By the 1800s China is ruled by the Qing Dynasty. This was a vast multicultural empire – the fourth largest in world history – that was ruled by a group called the Manchu from Manchuria. They kept most of the Chinese system the same – the Confucian exam system to run the government, etc. – but they put their people on top. They presided over 300 years of prosperity in China but by the 1800s they were in decline. The leadership was very conservative and refusing to recognize the changing world – remember, the West is industrializing and setting up vast empires, while China is still shutting its doors and hoping things will go back to the way they used to be.
THe Canton System
But China still has the power. They have tons of luxury items like silk and porcelain that the new middle class in Europe wants to prove its wealth. And they have tea, which factory owners are using to drive production by giving it to their workers to help keep them awake. China has huge markets that the Europeans would love to tap into, but the Europeans don’t really have anything that the Chinese desperately want besides silver.
Also, all Europeans are restricted to only trading through the port city of Canton and it is highly regulated by the government. As part of this Canton System, European merchants are monitored, are not allowed to learn Chinese, can only live in one part of the city, and cannot travel or do business anywhere else. This is what we call a trade imbalance and it is swinging pretty heavily toward China right now.
Everyone’s trying to get into China and negotiate a better trading agreement. The Russians and the Dutch both send trade delegations. The British send two – the last one gets expelled from China for refusing to perform the kowtow – the traditional series of bows you are supposed to do when you meet the emperor. And this is the last straw. The British are like, “Um… I’m sorry. Do you know who we are? We’re the freakin’ British Empire. The “sun never sets” people? That’s us.” So they go back to London and start plotting. “I know!” they think. “Let’s get them addicted to drugs!” And they did.
The Opium Wars
The British had access to opium. A lot of it. From their colonies in Indonesia and in India. So they started smuggling opium into China and selling it to merchants. The illegal trade became so important that they developed new ships called “opium clippers” that could carry the weight of the tons of opium and that had extra protection against pirates and Chinese officials.
After many diplomatic warnings, the Chinese Emperor eventually sent one of his officials down to Canton. In 1839 he seized 20,000 chests of opium – almost 3 millions pounds of it – and declared a blockade against foreign trade in Canton until the British stopped smuggling in the drug. Using this as their excuse, the British send the Royal Navy in to defend its merchants. The British quickly defeated the Chinese and forced them to sign the Treaty of Nanking, known as the Unequal Treaty. This treaty opened up five new ports to foreign trade, gave the British control of Hong Kong, and gave them the power of extraterritoriality. This means that British people in China are not subject to Chinese laws and can only be punished under the British justice system.
But that wasn’t enough and Britain eventually won a Second Opium War, after which they were given most-favored-nation status, meaning they got special trading privileges no other country got. By the end of the Opium Wars, the Chinese coast was divided into economic spheres of influence with different port cities effectively controlled by foreign governments. By 1900, China was still technically independent but its trade was heavily controlled by Russia, Japan, Britain, France, and Germany.
Chinese reactions to the Opium Wars
So let’s think about this from the Chinese perspective. They have been stable, strong, and basically unconquerable for thousands of years (if we don’t count the Mongols, because they do everything no one else does). And remember that they viewed themselves as the Middle Kingdom – the center of the civilized world. To them, the Europeans were barbarians unworthy of their concern. And now all of a sudden they are essentially a tributary state of the West – a position they were very familiar with but from the other side.
China is going to essentially freak out. They are not OK with this and they know that something needs to be done. The problem is that China is so vast and diverse and hard to control that they are not going to agree on what needs to be done. And this is going to be the difference between China and Japan, but we’ll get to Japan in a minute.
First, how do the peasants respond? Remember the Mandate of Heaven? It’s this idea that the emperor gets his right to rule from the heavens. But, if he loses the mandate then bad things will happen – environmental disasters, war, etc. So to traditional peasants, this is about as close to complete disaster as they can imagine and they believe that the emperor has clearly lost his mandate.
Meanwhile, there’s this peasant guy wandering around the countryside yelling about how the emperor needs to be overthrown and they need to instate a new China. His name is Hong Xiuquan. He was a scholar who had failed the Confucian imperial exam multiple times – that’s not rare, less than 1% passed them. But when he was in the city to take the exam he met a Christian missionary who gave him some pamphlets that he kept, but didn’t pay much attention to.
After failing the test for the fourth time, Hong had a nervous breakdown. Supposedly he had a vision that he visited Heaven where he found his celestial family. His heavenly father, wearing a black dragon robe, who told him that it was his job to rid the world of demon worship. The people were supposed to be worshipping his father, and he must show them this with the help of his celestial older brother. Supposedly in this vision he saw Confucius being punished for leading the people astray.
When he came to, he found the pamphlets the missionary had given him. After he reading them, he believed that this was the key to his vision. The father he had seen was God and he was his youngest son. Hong Xiuquan believed that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ and it was his job to lead China into the light by overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and setting up a Christian kingdom.
So I’ve tried to avoid passing judgment on historical figure’s spiritual visions. Muhammad? Joan of Arc? Sure why not? Because, for a historian, whether they actually had visions from God doesn’t really matter – they believed that they did and thus acted accordingly. But this one is too good. Like, he read a pamphlet. A pamphlet. Not even the whole Bible!
But, this is a pretty cool example of how Chinese ancestor worship mixed with Christianity to create something new. This idea that he could visit his ancestors – in this case God and Jesus Christ – in a dream and communicate with them is as old as China. Remember the oracle bones from the ancient era? Anyway. So he goes around destroying everything that is traditionally Chinese – especially anything associated with Confucianism.
And he gets some converts, mostly people who had also failed the rigid exam system. So if I can be cynical for a second, that’s what this is. Hong Xiuquan definitely believed he was sent from God, but his followers probably didn’t. But they were frustrated by this traditional system that had kept them in the dark just because they couldn’t pass a ridiculously hard standardized test. And they were fed up with the way China was being torn apart by outside barbarians. So they went with it.
The Taiping Rebellion
Hong’s movement joined with other peasant revolts in progress to become the Taiping Rebellion. At its height, Hong’s army controlled 30 million people! The civil war lasts for over a decade – it actually overlaps with the American Civil War, for reference. In the end, 20-30 million people died, making it one of the deadliest conflicts in human history. Aren’t you surprised you never learned about this in history class? Me too.
The Taiping Rebellion was only able to be put down because the Qing Emperor had to rely on foreign aid from Britain and France, who didn’t want the system they had just built up to come crashing down. And the Qing had to empower regional leaders to build up their own armies. This is important. China has always been essentially feudal. Yeah the emperor is in charge – but day to day, local rule is way more important. And the emperors have always tried to downplay that so that they can centralize power but at this point they have to admit that they can’t. Regional warlords rise up and ally with the Qing to put down the rebellion. But now that they have this power, they’re not going to easily give it up. More on that in a second.
THe Self-Strengthening Movement
After the Taiping Rebellion, the Confucian scholars are shook. They realize that China is crumbling and they need to do what they can to strengthen it before it collapses. They institute the Self-Strengthening Movement, which was a 30 year attempt to reform China to help it compete in this new world. They began adopting Western technology and weapons, built shipyards, and hired European advisers.
But not everyone in the court agreed with this plan. In fact, most of them believed it violated their entire Confucian worldview. The biggest opponent is the Empress Dowager Cixi. Even though there were often others technically in charge, she effectively ruled China from 1861 until 1908. She was violently against foreign intervention and she opposed the Self-Strengthening Movement from the beginning.
Eventually, her view won out and the movement was abandoned. The imperial government stuck its head in the sand and ignored the changing world outside. The best example of this is when Empress Cixi took the money that was meant to build up an imperial navy, and instead spent it restoring a marble boat that sat in a lake at the Summer Palace. A marble boat. It was basically a big “Screw you” to all the scholars who were advising the court to invest in new technology. She thought, Nope. I’m going to renovate this 100-year-old statue, basically, that was built to symbolize the everlasting power of the emperor. Ah irony, my old friend.
By the early 1900s there are a lot of different groups who disagree on basically everything except the fact that the Qing Dynasty needs to go. They are going to unite to overthrow the Emperor in 1912 and, inspired by western nationalism, not put a new emperor in his place. Instead they will attempt to set up a modern democracy that will quickly devolve into a civil war. More on that in the 20th century.
China is basically the worst case scenario out of these four empires. They were completely unwilling to adapt and they fell apart because of it. And there are two powerful empires that watch this happening and learn at least a few lessons on what not to do.