China, First Opium War to 1945

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China, First Opium War to 1945

China, the world's oldest continuous civilization, possessed a heritage of greatness that a rapidly changing industrial world began to dispute by the early nineteenth century. The culture that gave the world printing, paper, the compass, gunpowder, and provided its people a reasonably stable social and economic environment over the centuries, now confronted foreign and domestic challenges to the Confucian world order that had guided China for nearly two millennia. From that time until the end of World War II (1939–1945), China suffered incessant military attacks from homegrown rebels and foreign assailants, producing colossal social and economic dislocation, massive death and destruction, as well as traumatic intellectual and cultural crises of confidence. China's rulers, intellectuals, and eventually the common people have since searched for the means by which to unify the nation, expel the foreigners, embrace a successful model of development, and thus restore China to its former greatness.


Without the benefit of hindsight, the White Lotus Rebellion of 1796–1804 could reasonably be considered a harbinger of dynastic decline that would eventually result in the removal of the Mandate of Heaven from the ruling foreign Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911) and bring about the establishment of another dynasty promising to govern by appropriate Confucian principles. Instead of being yet another example of China's dynastic cycle in operation, it proved to be the event that exposed a weak and corrupt dynasty to a modernizing West determined to finance its China trade with illegal opium and to substitute its structure of international relations—this assumed equality among nations for China's tributary system of international interaction, which presumed a hierarchical arrangement, with China at the top.

The opium trade grew out of the West's unfavorable balance of trade with China, which bought very little from abroad but sold very much to foreigners. Illegal opium sales to willing Chinese customers provided the necessary currency to fund the purchase of Chinese goods, such as tea, silk, and porcelain. Illegal opium trafficking led to an outflow of silver, which upset the bimetallic silver and copper coinage structure. Opium smoking hurt the poor, who were the largest consumers, and it involved government and military officials. The opium trade was further complicated by the emergence of free trade in England. The Chinese tributary system allowed only Chinese and foreign monopoly merchants to conduct trade, and only at Guangzhou (Canton), a protocol agreed to by foreign governments until the growing pressure of free traders and Beijing's evident inability to enforce the system led to its collapse. In 1836, the high Qing officials debated the opium problem and decided to continue the policy of prohibition and committed it to enforcing prohibition. Beijing sent Commissioner Lin Zexu (ca. 1785–1850) to Guangzhou to carry out the policy, and when he confiscated British opium it served as a pretext for war, which the Chinese label the first Opium War (1839–1842) and the British call the first Anglo-Chinese War.

China's defeat resulted in a century of "unequal treaties" that gave foreign powers special rights in China, including extraterritoriality in treaty ports (five in 1842 and more than two hundred by the turn of the twentieth century), a favoring of nation status, and control over China's tariffs. The 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, which ended the war, officially terminated the tribute system, provided foreigners extraterritorial rights, ceded Hong Kong to Britain, and required a Chinese monetary indemnity. China resisted the terms of this and subsequent treaties with the West, especially the opening of the city of Guangzhou to foreign residence, which created a second Opium War (1856–1860). With China's defeat, resulting in a new set of treaties, loss of territory, and new indemnities, both the court and bureaucracy realized that some modification of Confucian ways needed to be made.

That realization was made all the more evident with the outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion (1851–1864), a native challenge to the Confucian order. Taipings or God worshippers led by "God's Chinese son" Hong Xiuquan (1814–1864) proclaimed the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, which called for communal land use, a common treasury to be filled by surplus products and to be drawn from by those in need, an examination system that tested candidates' knowledge of the Bible, equality of the sexes, the elimination of ancestor worship, as well as other far-reaching transformations. Only fundamental Qing government reform (the Tongzhi Restoration), foreign neutrality, and inherent Taiping leadership weaknesses saved the Confucian order.


A quarter century of potentially fatal foreign and domestic assaults on traditional government, thought, and behavior led the Manchu Qing dynasty and its Chinese Confucian bureaucracy to consider basic changes. Generally labeled self-strengthening, this new Chinese reform program sought to begin a program of modernization that embraced foreign techniques (yong), but maintained an essential Confucian foundation (ti/t'i). This reform program included the creation of a foreign office (Zongli Yamen), a foreign-language school, an interpreters college, factories and arsenals, as well as the sending overseas of Chinese students and the hiring of Anson Burlingame (1820–1870) to represent China's interests in Europe and America.

But self-strengthening reform moved at a snail's pace owing to several factors. First, the urgency to change China declined as the court in Beijing realized that the industrial powers were tied to the treaty benefits agreed to by the Qing government, benefits that might not be honored by a new Chinese regime. Further, a heated debate arose within the Confucian bureaucracy over reform, the more conservative-minded arguing that using foreign techniques would in fact change the essence of China.

Indeed the Confucian elite could well be displaced by some new industrial elite. The foreign Manchu court under the Empress Dowager Cixi (1835–1908) chose to balance conservative and reform interests as the best means of maintaining power.

The result was a timid move toward modernization, the limitations of which became apparent in the first Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, fought to determine whether China or Japan would protect Korea against the outside world. China was soundly defeated militarily, and the Treaty of Shimonoseki (1895) ended the conflict provided that Japan would receive Taiwan, a large monetary indemnity, the right to open factories in China, and other benefits. The humiliating loss launched a wave of protest and in 1898 a brief reform movement, which the empress dowager quickly crushed. Desperate for a means of dealing with domestic dissidents determined to transform China and foreign aggressors eager to divide up the country, the court turned to the Boxers, who had originally been anti-Qing but by the late nineteenth century had become pro-Qing and antiforeign. The Righteous and Harmonious Fists, thus Boxers, soon became the Righteous and Harmonious Militia that promised to drive the foreigners from China and destroy Christian missions, as well as besieging the foreign legations in Beijing. This immediately brought eight foreign armies to Beijing to crush the "rebellion" and impose on China the Boxer Protocol, yet another embarrassing agreement signed under military duress. From this point on, China's elite generally conceded at the very least the need for fundamental reform. But even revolution did not sound intolerably extreme at this moment.


The first half of the twentieth century in China was a time of searching for the best means of reorganizing itself so it could survive in a terribly dangerous world. The dynasty's post-Boxer reforms indicated the extent to which even the most conservative thinkers were willing to go in saving China from the perils of partition and perpetual weakness. These restructurings included the elimination of many government positions deemed unnecessary, especially those that were purchased. New offices were created to deal with what were becoming universal Western ways of business, diplomacy, law, national defense, education, and social intercourse. Thus a ministry of foreign affairs emerged, as did the rudiments of a modern army; universities replaced Confucian academies, and the civil service examination system was abolished in 1905; social reform included the end of footbinding and a serious anti-opium campaign; and political reform was launched in 1905—the court's thinking being that a constitutional monarchy would suit China (and the dynasty) much better than a revolution advanced by Sun Yat-Sen (1866–1925).

Although one could argue that this reform program did amount to something, most historians believe it came too late. Less than a decade into reform, the emperor and the empress dowager died within a month of each other (December 1908 and January 1909) and no Manchu leadership emerged to deal with the nation's problems. Increasingly, native Chinese also began to view the Manchu leadership as the principle cause for China's weakness and perceive these rulers as foreign occupiers.

In October 1911 a revolution broke out, and by the end of the year the dynasty abdicated and the Republic of China proclaimed independence. Inspired by Sun Yat-Sen, but controlled by former high Qing official Yuan Shi-kai (1859–1916), the new government, which had promised to operate on democratic principles, functioned instead by dictatorial means. With Yuan's death in 1916 the nation descended into warlordism, which resulted in the common people's oppression, divided China into military satrapies, and thus increased the country's susceptibility to foreign encroachment. Even before Yuan's passing, Japan had attempted to impose its control over China with the so-called Twenty-one Demands in 1915.

Chinese nationalism had clearly emerged at this point, best evidenced by the forming of the New Culture Movement beginning in 1915, the outbreak of the May Fourth Movement in 1919, the early 1920s reorganization of Sun Yat-Sen Nationalist Party (Guomindang), as well as the creation of the Communist Party. The New Culture Movement sought to bring literacy to the common people, the foundation of a modern nation, by supporting the introduction of vernacular Chinese as the written language. The May Fourth Movement erupted when the victorious allies at Versailles gave Qingdao, a German leasehold, to Japan instead of returning it to China. Chinese nationalists, mainly urbanites, produced massive protest movements in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere in China, which served as launching platforms for organizations dedicated to destroying the warlords, unifying the country, and driving out the foreigners.

Both the Nationalist and Communist parties sought these goals, the significant difference between them being the need for social revolution. The emergence of the Soviet Union in 1917 and its desire to protect itself and promote world revolution resulted in the formation of the First United Front (1923–1927) between Nationalists and Communists, brokered by Moscow with the expectation of weakening those capitalist nations politically and economically active in China. The two parties formed an army and launched a Northern Expedition in 1926 and 1927 to drive out the warlords, but by the spring of 1927 had a falling out as the new leader of the Nationalists, Jiang Jieshi (1887–1975), broke with the Communists over the need for social revolution, while drawing closer to the United States and England, abandoning the Soviets, and isolating Japan. Tokyo had substantial political and economic interests in China, especially in Manchuria, and ultimately protected them by gradually annexing Manchuria between 1931and 1933 and invading parts of northern and coastal China.


The Twenty-one Demands were issued on January 18, 1915, by Japanese prime minister Okuma Shigenobu in an opportunistic attempt to dominate Manchuria's natural resources. Taking advantage of the opportunity provided by World War I, which had been ongoing against Germany since August of 1914, Shigenobu hoped to achieve supremacy in the Pacific region and ignored the fact that China was, like Japan, allied with the Triple Entente that included Great Britain, France, and Russia. After Japanese troops invaded the German-controlled Jiaozhou region in China's southern Shandong Province, Shigenobu presented Chinese president Yuan Shi-kai with a five-part ultimatum, demanding that:

  • Japan formally be given control of Jiaozhou;
  • the coal-rich regions of south Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia's Shandong Province be made open to Japanese commercial exploitation and colonization by right of Japan's historic geographical and commercial interests there;
  • China discontinue allowing other governments to lease or otherwise take control of any territory within its borders;
  • Japanese nationals be allowed religious freedom and the right to own land within China; and
  • that Japanese advisors have the final word on China's military, economic, and commercial policies, as well as positions of authority in urban law enforcement throughout China.

When news of the Twenty-one Demands was made public, worldwide opinion demanded their withdrawal. Through the intervention of British and U.S. diplomats, Japan dropped its demand for control of China's military, commercial, and financial affairs, as well as certain specific demands regarding schools and hospitals, supplying arms and ammunition to Japanese law enforcement within Chinese borders, and the establishment of arsenals and railway concessions in South China. With several demands still on the table, months of negotiations between China and Japan ensued, only ending when Japan threatened to make further military inroads into China. Recognizing that his military was no match for that of Japan, President Yuan accepted Shigenobu's revised terms. Although two treaties were signed on May 25, 1915, officially transferring German interests in Qingdao to Japan and extending Japan's lease of Manchuria's coal-rich Liao-d-ung Peninsula and railroad system, they were never ratified by the Chinese legislature. Public protest over Yuan's acceptance of Japan's claims resulted in a wide-scale boycott of Japanese goods throughout China.

Two years later, the Japanese reinforced these claims in secret treaties, and a second agreement was coerced from the Chinese government in 1918. At the Versailles Conference held at the close of World War I, Japan was awarded Qingdao on the strength of its coerced and clandestine treaties with Yuan, despite China's protest. Consequently, China refused to sign the Treaty of Versailles. Japan continued to station troops in Shandong Province and to control Qingdao until their claims were rendered void in the Washington Naval Conference of 1921–1922.

Meanwhile the domestic battle between the Nationalists and the Communists continued. After Jiang purged the Communists from the alliance against the warlords, he established a national government at Nanjing in 1927 and ruled China until defeated by the Communists in 1949. The Nanjing or Nationalist government had three major tasks on its agenda: defeating the Communists; keeping the Japanese at bay until the Communists were defeated and the country unified; and modernizing the country. The campaign against the Communists looked promising, especially so long as the Communists sought to overthrow the Nationalists by attacking the cities where the proletariat resided. Such attempts utterly failed.

When by the mid-1930s Mao Zedong (1893–1976) emerged to challenge the urban approach to revolution and instead sought to mobilize the peasants, the Communists got a new breath of life. Even though driven from its rural Jiangxi Soviet base in 1934 and forced on the Long March to Yan'an, the Communists seemed stronger. When Jiang ordered one of his generals to attack the Yan'an Communist base area, Zhang Xueliang (1898–2001) refused, instead insisting that all Chinese unite to resist Japanese encroachment. Jiang flew to Xian to confront Zhang just before Christmas 1936, but instead was taken prisoner himself. The Communists sent an emissary to Xian to seek Jiang's release, arguing that he was the only person capable of rallying the people of China against Japan. This Xian Incident provided the basis for the Second United Front between Nationalists and Communists that nominally lasted until the end of World War II.

On July 7, 1937, Japan launched yet another attack on China, but on this occasion the Chinese responded militarily. The war went badly for the Nationalists, who lost their urban, modern, coastal base to the Japanese and ended up in backwater Chongqing. The Communists, on the other hand, fared well as they were able to mobilize the peasants and expand throughout much of rural North China. As war erupted in Europe in 1939, Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) and his Japanese allies seemed increasingly dangerous and thus worthy of confronting after two decades of nations attempting to avoid any action that might provoke another world war. With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the fate of Japan now rested in American hands. Accordingly, Nationalists and Communists jockeyed for position in China after Japan's defeat.

By 1945 the Nationalist government was exhausted and would eventually succumb to Communist energy and efficiency. Yet the Nationalist Party did move China closer to regaining its lost prestige, even though its tenure was marked by chronic civil and international conflict. It began a program of modernization in the cities, brought about an end to the "unequal treaties" in 1943, and established China as one of the five great powers on the security council of the newly formed United Nations. And though it proved incapable of creating a system of government to replace the old Confucian political arrangements, neither did the successor Communist Party, as the Marxist model of development has been substantially abandoned. By the early twenty-first century, China still searches for a consensus about where it is heading and how it should get there.

see also British American Tobacco Company; China, after 1945; China, Foreign Trade; China, to the First Opium War; Chinese Revolutions; Compradorial System; Extraterritoriality; Guangzhou; Hong Kong, from World War II; Hong Kong, to World War II; Mao Zedong; Opium; Opium Wars; Self-Strengthening Movements, East Asia and the Pacific; Treaties, East Asia and the Pacific.


Hsü, Immanuel C. Y. The Rise of Modern China, 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Levenson, Joseph R. Confucian China and Its Modern Fate; A Trilogy. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1968.

Sheridan, James E. China in Disintegration: The Republican Era in Chinese History, 1912–1949. New York: Free Press, 1975.

Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York: Norton, 1990.

Tu, Wei-ming, ed. China in Transformation. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Wakeman, Frederic, Jr. The Fall of Imperial China. New York: Free Press, 1975.

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China, First Opium War to 1945

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