- In the 1800s China simultaneously experiences major internal
strains and Western imperialist pressure, backed by military might
which China cannot match. China’s position in the world and self-image
is reversed in a mere 100 year period (c.a. 1840-1940) from leading
civilization to subjected and torn country.
- The Japanese witness China’s experience with the military
power of Western nations, and after the arrival of an American
delegation in Japan in 1853, Japan is also forced to open its ports.
Japan is able to adapt rapidly to match the power of the West and
soon establishes itself as a competitor with the Western powers
for colonial rights in Asia. In 1894-5, Japan challenges and defeats
China in a war over influence in Korea, thereby upsetting the traditional
international order in East Asia, where China was the supreme power
and Japan a tribute-bearing subordinate power.
- Through the 1700s, China’s imperial system flourishes under the
Qing (Ch’ing) or Manchu dynasty. China is at the center of the
world economy as Europeans and Americans seek Chinese goods.
- By the late 1700s, however, the strong Chinese state is experiencing
internal strains — particularly, an expanding population
that taxes food supply and government control — and these
strains lead to rebellions and a weakening of the central government.
(The Taiping Rebellion, which lasts from 1850-1864, affects a large
portion of China before being suppressed.)
- Western nations are experiencing an outflow of silver bullion to
China as a result of the imbalance of trade in China’s favor, and
they bring opium into China as a commodity to trade to reverse
the flow of silver.
- China’s attempt to ban the sale of opium in the port city of Canton
leads to the Opium War of 1839 in which the Chinese are defeated
by superior British arms and which results in the imposition of
the first of many “Unequal Treaties.” These treaties
open other cities, “Treaty Ports” — first along
the coast and then throughout China — to trade, foreign legal
jurisdiction on Chinese territory in these ports, foreign control
of tariffs, and Christian missionary presence. By the late 1800s,
China is said to be “carved up like a melon” by foreign
powers competing for “spheres of influence” on Chinese
- From the 1860s onward, the Chinese attempt reform efforts to meet
the military and political challenge of the West. China searches
for ways to adapt Western learning and technology while preserving
Chinese values and Chinese learning. Reformers and conservatives
struggle to find the right formula to make China strong enough
to protect itself against foreign pressure, but they are unsuccessful
in the late 1800s.
- The Qing dynasty of the Manchus is seen as a “foreign” dynasty
by the Chinese. (The well-known “Boxer Rebellion” of
1898-1900 begins as an anti-Qing uprising but is redirected by
the Qing Empress Dowager against the Westerners in China.) As a
symbol of revolution, Chinese males cut off the long braids, or
queues, they had been forced to wear as a sign of submission to
the authority of the Manchus. The dynastic authority is not able
to serve as a focal point for national mobilization against the
West, as the emperor is able to do in Japan in the same period.
- China finds its traditional power relationship with Japan reversed in the late 19th century, especially after its defeat by Japan in the Sino-Japanese war in 1894-95 over influence in Korea. (The Japanese, after witnessing the treatment of China by the West and its own experience of near-colonialism in 1853, successfully establish Japan as a competitor with Western powers for colonial rights in Asia and special privileges in China.)
- China is impressed by Japan’s defeat of Russia, a Western power, in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05; additional reform efforts follow in China and the examination system, which linked the Chinese Confucian educational system to the civil service, is abolished in 1906.
- Internal strains and foreign activity in China lead to rebellions and ultimately revolt of the provinces against the Qing imperial authority in 1911 in the name of a Republican Revolution. (New scholarship, by writers such as Edward Rhoads, challenges the notion that the 1911 Revolution was “inevitable” and suggests that reforms leading to a constitutional monarchy, recommended by the Chinese reforms of 1898 and similar to reforms of Meiji Japan, might have been possible were it not for court politics and military delays that facilitated the 1911 Revolution route.)
- Chinese military leaders, “warlords,” step into the political
vacuum created by the fall of the Qing. The warlords control different
regions of the country and compete for domination of the nominal
central government in Beijing. Sun Yat-sen and his nascent Nationalist
Party (Kuomintang or Guomindang) struggle to bring republican government
- The terms of the Versailles Peace Treaty of 1919, ending WW I,
enrage the Chinese urban populace by recognizing Japanese claims
to former German rights in the Shandong peninsula of China. This
leads to an outpouring of nationalistic sentiment on May 4, 1919
and to the subsequent “May 4th Movement” to reform Chinese
culture through the adoption of Western Science and Democracy.
The Confucian system is discredited and rejected by those who feel
it did not provide China with the strength it needed to meet the
challenge of the West.
- For some Chinese, Marxism a) represents a Western theory, based
on a scientific analysis of historical development, that b) offers
the promise of escape from the imperialism that is thwarting their
national ambitions, and c) promises economic development that would
improve the lot of all. It also offers a comparative philosophic
system that can for some fill the vacuum left after the rejection
of the Confucian system. The founding of the Chinese Communist
Party in 1921 follows the success of the communist revolution in
Russia of 1917-18.
- The Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party (founded
in 1921) work and compete to reunify China politically.
- The very rapid change in China’s international status and self-image
as a leading civilization leads the Chinese on a quest to reestablish
China’s place in the world — a quest that continues today.
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