East Asia, European Presence in

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East Asia, European Presence in

From as far back as the first few centuries of the Christian era, a long tradition of contacts connected Europe with East Asia (the region comprised of China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan). During the whole history of these contacts, first established by Christian emissaries from the West, the region never experienced formal incorporation into a colonial Western empire. Only two colonial port cities (Macao, 1557–1999; Hong Kong, 1841–1997), some imperial leaseholds dating to the late nineteenth century, and the south of Taiwan around the Dutch Fort Zeelandia (1624–1662) can be regarded as colonial property. Nevertheless, the impact of imperialism on East Asia should not be underestimated. In general terms, the history of the European presence in Asia can be divided into seven periods:

  1. A preliminary period in the Middle Ages during which Europeans first established a toehold in Asia, only to be expelled
  2. An era during which Europe reestablished their presence in Asia
  3. The era of the Canton System, lasting until the First Opium War
  4. The era of the Treaty System, established by the outcome of the Opium Wars
  5. The first era of Western informal empire, lasting until World War I
  6. A second era of informal empire between the World Wars, during which the sole dominating Western powers were Great Britain and the United States
  7. And, finally, the era of emancipation following World War II

During the successive phases of increasing Western influence, a wide range of colonial presences emerged, shaped by the specific circumstances of the various Asian cultures.


European contacts with Asia during the Middle Ages were restricted to the Chinese empire; Japan, Korea, and Taiwan were only known by hearsay to European visitors and remained out of reach. The voyage of the Venetian Marco Polo (1271–1295) is the most famous due to its literary legacy, but Italian merchants frequently visited Central Asia and China and founded temporary merchant colonies. Furthermore, medieval missionaries undertook travels to the Far East, where they succeeded in producing some converts among the Mongolian population, but made hardly any headway among the Chinese. Following a dynastic change in fourteenth-century China (from the Yuan to the Ming dynasty), European foreigners were no longer welcome. In 1371 the last European merchant was expelled; at the same time, the first phase of Christian missionizing came to an end. Not until the sixteenth century did Europeans return to the Far East.


The era during which European powers reestablished themselves in Asia was characterized by the primacy of trading interests on the European side and by a balance of power that allowed East Asian sovereigns to dictate terms. Contact with China was renewed during the sixteenth century, an era of rapid European maritime expansion. In 1513 Portuguese seafarers approached the Chinese coast. After establishing a merchant colony in India and conquering Malacca, the Portuguese reached Canton in 1517. Initial contacts failed because the Portuguese refused to accept the Ming emperor's demand that they acknowledge him as their superior and render tributes. But because trading connections were too mutually lucrative to abandon entirely, a flourishing black market developed in Southern China. In 1557 the Portuguese were officially given permission to establish a settlement on the Macao peninsula under Chinese suzerainty. In 1680 a treaty guaranteed the settlement the status of a Portuguese colony. Macao became in effect a Portuguese-controlled city, though the territory was held under a lease arrangement; payments continued to be made to the Chinese until 1887. Macao became the launching pad for a new, largely Jesuit mission to China. It also became the center of a thriving trade with Japan, in large part because the Chinese population was prohibited from engaging in maritime trade.

In Japan, the Portuguese were able to act as the sole middlemen in the trade between Japan and other countries, due to their presence in Macao and, from 1544, the Japanese port city Nagasaki. In addition, Jesuits began entering Japan in 1549, and by 1569 were settling in Nagasaki. Temporarily, the Christian mission was quite successful; at its peak, there were around 200 churches and 150,000 baptized Japanese. In 1587, however, a wave of bloody persecutions put an end to the proselytizing. In 1609 Christianity was forbidden by Japan, and in 1613 the last missionaries dispersed. Simultaneously, the Portuguese trade with Japan came to an end, due not least to the loss of the Jesuit middlemen and their singular knowledge of the commercial and political situation.

Throughout East Asia, the initial presence of the western European chartered companies—of which the foremost were the English East India Company (EIC) and the Dutch United East India Company (the Verenigde Ostindische Compagnie, or VOC)—was limited to several restrictively defined and strongly regulated enclaves. Only on Taiwan did the Dutch succeed temporarily in establishing colonial supremacy (1624–1662) in cooperation with a local pirate prince. The VOC benefited from the demise of Ming power in areas at the periphery of the Chinese empire. The end of the dynasty in continental China and the exodus of its last vassals to Taiwan forced the company to surrender its fort, Zeelandia, and to withdraw from the island. During their short period of regional prominence, the Dutch not only held a favorable position within the Chinese-Japanese trade, they also undertook efforts in sugar cultivation, as well as in coal and sulfur mining.

Korea remained on the periphery of European attention to East Asia during this and the following era. The Western presence there consisted only of a few dispersed Dutch seafarers who ran ashore and remained for several years during the seventeenth century, becoming some-what well integrated and respected as military and administrative specialists. With the exception of a few fleeting maritime encounters in 1604, Great Britain did not establish contact with Korea until 1797, when the first merchant ships and navy units began arriving on the Korean coast.


During the era of the Canton System, European access to East Asian markets became both greater and more predictable, though it was nonetheless still limited and state-controlled. As a result, beginning in the eighteenth century the EIC was able to build up trading contacts, especially in the tea trade. The company's efforts focused on the port city of Canton, where the best-funded merchant partners were situated. Europeans had no possibility of direct contact with the producers of in-demand commodities. They remained restricted to Canton (and before 1757 to a few other port cities), under the control of the Chinese bureaucracy and reliant on intermediaries who served as their contacts to Chinese merchants. In 1760 a great number of older prescriptions were bundled into the Canton System, which was based on a dual monopoly. Only the chartered companies and, on the Chinese side, Hong merchants—wealthy and well-established commercial dynasties based in Canton—had permission to maintain the transcultural trade. Trading company agents were only allowed access to a restrictively limited area outside the city walls (the "Thirteen Factories" zone), where their trading partners ran factories and shops. The system was obligatory for all European nations and, between 1757 and 1842, limited all European trading activities to Canton. Economic success made those limitations acceptable to the European merchant empires. Nonetheless, Europeans tried to ensure and improve their position by sending official delegations to petition the emperor. Numerous Portuguese, Dutch, and English delegations visited the Chinese court before the Opium Wars. The emperor regarded them as tribute missions and ignored their diplomatic concerns. Thus, they remained without real political influence until the first half of the nineteenth century; in part, they were actually counterproductive due to the contradictory understandings of their function.

After the trading companies, missionaries played the most remarkable role in building a European presence in East Asia during the early modern period—above all the Jesuits, who were able to establish themselves as advisers to the Chinese emperor and various mandarins and as scholars of the Asian sciences. Whereas in Japan proselytizing efforts fell victim to interior power struggles, in China, Christian missionaries were allowed to remain until the first half of the nineteenth century, although they were more or less isolated and developed only limited influence.

In Japan, the Dutch were the single European nation with permission to maintain commercial contacts. The Japanese imposed a more restrictive version of the Chinese Canton System on the Dutch, whose trading company was limited to a single enclave, Deshima, a man-made island located in Nagasaki's harbor. Trade with Japan was only possible via official middlemen, and access to the country was granted only during institutionalized tribute missions. The VOC was expected to send an annual delegation to the emperor's court in Edo in order to fulfill a ritualized ceremony of subjugation.


The era of the Treaty System saw a fundamental change in the European situation. After the Chinese defeat during the first Opium War (1839–1842) and the enforced opening of port cities, the balance of power shifted in favor of the Western powers, which gained privileged access to East Asian states and markets. In China, a number of factors—the slow collapse of the Manchu dynasty in Beijing, a new phase of accelerated British expansion, the erosion of the Canton System, Britain's strong interest in the opium trade as a means to improve its balance of payment, and China's efforts to prohibit the consumption of opium—together caused a change in the British China policy from diplomacy to military intervention. Concerted naval campaigns forced the Chinese emperor to accept a number of unequal treaties, starting with the Treaty of Nanking (August 29, 1842). This treaty guaranteed British rights to the colonial property of Hong Kong (occupied by British forces since January 20, 1841), required the opening of the most important port cities (Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo, Shanghai), and granted several local privileges, such as political autonomy and tax sovereignty. The result was not territorial conquest but an extensive change in the institutional framework governing relations between China and Britain. Soon, comparable treaties with the United States (July 3, 1844), France (October 24, 1844), and Sweden (March 20, 1847) followed. During the second Opium War (1856–1860), ten further ports were opened by unequal treaties, two of them on Taiwan (Taiwanfu in the southwest, Danshui in the northeast). The treaties fixed uniform and moderate tariffs on exports and imports that were not to be increased afterward. European subjects enjoyed the status of extraterritoriality and were only responsible to the jurisdiction of their consuls. Above all, the treaty ports served as bridgeheads for the penetration of the Chinese market. The maritime customs register of 1892 lists 579 foreign enterprises in these ports, mainly based in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Within the cities, traders were able to acquire concessions giving them the right to erect commercial structures and residences. The scope of these concessions was continuously growing; in larger towns like Shanghai, multiple concessions to various nations were soon in effect.

One further consequence of the treaties was a completely new situation for the Christian missions. The mission societies, which now included Protestant organizations, were protected by several European powers and only under extraterritorial jurisdiction. Moreover, all newly baptized Chinese Christians were granted this same status.


At the end of the nineteenth century, the European presence in East Asia entered a new phase, during which privileged market access was transformed into political, military, and economic dominance. In China, leaseholds ceded in 1898 gave European powers the right of independent territorial administration. The first leasehold of this kind was the German territory around Tsingtao (Kiaochow Bay, in the province of Shantung), which was leased for ninety-nine years (though it was captured by Japanese forces in 1914). Germany was followed by Russia (Liaotung Peninsula), Britain (the New Territories of Hong Kong and Weihaiwei Port in Shantung), and France (Kuangchou-wan Port, opposite Hainan). More than the earlier settlements, these properties had a military character, because they served as naval bases as well as merchant centers and nuclear European settlements. But economic factors remained most important as the lure of railway and mining concessions brought new European capital to China.

The psychosocial repercussions of Chinese defeat during the Opium Wars, the newly oppressive European presence, and the often inconsiderate behavior of missionaries together caused a strengthening of xenophobic tendencies in China. The result was the development of anti-European movements, mostly drawn from the lower classes, which culminated in the Boxer Uprising of 1900. Decentralized martial arts groups connected by loose religious ties attacked Chinese Christians and their European protectors, who had ignored the disruptive effects of Christianization on traditional village social structures (the alienation of the baptized from their families, the prohibition of ancestor worship, the destruction of indigenous temples, etc.). These groups joined together in a siege of the diplomatic quarter in Beijing, which was soon broken by an allied army consisting of forces from England, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Russia, the United States, and Japan. This allied invasion added a new dimension to the foreign military presence in China. It was not only a further step toward integrating China into Europe's informal empires, but also a major catalyst for Chinese xenophobia and feelings of inferiority—a mix that characterized Chinese attitudes toward the West throughout the twentieth century.

Notwithstanding a few violent incidents, Japan followed a very different path in its relations to the West during the second half of the nineteenth century. Since 1800, European interest in the isolated island had revived. Russian merchants were the first to try to gain access, but they met with only marginal success. In the end, it was the new Pacific power, the United States, that in 1853 used a naval squadron to enforce the opening of Japan's ports. Japan was integrated into the treaty port system, and treaties with the United States were followed by others with Russia, the Netherlands, Great Britain, France, and Prussia. As Western merchants streamed into the Japanese commercial centers, the political and military influence of the Western powers grew rapidly, particularly after the final defeat of the traditional shogunate and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Europe and the United States became the model for Japanese modernization; Japanese delegations visited the United States, Great Britain, and Germany. Simultaneously, a huge number of Western consultants were employed by the new Meiji government in all sectors of administration and education. The army was reorganized following the Prussian example, and a Prussian general became the general staff's official consultant. In 1874, some 858 foreign specialists were employed by the Japanese government. Japanese private enterprises soon followed suit, so that in 1897 there were 760 foreigners employed in the construction of railways, electrical facilities, steamships, and industrial plants. The majority of them came from Great Britain (433, mostly engineers), France (145 in administration and the shipbuilding industry), America (94, mostly in the agrarian sector), and Germany (62 in medicine and the army). The first foreign communities emerged in Yokohama and Kobe, which became the bridgeheads of European cultural influence not only on intellectual matters, but also on everyday life.

Simultaneously, Korea regained European attention. Between 1885 and 1887 the British Navy ran a naval base in Korea at Port Hamilton (Komun-do). During this period, Christianity was introduced into Korea. In 1884 and 1885 American and Scottish Protestant missionaries entered the country, and in 1890 the English Church Mission established its first settlement in Seoul.


The second era of Western informal empire was characterized by the increasing impact of the West and a shrinking number of imperial powers. The outcome of World War I limited the Western powers in East Asia to Great Britain and the United States—accompanied by an expanding Japan. The treaty system reached its apex as the economic influence of the steadily growing number of Western residents peaked during the 1920s. In China, especially during the years of the unstable republic (founded in 1911), governmental sovereignty was exceedingly restrained by the "protecting powers," which used their influence and extraterritorial status to pave the way for Western business interests. A huge number of foreign specialists were employed in leading positions in the custom service, the post office, and the salt administration. In 1915, for example, there were 152 British, 109 other European, 21 American, and 37 Japanese employees working in the revenue department together with 1,206 mostly subordinated Chinese. At the beginning of the 1920s, around 7,000 foreign enterprises were operating in the treaty ports. At the same time, 75 to 90 percent of coalmining and around 50 percent of the cotton textile industry was in foreign hands. In 1933 foreign-owned firms controlled 35 percent of the manufacturing industries' total production. Until the Japanese occupation and the Chinese revolution of 1949, the Chinese economy was completely dominated by European and American interests.

In Japan, the European presence led to rapid industrial development, based on deep ties to the world economy initially achieved through foreign influence. This industrial development offered the basis for a successful emancipation from Western dominance. As early as 1895 Japan was able to abolish the extraterritorial status of foreigners and became itself a treaty power in China. Japan's transformation into a modern nation was initiated by a "revolution from the top," which made Japan an economic power that competed with Europe and the United States and for a while made it an imperial competitor as well.


The era of emancipation saw the end of the imperial presence of Europeans in East Asia and the economic as well as political rise of the region. After the end of World War II and the defeat of Japanese imperialism, Europe played only a marginal role in East Asia. East Asia became a primary sphere of interest for the United States, which established a huge military presence, especially after the Korean War (1950–1953), and took over most of the European military bases in the region. China freed itself from Western domination through revolution, whereas Japan gained autonomy through copying and adapting modern Western institutions and practices. South Korea and Taiwan also effectively followed the latter model. Recent developments in China have brought a partial adaptation of Western models, even if the existing power structures have been maintained. In the course of those developments, the last enclaves of formal European presence disappeared when Macao and Hong Kong were returned to China.

see also Anticolonialism, East Asia and the Pacific; East Asia, American Presence in; Extraterritoriality; Indigenous Responses, East Asia; Missions, China; Religion, Western Presence in East Asia; Treaties, East Asia and the Pacific; Treaty Port System.


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