Treaty Port System

views updated

Treaty Port System

While European commercial interest in Asia stretches back to the sixteenth century with the establishment of the Portuguese colony of Macau in southwestern China, the direct precursor to the treaty port system developed between Great Britain and China in the eighteenth century. Concomitant with Britain's industrial development was its new interest in the untapped markets of Asia. China, however, rebuffed repeated requests to expand commercial relations beyond the open port of Canton (present-day Guangzhou), which since 1759 had been the only place where foreign trade was permitted by the Chinese government.

By the nineteenth century, Britain and the other imperialist powers had begun to chafe under the restrictions of this so-called Canton system. Over and above issues of profit and loss was the adamant desire among the countries of the West for diplomatic representation and equality. China, in turn, remained set on its own notions of cultural superiority and expressed little willingness to reform its policies.

The growing influence of illegal opium smuggling, generally but not exclusively, practiced by the British, further exacerbated these matters. Chinese Commissioner Lin Zexu's (ca. 1785–1850) celebrated destruction of foreign opium stores in 1839 was used as a pretext by the British Parliament to authorize the deployment of men and ships into battle. The immediate aftermath of the one-sided Opium War (1839–1842) was the Treaty of Nanking (1842), a document that dictated the West's relationship with China for the remainder of the century. The treaty (and those subsequently forced upon China by the other Western powers) contained several stipulations, the most significant of which were the following: five port cities, including Shanghai and Canton, were opened to residence and trade; tariff rates were fixed by the European powers; the Cohong (a Chinese merchant guild given monopoly rights over foreign trade by the Chinese government) was abolished; the right of extraterritoriality was granted to foreigners in criminal cases; and Hong Kong was ceded to Britain. The period of "unequal treaties" had begun.


What resulted was a new and unique system. At Canton, to take one example, the Western powers obtained from the Chinese grants of land known as concessions, upon which foreign merchants could live and construct commercial buildings. The concession territories were not sold, but rather leased to the foreign powers, who individually split them up into lots and rented them out to the members of their own countries. Each country provided its own municipal government, which was presided over by the consul of that country; as a result, within one port there were often multiple areas of sovereignty, multiple municipal governments with individual authority.

In Shanghai, the situation was somewhat different. In that case, the Chinese and the British agreed to a system in which the British bought land from the Chinese and in turn paid rent to the government. The land still belonged nominally to the Chinese emperor, but it was leased "in perpetuity." This agreement was generally referred to as a settlement.

Despite these differences, there were several features that characterized the Chinese treaty ports. Most had their own newspapers, churches, chambers of commerce, and other features of Victorian life. The bund (an embankment or quay upon which foreign businesses and residences were often located), the "club," and the racecourse were all important parts of treaty port culture. For many Chinese, these cities were an exciting introduction to Western literature, philosophy, and institutions.

By the 1850s, many problems in this system were apparent (exacerbated by growing anti-Western sentiment in China). Although Great Britain had won a series of military conflicts, the fact remained that they had imposed an alien presence on an unwilling people, and a system of trade that was repellent to traditional Confucian morality and Chinese conceptions of world order. A second round of conflicts—the Arrow War or second Opium War (1856–1860)—between the Western powers and China resulted in the extraction of further concessions from the Chinese government, including the right for diplomatic representatives to reside in Beijing and for foreigners to travel in the Chinese interior.


Although spared from the international military conflicts that marked China's entry into the world of global capitalism, in 1853 to 1854 and in 1858 Japan was coerced into signing its own series of unequal treaties. These treaties allowed foreigners to set up embassies and port facilities in five cities; the most crucial of these was Yokohama, a port close to Tokyo, which became the hub of interaction between the Japanese government and people and the foreign community. Other ports opened to foreign residence and trade included Hakodate, Nagasaki, Kobe, and eventually even Edo (now Tokyo) itself.

The treaties contained provisions similar to those forced upon the Chinese government: the right of extraterritoriality for foreign citizens, as well as the right of the foreign powers to set tariff rates. Following the dissolution of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868 it became a major goal of Japan's new Meiji government to revise the unequal treaties. The Western powers, eager to expand commercial and trading rights into the interior, proved receptive to overtures to end the system, and in 1899 the treaty ports were abolished.


In contrast to Japan, China's treaty ports persisted well into the twentieth century. Through "most-favorednation" provisions in Sino-foreign bilateral treaties, each new signatory gained the benefits of extraterritoriality and the treaty port system. Indeed, Japan's forays into China, which eventually led to the Pacific war during World War II, came by virtue of Japanese privileges in that country.

In the 1920s and 1930s, urban culture in cities such as Shanghai flourished, a topic of continued interest in the arenas of academe and popular culture alike. For China, as well other counties such as Thailand, Korea, and Vietnam, the process of treaty revision generally extended until the end of World War II. Extraterritoriality effectively ended during the war, when beleaguered China joined the Allies. The Chinese Communists came to power largely on the strong antiforeign sentiments that had grown up around treaty port culture.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, places that were once treaty ports—Shanghai, Yokohama, and Hong Kong—are among the world's largest and most vibrant cities. While seen by some as humiliating reminders of the colonial past, many of the former treaty ports play indispensable roles in the global economy of the twenty-first century.

Recent years have witnessed new perspectives on the legacy of Asia's treaty ports. Scholars such as Robert Bickers and Gail Hershatter have broadened our understanding of the historical conditions in the treaty ports from a social and cultural perspective, and done much to revise outdated impressions of the ports as simply outposts on the fringes of empire.

see also China, First Opium War to 1945; China, Foreign Trade; Extraterritoriality; Guangzhou; Hong Kong, from World War II; Hong Kong, to World War II; Japan, Colonized; Japan, Opening of; Nagasaki; Shanghai.


Bickers, Robert, and Christian Henriot, eds. New Frontiers: Imperialism's New Communities in East Asia, 1842–1953. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Fairbank, John King, and Merle Goldman. China: A New History, enl. ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1998.

Hershatter, Gail. Dangerous Pleasures: Prostitution and Modernity in Twentieth-Century Shanghai. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.

Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2000.

About this article

Treaty Port System

Updated About content Print Article