By the nineteenth century, China was experiencing growing internal pressures of economic origin. By the start of the century, there were over 300 million Chinese, but there was no industry or trade of sufficient scope to absorb the surplus labor. Moreover, the scarcity of land led to widespread rural discontent and a breakdown in law and order. The weakening through corruption of the bureaucratic and military systems and mounting urban pauperism also contributed to these disturbances. Localized revolts erupted in various parts of the empire in the early nineteenth century. Secret societies, such as the White Lotus sect () in the north and the Triad Society () in the south, gained ground, combining anti-Manchu subversion with banditry.
The Western Powers Arrive
As elsewhere in Asia, in China the Portuguese were the pioneers,
establishing a foothold at Macao ( or
Aomen in pinyin), from which
they monopolized foreign trade at the Chinese port of Guangzhou
( or Canton). Soon the Spanish
arrived, followed by the British and the French.
Trade between China and the West was carried on in the guise of tribute: foreigners were obliged to follow the elaborate, centuries-old ritual imposed on envoys from China's tributary states. There was no conception at the imperial court that the Europeans would expect or deserve to be treated as cultural or political equals. The sole exception was Russia, the most powerful inland neighbor.
The Manchus were sensitive to the need for security along the northern land frontier and therefore were prepared to be realistic in dealing with Russia. The Treaty of Nerchinsk (1689) with the Russians, drafted to bring to an end a series of border incidents and to establish a border between Siberia and Manchuria (northeast China) along the Heilong Jiang ( or Amur River), was China's first bilateral agreement with a European power. In 1727 the Treaty of Kiakhta delimited the remainder of the eastern portion of the Sino-Russian border. Western diplomatic efforts to expand trade on equal terms were rebuffed, the official Chinese assumption being that the empire was not in need of foreign--and thus inferior--products. Despite this attitude, trade flourished, even though after 1760 all foreign trade was confined to Guangzhou, where the foreign traders had to limit their dealings to a dozen officially licensed Chinese merchant firms.
Trade was not the sole basis of contact with the West. Since the thirteenth century, Roman Catholic missionaries had been attempting to establish their church in China. Although by 1800 only a few hundred thousand Chinese had been converted, the missionaries--mostly Jesuits--contributed greatly to Chinese knowledge in such fields as cannon casting, calendar making, geography, mathematics, cartography, music, art, and architecture. The Jesuits were especially adept at fitting Christianity into a Chinese framework and were condemned by a papal decision in 1704 for having tolerated the continuance of Confucian ancestor rites among Christian converts. The papal decision quickly weakened the Christian movement, which it proscribed as heterodox and disloyal.
The Opium War, 1839-42
During the eighteenth century, the market in Europe and America
for tea, a new drink in the West, expanded greatly. Additionally,
there was a continuing demand for Chinese silk and porcelain. But
China, still in its preindustrial stage, wanted little that the
West had to offer, causing the Westerners, mostly British, to
incur an unfavorable balance of trade. To remedy the situation,
the foreigners developed a third-party trade, exchanging their
merchandise in India and Southeast Asia for raw materials and
semiprocessed goods, which found a ready market in Guangzhou. By
the early nineteenth century, raw cotton and opium
() from India had
become the staple British imports into China, in spite of the
fact that opium was prohibited entry by imperial decree. The
opium traffic was made possible through the connivance of
profit-seeking merchants and a corrupt bureaucracy.
In 1839 the Qing government, after a decade of unsuccessful anti-opium campaigns, adopted drastic prohibitory laws against the opium trade. The emperor dispatched a commissioner, Lin Zexu ( 1785-1850), to Guangzhou to suppress illicit opium traffic. Lin seized illegal stocks of opium owned by Chinese dealers and then detained the entire foreign community and confiscated and destroyed some 20,000 chests of illicit British opium. The British retaliated with a punitive expedition, thus initiating the first Anglo-Chinese war, better known as the Opium War (1839-42). Unprepared for war and grossly underestimating the capabilities of the enemy, the Chinese were disastrously defeated, and their image of their own imperial power was tarnished beyond repair. The Treaty of Nanjing (1842), signed on board a British warship by two Manchu imperial commissioners and the British plenipotentiary, was the first of a series of agreements with the Western trading nations later called by the Chinese the "unequal treaties." Under the Treaty of Nanjing, China ceded the island of Hong Kong ( or Xianggang in pinyin) to the British; abolished the licensed monopoly system of trade; opened 5 ports to British residence and foreign trade; limited the tariff on trade to 5 percent ad valorem; granted British nationals extraterritoriality (exemption from Chinese laws); and paid a large indemnity. In addition, Britain was to have most-favored-nation treatment, that is, it would receive whatever trading concessions the Chinese granted other powers then or later. The Treaty of Nanjing set the scope and character of an unequal relationship for the ensuing century of what the Chinese would call "national humiliations." The treaty was followed by other incursions, wars, and treaties that granted new concessions and added new privileges for the foreigners.
Amid these activities came an attempt to arrest the dynastic decline by restoring the traditional order. The effort was known as the Tongzhi Restoration, named for the Tongzhi ()Emperor (1862-74), and was engineered by the young emperor's mother, the Empress Dowager Ci Xi ( 1835-1908). The restoration, however, which applied "practical knowledge" while reaffirming the old mentality, was not a genuine program of modernization.
The effort to graft Western technology onto Chinese institutions became known as the Self-Strengthening Movement (). The movement was championed by scholar-generals like Li Hongzhang ( 1823-1901) and Zuo Zongtang ( 1812-85), who had fought with the government forces in the Taiping Rebellion. From 1861 to 1894, leaders such as these, now turned scholar-administrators, were responsible for establishing modern institutions, developing basic industries, communications, and transportation, and modernizing the military. But despite its leaders' accomplishments, the Self-Strengthening Movement did not recognize the significance of the political institutions and social theories that had fostered Western advances and innovations. This weakness led to the movement's failure. Modernization during this period would have been difficult under the best of circumstances. The bureaucracy was still deeply influenced by Neo-Confucian orthodoxy. Chinese society was still reeling from the ravages of the Taiping and other rebellions, and foreign encroachments continued to threaten the integrity of China.
The first step in the foreign powers' effort to carve up the empire was taken by Russia, which had been expanding into Central Asia. By the 1850s, tsarist troops also had invaded the Heilong Jiang watershed of Manchuria, from which their countrymen had been ejected under the Treaty of Nerchinsk. The Russians used the superior knowledge of China they had acquired through their century-long residence in Beijing to further their aggrandizement. In 1860 Russian diplomats secured the secession of all of Manchuria north of the Heilong Jiang and east of the Wusuli Jiang (Ussuri River). Foreign encroachments increased after 1860 by means of a series of treaties imposed on China on one pretext or another. The foreign stranglehold on the vital sectors of the Chinese economy was reinforced through a lengthening list of concessions. Foreign settlements in the treaty ports became extraterritorial--sovereign pockets of territories over which China had no jurisdiction. The safety of these foreign settlements was ensured by the menacing presence of warships and gunboats.
At this time the foreign powers also took over the peripheral states that had acknowledged Chinese suzerainty and given tribute to the emperor. France colonized Cochin China, as southern Vietnam was then called, and by 1864 established a protectorate over Cambodia. Following a victorious war against China in 1884-85, France also took Annam. Britain gained control over Burma. Russia penetrated into Chinese Turkestan (the modern-day Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region). Japan, having emerged from its century-and-a-half-long seclusion and having gone through its own modernization movement, defeated China in the war of 1894-95. The Treaty of Shimonoseki forced China to cede Taiwan and the Penghu Islands to Japan, pay a huge indemnity, permit the establishment of Japanese industries in four treaty ports, and recognize Japanese hegemony over Korea. In 1898 the British acquired a ninety-nine-year lease over the so-called New Territories of Kowloon ( or Jiulong in pinyin), which increased the size of their Hong Kong colony. Britain, Japan, Russia, Germany, France, and Belgium each gained spheres of influence in China. The United States, which had not acquired any territorial cessions, proposed in 1899 that there be an "open door" policy in China, whereby all foreign countries would have equal duties and privileges in all treaty ports within and outside the various spheres of influence. All but Russia agreed to the United States overture.
The republican revolution broke out on October 10, 1911, in Wuchang (), the capital of Hubei () Province, among discontented modernized army units whose anti-Qing plot had been uncovered. It had been preceded by numerous abortive uprisings and organized protests inside China. The revolt quickly spread to neighboring cities, and Tongmeng Hui members throughout the country rose in immediate support of the Wuchang revolutionary forces. By late November, fifteen of the twenty-four provinces had declared their independence of the Qing empire. A month later, Sun Yat-sen returned to China from the United States, where he had been raising funds among overseas Chinese and American sympathizers. On January 1, 1912, Sun was inaugurated in Nanjing as the provisional president of the new Chinese republic. But power in Beijing already had passed to the commander-in-chief of the imperial army, Yuan Shikai, the strongest regional military leader at the time. To prevent civil war and possible foreign intervention from undermining the infant republic, Sun agreed to Yuan's demand that China be united under a Beijing government headed by Yuan. On February 12, 1912, the last Manchu emperor, the child Puyi (), abdicated. On March 10, in Beijing, Yuan Shikai was sworn in as provisional president of the Republic of China.