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The Powers Carve Up China 1841 – 1914

China, that immense portion of East Asia bounded by the chilly Amur River and the hot jungles of Indo-China, by the Pacific Ocean and the Himalaya Mountains, was the most populous country on earth. For thousands of years, China had had a highly developed civilization. Its people thought of their land as the world itself; to them, it was the Middle Kingdom between the upper region, heaven and the lower region, hell, which was made up of all other lands. They considered foreigners nothing but barbarians.

Only a few Europeans had entered China since the Middle Ages and the Chinese had scornfully refused to trade with them. The Europeans remembered China, from accounts like those of the Venetian traveler Marco Polo, as a land of fabulous wealth. They longed to lay hands on this wealth and during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the imperialist powers managed to get some of it.

Despite its size, China was very weak. In the family of nations it was like a fat old grandfather whose head was so full of old-fashioned actions that he could not understand the boisterous young people around him. The old man was sick, too — with “internal disorders.” For the Chinese were more and more discontented with their Manchu emperors.

The Manchus were the latest imperial dynasty in a line stretching back over two thousand years. Their ancestors from Manchuria had conquered China in the seventeenth century and many of their subjects still thought of them as foreign barbarians. From time to time, the Chinese rebelled against them and tried to drive them out. China had troubles of its own even before the foreign imperialist came.

The greatest uprising against the Manchus was the Tai-Ping Rebellion of 1850. Twenty million people died — as many as lived in Great Britain at the time. The rebels set up a state in South China and fiercely resisted the Manchu armies sent to crush them. Europeans had begun to appear in China about 1840. They had to deal with some sort of government to get what they wanted and so they helped the Manchus against their enemies in return for rights and privileges. After fourteen years, with European help, the Manchus finally triumphed. By then, however, much of China was in disorder. Independent warlords at the head of armies roamed the countryside in search of plunder. Poverty and confusion were everywhere.

Although Europeans wanted Chinese products, the Chinese did not care for European products. This made trading difficult. For generations the British East India Company had solved the problem of how to get Chinese tea by shipping the Chinese a drug called opium, made from the seeds of poppies grown in India. Opium could be either eaten or smoked. It put the user to sleep, eased his pain, or made him see visions. It was habit-forming and people who took it found that they could not stop.


In 1841, the Manchus tried to control the importing of the dangerous drug into their empire. The British immediately attacked China and forced the government to leave their trade alone. This brief conflict was the First Opium War.

Fifteen years later, the Chinese again tried to regulate the opium trade. This time, the British persuaded the French to invade China with them. In this war, the Second Opium War, the Europeans demanded more than the right to send as much opium as they liked into the country. They wanted to force the Chinese to receive their ambassadors and deal with their traders.

When the Chinese refused, the British and French soldiers marched into Peking, the Chinese capital and set fire to the Emperor’s Summer Palace. They looted the majestic old building of its treasures — vases‚ tapestries, porcelain, enamels, jades and wood-carvings. The soldiers brought so much loot home with them that Chinese art set a new fashion in Europe and America.

Both Opium Wars resulted in treaties, which in turn gave rise to treaties between China and other powers besides Great Britain and France. By the “treaty system,” as it came to be called, China gave up many rights and some land to foreign powers. In return, the foreigners agreed to prop up the shaky Manchu government with their military and naval might.

In 1842, the Chinese handed over the port of Hong Kong to the British. They opened more than a dozen other coastal cities to foreign ships, including Shanghai and Canton. In these “treaty ports” foreigners lived in their own settlements‚ beyond the reach of Chinese laws and even when they traveled in the empire they had to obey only the laws of their home countries. European and American gunboats patrolled the Yangtze River. The Chinese agreed not to charge duties on foreign goods greater than one-twentieth of their worth. Foreigners, not Chinese, collected the customs. Part of this money went to the foreign governments and part to their feeble ally, the Manchu government.

While they were supporting the Manchu emperors with money and arms, the foreign powers humiliated them by snatching slices of their territory. Patriotic Chinese burned with shame to see their country carved away at the edges. They hated both the foreigners for doing it and the Manchus for allowing it, but they were too weak to stop it.

In 1883, France seized Annam and combined it with its other possessions in Southeast Asia to make French Indo-China. Three years later the British took over Burma, on the eastern flank of India. Then, in 1894, a non-European power suddenly made its bid for a share of the loot. This power was Japan. It invaded Korea and the following year forced China to give up Korea, the island of Formosa and the Liaotung Penninsula in south Manchuria. Although the captured lands did not lie within the Chinese Empire, they had paid tribute to the emperor for centuries and their loss was a blow to the Chinese.

The Russians, who had built the Pacific port of Vladivostok a generation before and were constructing the Trans-Siberian Railway connecting it with Europe feared that Japan wanted to dominate their neighbour, Manchuria. Backed by the French and the Germans, they forced the Japanese to withdraw from the Liaotung Peninsula and its seaport, Port Arthur. The peninsula was returned to China.

The European powers had no desire to strengthen China and they were suspicious of Japan. In 1898, they acted together in an effort to get still more Chinese territory. They wrung long-term leases from the Manchu government, which, as usual, was willing to give up land and rights for hard cash.

In this way, Germany acquired Kiaochow Bay and trading rights on the Shantung Peninsula. Russia leased the Liaotung Peninsula and gained the right to build a railway from Port Arthur across Manchuria to link up with its Trans-Siberian line. France took Kwangchow and Great Britain Wei-hai-wei; the British also enlarged their “sphere of influence” in the Yangtze Valley. Even Italy demanded a piece of China, but the other powers blocked its demand. Of the countries trading with China, only the United States neither claimed nor received territory.

The American government, fearing that China’s entire coast might soon be parceled out, announced that it favoured what came to be called the Open Door Policy. It said that China should remain intact, independent and that the powers with special rights in the country should keep the Chinese tariff at five per cent and allow businessmen of all nations to trade there. The British supported the Open Door Policy, partly to prevent China’s land-hungry neighbours, Russia and Japan, from seizing Chinese territory.


The Open Door Policy did nothing to soothe the outraged feelings of the Chinese. In 1899, a secret society broke out in rebellion against the foreigners. Its name, literally translated, was the Order of Literary Patriotic Harmonious Fists, which the foreigners jokingly turned into “Boxers.” The Boxers tore up railway tracks‚ laid siege to the foreign quarters and massacred foreigners and Chinese Christians. An international force, including Japanese and American soldiers, put them down after a brief, fierce struggle.

To make up for their losses, the victors fined the Chinese government $330,000,000 and imposed even stricter controls than before, but the Boxer Rebellion had other and more important results. It made the Manchu officials try to adopt Western ways as fast as possible. It added to the national pride of many Chinese and renewed their hope of forcing both the foreigners and the Manchus out of China. Revolutionary activity spread rapidly, especially in the south.

Gradually, a democratic thinker and man of action named Dr. Sun Yet-sen came to the fore as the leader of the rebels. In 1911, the rebels overthrew the Manchus and proclaimed China a republic, with Dr. Sun as its first president. In a short time, however, Sun resigned, believing that General Yuan Shih-kai could better unify the country.

General Yuan did not really believe in democracy; he set up a military dictatorship and plotted to make himself emperor. When he died in 1916, the warlords in Peking scrambled for power. Dr. Sun became president of a rival southern republic with its capital in Canton. Because China was divided, it was still too weak to get rid of the hated “treaty system” and become a strong democratic nation.

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