The Humiliation of the 19th Century Chinese Qing Empire

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American troops in the relief of Peking in China on 14 August 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion.

The first British visitors to Shanghai in 1832, some East India Company officers, demanded the Chinese lift restrictions on Sino-European trade.

In 1839, British gunboats returned to China to prevent the Chinese administration from regulating the opium trade. China, weak and unprepared, under Qing Dynasty rule, was easily cowed by the British. The first opium war (1839-42) was devastating and traumatic for ordinary Chinese people. Shanghai was looted and Zhenjiang was crammed full of bodies of suicides who preferred death to captivity.

Western triumph

Britain and America imported cheap opium from the British East India Company which resulted in 90% of Chinese men under 40 severely addicted to opium. Emperor Dao-guang (1821-50) confiscated opium leading directly to the first opium war. The resulting treaty was considered a triumph by the west – Chinese ports were opened to international trade; European communities in Shanghai and Canton were established. British new money and new ideas destroyed the traditional Chinese way of life. Imperialist aggression ruled. Peace meant the Chinese coast was ceded to the west. In 1842 the Treaty of Nanking was followed by another treaty in 1843 when China ceded Hong Kong to Britain.

The Chinese seized a British ship, the Arrow, suspected of piracy and smuggling whose crew was unfairly released under the Treaty of Nanking. This started the second opium war (1856-60) climaxing with Admiral Sir Michael Seymour (Lord Elgin) seizing Canton in 1857 and looting Emperor Xianfeng’s Beijing Summer Palace. China ceded Kowloon to Britain and Chinese indentured labourers were sent to America to build their railways.

The Chinese/French war over Tuyen Quang lasted one year from1884-85.

Violence marked Colonial Society

These wars led to the fall of the Manchu Dynasty and the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 who were motivated to annihilate the Foreign Devils who ruined China.

By 1900, a coalition of French, British, German, Japanese, American, Sikh, Bengali and Algerian troops had smashed the Boxer uprising. The Dowager Empress of China, Tsu-Hsi both helped and hindered the Boxers as she tried to appease the Colonial powers. The western powers could not have succeeded without the close interaction and the expertise, connections and language of their willing Chinese partners.

Genuine progress

British doctors immunised thousands of Chinese against smallpox in the treaty ports; the British laid China’s first telegraph line from Hong Kong to Shanghai in 1871 and laid its first railway line in 1881. Britain established the Hong-Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) which endures today. The world of concessions and treaty ports fell apart after World War One, as horrific civil war and famine tore China apart.

China Versus China

The invasion of China by opportunistic Japan in 1937 led to two Chinese armies taking on the invaders. Chang-kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese troops fought the Japanese Imperial Army unsupported except for American Flying Tigers’ air support. The Chinese Communist Forces under Mao Zedong took on the Japanese in the northeast of China. Communist and Nationalist China fought a vicious civil war immediately after World War Two.

Modern Chinese students seek educational opportunities in the West and expect the next century will be very different with China in the ascendancy. Today, China has the largest cash reserves of any modern country and is anticipating unprecedented economic growth in the 21st century.