China Stumbles: Opium Wars, Taiping And Boxer Rebellions


The shock to the system that began China’s long, slow nervous breakdown was the First Opium War, fought against British invaders 1839 to 1842.  The authors of Wealth And Power (a book I cannot praise highly enough for its summary of modern Chinese political history) call this “China’s first major clash with the West”– but certainly not its last.  Instead, it was “the start of an interminable series of military and diplomatic defeats at the hands of imperialist powers.”

The precipitating act unleashing the dogs of war was the decision by China (then under the rule of the Qing Dynasty) to send Commissioner Lin Zexu to Canton to stop the British from marketing their Indian-grown opium to the Chinese.  China’s Qing Dynasty were Manchus who had come to power over a majority-Han nation.  The Qings also had the distinct non-honor of being the dynasty which ruled China during the decline in power and prestige it suffered in ever-worsening degrees throughout the 1800s.  The fact that the Qings are not of the majority Han ethnicity will later be a contributing factor to their overthrow… that, and of course their letting the country fall to pieces.  By the way, it was the “alien” Qings who forced the Hans to wear those long hair-queues most of us have seen in period films or old photographs.

At the time of Commissioner Lin Zexu’s assignment, 1839, Canton was the only Chinese port open to European trade, and most of the opium came through there.  One of the first things Lin Zexu did was to get hold of all the arriving and stored opium that he could (20,000 chests) and ruin it by dousing it with brine and lime.  He also demanded that the British halt the opium trade with China, citing both moral and economic grounds.

The answer from Britain came in the form of a fleet of ships which arrived in the summer of 1840.  The first war over the opium trade was on.

The 1842 treaty closing the First Opium War (called  the Treaty Of Nanjing) was signed inside the Temple Of The Tranquil Sea.  In it, the victorious British demanded, and the humiliated Chinese acquiesced to, the opening up of four coastal cities to Western trade, including Shanghai.  These would become known collectively as The Treaty Ports.  Additionally, the British were given– entirely– a then-desolate island called Hong Kong.  The Treaty Of Nanjing was considered by the Chinese to be, as our authors say, “bitterly humiliating, and was to become the first in a long series of what will later be called the “Unequal Treaties” — treaties signed by China with foreign powers over the course of the next several decades.

The exhibit located today at The Temple Of The Tranquil Sea declares that “those Unequal Treaties were like fettering ropes of humiliation that made China lose the control of her political and military affairs.”  The plaque goes on to state that the Unequal Treaties “seriously hindered and destroyed the social and economic development of China.” 

During the next decade, the 1850s, China suffered more catastrophes.  First, there was the Taiping Rebellion, which begins in 1850.  It was one of those complicated civil wars which mixes racial tensions (majority Hans versus ruling Manchus [the Qings]) with religious disturbances (a Chinese Christian sect starts causing Luan, or Chaos), and tosses in a little socio-economic antagonism (peasants versus landlords).  Before it is over, the Taiping Rebellion will cause the death of twenty million Chinese.  Twenty… Million…

Also before the Taiping Rebellion is over, the Second Opium War with Britain will start, really turning the screw on a tortured China.  In 1860, the Chinese admit defeat in the Second Opium War, and another Unequal Treaty is signed.

In 1861, the woman who would rule China for most of the next half-century comes to power.  She was also part of the Qing Dynasty, making her a Manchu, and thus viewed by many majority Hans as a foreigner.  Her name was Empress Cixi, and the writers of Wealth And Power note that “her lasting historical legacy was to reign over the critical period when her empire missed the boat to modernity.”  They also point-out that she was “the only woman that ever ruled over one-third of the human race“–and she did it for nearly fifty years.

Actually, Empress Cixi was only supposed to rule until her son came of age, and in fact she appears to have willingly stepped down after twelve years of rule when the proper time came,  She immediately turned her focus from ruling China to focus on efforts underway for rebuilding (and greatly altering) the Summer Palace northwest of Bejing which the Brits had destroyed, according to our authors, purely as a non-strategically-important act of revenge during the Second Opium War.  However, after only two years in power, her son died of smallpox and so Cixi stepped back into power.  Again, she was to rule only until the male successor came of age, that male successor now being her younger sister’s son, the Guang Xu Emperor.

However, to skip ahead in the story just a bit, when the young Guang Xu Emperor comes to power, he immediately launches a series of reforms– with less than stellar results.  After several months of rapid and far-reaching changes (called now “The Hundred Days Reform“), Empress Cixi pushes her nephew the Emperor out of power and resumes command.  She executes half a dozen or so of the leading reformers and puts the ousted Emperor into prison– where he stays alive but his health promptly collapses.

It was also during Empress Cixi’s rule that China became embroiled in a war with France when the French, trying to wrest Vietnam from China’s sphere of influence in the 1880s, show up to fight.  China signed that particular Unequal Treaty of defeat in 1885.

About ten years later comes the Sino-Japanese War (some of my younger readers may not be familiar with the word “Sino,” which is just the English language’s quirky way of sometimes saying “Chinese”).  Developments in Korea precipated this war (though Japanese ambitions could be said to be the deeper “cause” of the war).  Korea, like Vietnam, had looong been in China’s sphere of influence.  And by the 1890s, the rulers of Korea (the Choson Dynasty of the Yi Family) had ruled for half a millennium.  When in 1894 Korea’s peasants revolt, China and Japan both move in, and soon they are fighting each other– the first war between China and Japan in 300 years (I haven’t verified this, but I think the last time they went to war was also over Korea).

China signs that Unequal Treaty of defeat in 1895, and Korea goes under the de facto control of Japan.  Japan also is given outright sovereignty over the Pescadores Islands, as well as over Taiwan (an island which will achieve a different sort of separate status from China in another half century or so).  China futhermore has to pay a huge indemnity to Japan.

Li Hongzhang, the man on the scene to sign the 1895 treaty ending the Sino-Japanese War (the Treaty Of Shimonoseki), predicted that Japan would be “China’s future disaster.”  He believed that the rising Japanese would leave China farther and farther behind unless China took a page from the Japanese playbook and adopted Western methods.  To Li Hongzhang, this meant more than merely buying Western guns and ships.  This meant deep home-industry changes.  The authors of Wealth And Power write that Li Hongzhang “understood that behind the West’s ability to build superior gunboats and win wars lay an infrastructural matrix that depended on research institutes, transportation networks, communication systems, and new kinds of finance.”

Three years after the devestating defeat at the hands of the modernizing Japanese, China faced more internal disorder in the so-called Boxer Rebellion.  Again, reminiscent of the Taiping Rebellion, Christian Chinese figure prominently in hostilities.  Under terms of previous Unequal Treaties, Westerners had been given the right to offer special protections to Christians living in China.  Peasants in northern China grew increasingly resentful at seeing Chinese Christians receive such special treatment by Westerners, and they turned their martial arts associations into thug patrols targeting Chinese converts to Christianity.  This thuggery went so well for the martial artists (the West called them “Boxers”) that they soon expanded their targets to include foreigners.  Empress Cixi decided to throw her support behind the Boxers… not particularly pleasing the West.  They responded with an eight-nation alliance which crushed the Boxer Rebellion.  Again, China had suffered not just in life and limb– and not just materially– but in national prestige.  The Chinese people, along with their leaders and intellectuals, redoubled their efforts to figure-out where it had all gone wrong.  How had the great “Central Kingdom” fallen so far behind the barbarians from the far western fringe of the world?



Other HAMMERING SHIELD posts on the politics of modern China…

Third Generation Rulers & Recent Dissidents In China

Deng Xiaoping & Tiananmen Square

Deng Xiaoping’s Counter-Capitalist Revolution In China

Permanent Revolution: The Rise And The Ruthlessness Of Chairman Mao

China Under Chiang Kai-Shek

China Goes Red: The Forgotten Chen Duxiu And The Founding Of China’s Communist Party

China’s May Fourth Incident (and another reason why the Treaty Of Versailles sucked)

Liang Qichao, Yan fu, and China’s Post WWI Disenchantment With The West 

The Transition Of China From Dynasty Rule To Republic, 1912

China In The 19th And 20th Centuries:  The Time Of Writhing 

China Today:  Post-Confucian, Post-Maoist, and Post-Communist 


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