Central Themes and Key Points
China and the West: Imperialism, Opium, and Self-Strengthening (1800-1921)
  • 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 soil.
  • 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 to China.
  • 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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