinagenic beliefs of a Christian-converted Chinese (Hung Hsiu-chuan) who believed a type of heavenly kingdom could be established on earth. The Taipings were a secret society who broke with Confucianism and most Chinese traditions. The Taipings denounced opium, tobacco, drink, sexual immorality, corruption and gambling. The movement quickly assumed a military-evangelical-patriotic character. The Taipings swept through city after city and ruled half of China for eleven years.
In 1864, in Nanking, in a confrontation with Imperial troops, the Taiping were crushingly defeated. However, their memory and the social and political forces that set in motion the rebellion were not forgotten. (China, 100 Years of Revolution, pp. 28-33.) In 1900 the Boxer Rebellion (so called by the foreign press because of the many members of the secret society who were martial artists) started as a protest to the Europeans, the Americans and Japanese intervention and corruption in China. They were also opposed to the Ching dynasty (Manchurians), who had ruled China for 300 years. The Boxers focussed particularly on Christian missionaries, who they thought were destroying traditional Chinese culture, getting involved in politics and were becoming greedy and corrupt. Many Christians, both Chinese and foreign missionaries, were slaughtered in horrible ways. TheDowager Empress (Ching dynasty) persuaded the Chinese to combine with the Manchurians (Ching dynasty) against the foreigners.
The Boxers wanted all foreigners killed, but the Dowager Empress, though upset with much of the treatment by foreigners secretly did not want them all killed because she knew that would not solve the problems. Isolated legations (like embassies) of foreigners wanted to leave China. Rescue forces, starting from 2,000 men, were thwarted by the Boxers in their attempts to reach these legations. Various foreign forces—consisting of English, French, American, Japanese, German, Russian, Indian, to name most— the largest being the 2nd International Relief Column at 20,000 at Peking, invaded China and beat down the Boxer rebellion. (The Boxer Rebellion 1900.) At the beginning of World War I Europe had more important matters upon which to concentrate. The result was that their focus was on the war and away from China. After 200 years of decline, China made a new beginning, starting on a long, hard road to catch up to the twentieth century.