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To what extent was the fall of Imperial China due to the Impact of the West?
1911 is the date in which the 400 year old Qing regime, and the 2000 year old history of Imperial China both ended. After a year of power sharing with the revolutionary republican Sun Yat Sen, they were permanently removed from power. In this essay, the impact of the West will be examined from the first Opium War to Imperial China’s fall. The debate is one of factors – whether China itself was to blame for the collapse, or whether it was the actions of the west which forced such internal change.
Imperial China was an autocracy along similar lines to Tsarist Russia. The Emperor was granted the ability to rule by decree in a manner known only to the most totalitarian dictators. There was no constitution, parliament, set of individual rights (except those pertaining to particularly high ranking officials), judiciary or widely acknowledged body of law which could restrain the power of the Emperor. The justification for this mode of rule came from the Chinese philosopher Confucius, and his disciples, who promoted and extolled the virtues of hierarchy and obedience, and to whom the inherent conservatism and near reactionary nature of both the mechanisms of the state in Imperial China, and amongst its general populace can be attributed.
The argument for the fall of this system being due to western pressures is provided by Karl Marx, commentating at the time: “Before the British arms the authority of the Manchu dynasty fell to pieces; the superstitious faith in the eternity of the Celestial Empire broke down; the barbarous and hermetic, isolation from the civilized world was infringed.”
Marx is writing at the point when opium has been in the China for several decades, and its effects forced the Chinese emperor Doaguang, to first restrict the trade to Canton, then ban the sale of opium altogether in 1838. This did not suit the economic intentions of either the East India Company, or the British Empire as a whole, although there is debate as to the origins of the first opium war. Jonathon D Spence supports Marx, noting the crucial factors leading to its outbreak: “foreign refusal to accept Chinese legal norms, changes in international trade structures and the ending of Western intellectual’s admiration for China.”
War broke out in 1839, and the British military drove the Chinese to defeat by 1842, the tactics and technology of the British being far superior to the Chinese. The resultant treaties, Nanjing of 1842, its supplementary tariff treaty of 1843, the Treaty of Wanghia in 1844 signed with America, and the treaty with French was signed in the same year. These treaties were taking advantage of a weakened and demoralised China, and sought trade advantages, strategic control of crucial ports and the wide ranging principle of ‘extraterritoriality’ – the right for a foreign government to try its own citizens for crimes committed on foreign territory. As Jonathan D Spence noted: “The Qing, instead of defending their integrity against all comers, had lost control of vital elements of China’s commercial, social, and foreign policies.”
A second opium war broke out in 1856, and officially ended in 1860. The “Treaty of Tianjin” signed at the end of the war, gave Britain a total of 4 million tales (approximately £1, 300,000) as reparation for their losses during the war. Other powers, particularly France and the United States, also jumped on the opportunity to extract riches from China. Such was the extraordinary extent to which this was done that Lord Elgin, the chief negotiator for Britain, was concerned it would be too much for China to handle. In The Opium Wars Frank Sanello notes that “he worried that the real cost of the extortionate demands would be the possible toppling of the unpopular Manchu regime.” This treaty, signed after the final humiliation of the destruction of the Summer Palace and the occupation of Peking by the British, was not a negotiated settlement, but an enforced one.
Opium itself had a dramatic impact on China, right from the introduction of the drug from the late 18th century. Its banning led to corruption being rampant in much of the official bureaucracy, especially around the coasts where the opium smuggling was at its height as the increasing demand for opium amongst the general population necessitated the opening of unofficial avenues. John King Fairbank notes that “the Chinese demand grew up in situations of demoralization not unlike the American inner cities of today.” This comparison is accurate, for the opium trade not only corrupted the local officials it also destabilised the currency and its addictive qualities tore apart the social fabric of China. Carl Von Clausewitz commented that “War is diplomacy by other means.” The response of W. Travis Hanes and Frank Sanello was to say that “If the Prussian military theoretician had studied China’s opium wars with Britain, he might have added that substance abuse was another alternative to diplomacy.” Certainly, the attempts of the upstanding and incorruptible Commissioner Lin to eradicate the problem through both rehabilitation and heavy punishment, at Canton, failed and when he wrote a letter to Victoria I sometime before the first opium war, demanding the end of the trade, there were an estimated 10 million addicts in China. A good example of the effect of opium upon the populace lies in the fact that it took longer to write the Treaty of Tianjin than it did to negotiate it, as the writers were opium addicts themselves, and the debilitating effects of the drug meant their work was considerably slowed.
The effect of both opium and the Opium wars on trade was significant. The western merchants myth of a market with “400 million customers” led to determined exploitation of China, extended by treaty rights allowing investment in the treaty ports, and hampered by the Imperial regime’s refusal to allow investment and exploitation inland. The unindustrialised Chinese society was essentially self – sufficient and thus traded with foreigners only through a complex tributary system (which made foreign trade seem more like gifts to the emperor than western commerce) and this attitude continued right up until the Opium wars, restricting trade, and ignoring the possibilities of prosperity through maritime commerce. Later attempts in the latter half of the 19th century to introduce railways, mines and telegraph cables by western business was hampered by the central government and compounded by the increasing xenophobic nature of the populace, particularly inland towards foreigners, particularly Christian missionaries.
Foreign policy between the opium wars and the fall was marked by further wars. Following an incident involving the French ambassador, the French navy occupied Hanoi. The Chinese military, divided due to the control of arsenals and navies by regional Viceroys rather than having a centralised military command, left China defeated once more. In 1894 war broke out with Japan over control of Korea, and the country that had previously replicated Chinese autocracy now humbled the giant that had previously thought of them as “dwarf bandits.”
Although the Qing court did not recognise it at first, these events represented the beginning of the end for their claim of superiority over other powers, central to the ideological basis of Imperial rule. As Tom Glasoe said in The Emergence of Modern China "The imperial Neo-Confucian scholars accepted as axiomatic the cultural superiority of Chinese civilization” This view is further supported by P.C. Kuo who said that “The theory of the Chinese Empire was marked by a predominant spirit of aloofness and self – sufficiency” Glasoe is right to stress this factor - the result of this was a contradiction between on the one hand declaring the British and many other western powers involved in the second war to be barbarian invaders, and the Chinese regime to be infinitely superior, and on the other having to submit to these same barbarians’ wishes on a whole range of issues such as trade, extraterritoriality and Christianity. This contradiction was to play sharply on the fears and prejudices of the Chinese population, and increase opposition to the Qing regime dramatically.
One of the clauses secured by the French Government in the treaty of Tianjin achieved both the legality and a charter for missionaries in China. The effect that the spread of Christianity had on China was marked, and deeply de – stabilising. Hong Xiuguan led a campaign of ‘God – worshippers’ who believed him to be the younger brother of Jesus Christ (he had picked up this idea after reading translated tracts of the bible which he had picked up form a preacher before entering into another (doomed) civil service exam attempt). His rebellion verged on a civil war, and the Qing regime had to make massive financial and military expenditure in suppressing it, and it took them some considerable years to do so. This was clearly a result of western pressures, as even the British negotiator at Tianjin saw – Lord Elgin, upon completing the Treaty said that it would “be a godsend to the God – worshippers.”
Aside from the Taipeng rebellion, the Christian missionaries were not well received: “Their treaty rights made them protégés of officialdom and, since officialdom was invariably corrupt and frequently oppressive, this did not endear them to the common people” noted Peter Fleming. There was increasing tension between the Chinese population and the Christian missionaries and their (admittedly small) flock The last ten years of the 19th century saw local anti – missionary outbreaks occur in every one of the eighteen provinces of China. These culminated in the Boxer Rebellion of 1901, which saw mass slaughter of Missionaries and their converts, as well as a concerted attack on foreigners and western embassies. The result was predictable – an international force occupied the Imperial Capital, and won the right to station troops there, forever ensuring their influence over the regime.
The Boxer rebellion is significant in two ways, for it firstly shows how out of touch the Imperial Regime was with the world around it, and secondly shows the level of public dissatisfaction and despair there was at the foreign influence that had grown in China between the opium wars and the rebellion itself. The introduction of things like railways, telegraph poles and other modern inventions of the west were thought to disrupt the natural order and landscape around them, and they were one of the primary causes of xenophobic sentiment amongst the Chinese populace.
The treaty rights established by the western powers after the opium wars led directly to the enormity of the problems faced by China in the late 19th and early 20th century. John King Fairbank, stated that “the unequal treaties were a bigger defeat as time passed.” This analysis is correct, for it could be argued that the date 1911 was simply incidental to the fall of Imperial China. J.A.G Roberts also noted that by 1900, with the country divided into spheres of influence, “the question has often been asked, why was China not partitioned?” indicating the weakness of the regime from then on. Sun Yat Sen was not even in the country at the time to lead his followers against the imperial leadership - the regime simply collapsed under the weight of the lack of legitimacy and loss of support amongst the populace.
Other internal factors surrounding the fall of the Qing have been put forward - notably the ethnicity of the Qing in comparison to the populace. This is based on the fact that for some in China, the fall of the Ming regime in the 17th century, and the replacement of it by the Qing, did not pass the ‘mandate of heaven’ – crucial to maintaining power over the populace – onto the Qing. This belief was largely due to the fact that the Qing regime hailed from Manchuria, traditionally seen as something of a foreign state in the eyes of many Chinese. Members of the Manchu Imperial family spoke with different accents, different cultures and customs and they did little to attempt to adapt to the state which they found themselves ruling. Some historians have based an interpretation upon these facts. Mark Elliot, writing in The Manchu Way, argued that Manchu rulers maintained a sense of difference to their Chinese subjects from the 17th century onwards, by maintaining the banner institutions and encouraging the use of the Manchu language, rather than the Chinese. A strong case can be made for saying that it was the ethnic distaste amongst ordinary Chinese which led to the unrest on the part of what otherwise might be seen as loyal sections of society. The military in particular, whose mutinies were the final trigger to decades of discontent, had been heavily infiltrated by the anti – Manchu Revolutionary Alliance, under the directorship of Sun Yat-Sen. Their aim was to overthrow the Manchu state, and in so doing “avenge the national disgrace and to restore the Chinese.”
The problem with this argument however, is that it does not explain why the regime held on to power for so long, if this difference was there all the time, especially as there were a series of rebellions which were successfully put down by the armed forces and the gentry militia loyal to the regime – the White Lotus Rebellion in 1796, even the Taipeng rebellion in 1851 both failed to replace the Manchu regime.
The autocratic nature of Imperial rule itself could also be held partly responsible. It was one which denied access to the outside world, and was characterised by its exclusivity. Only a degree holder could have access to bureaucratic posts, and by the 1850s only the second highest tier of successful civil service applicants could reasonably expect to gain one. Even successful applicants to the lowest rank were in a severe minority compared to the number of failures; Frederick Wakeman Jr. noted that “An aspirant looking up the ladder realised that he had only about one chance in sixty of getting the lowest degree….and for each of the 1.4 million degree holders, high and low, in the realm, there were only twenty thousand available civil appointments.” This structure meant that there were a huge number of disgruntled failed applicants. For example, Hong Xiuguan, leader of the Taipeng rebellion in the mid 19th century, failed his civil service exam several times, and as a result was driven to strike against the system he attempted to gain entry to, turning to the scriptures of the bible, as opposed to the Confucian modes of thought that he had previously studied with such care. It could be argued that the opium wars were a prime example of the inflexibility this system imposed. Had the Emperor not followed such a hard line in the early days of the Opium trade, Frederick Wakeman Jr argues , the British would have had no excuse to invade “Lin’s blockade of the factories provided a perfect Casus Belli to enable them to win so many of the concessions they had long been demanding from the Chinese.” Indeed, one trader, upon having his stock of opium destroyed by the Imperial authorities in Canton commented that “(it) is even fortunate as adding to the account for which we have to claim redress.”
By itself, however, this argument also does not provide sufficient justification for the fall – it had been in place in some form or another for 2000 years. If nothing else the autocratic regime provided continuity: Jonathon D Spence notes that between 1661 and 1799 there were only three emperors of China, as well as there being an almost uninterrupted succession between them: “Comparing the events of their reigns with the developments in North America….or in Britain…one can see why China has presented such an extraordinary picture of stability and continuity to foreign observers.” His point is that where the west industrialised, increased the level of international trade to a level not seen before in the world, and developed more liberal and democratic modes of rule, China remained autocratic, and entirely unindustrialised.
Between the closure of the second opium war and the fall of Imperial China itself, China attempted to reform itself to cope with the pressures it was suffering from. The ‘Self – strengthening’ movement, initiated by Feng Kuei – fen, was designed to seriously reform the institutions of Imperial China, particularly the military, in order to protect China against western aggression. The creation of regional arsenals, was designed to allow the Chinese armies to draw advanced weapons from to defend China from foreign military intervention. However, the pressure of internal rebellions meant the central government let the arsenals fall under the control of regional viceroys or powerful bureaucrats, and thus crucial military power drifted away from the centre, indicating again the failure of the Imperial leadership to grasp the reality of the situation it was in.
Noble attempts in the 1870s by the military leader Li Hung Chang to continue with this, reform the civil service examination system, and teach the new applicants about western ideals of liberalism, democracy and military tactics were blocked by the conservative powers in the court, and the realpolitik of the Empress Dowager Tz’u Hsi meant that she, effectively in control of the court after 1874, had to adopt a policy of compromise - thus preventing real reform, until the desperate “Hundred days of reform” in 1898 by the Kuang hsu emperor. He attempted to reform everything through “an avalanche of edicts, decrees and rescripts” and in doing so, reformed nothing, as the conservative bureaucrats in every institution reacted with offence and horror at what the Emperor was attempting to do to the Heavenly Kingdom.
The reality of the collapse was that its final implosion was the result of external forces amplifying and accelerating internal drives and weaknesses. The continued lack of industrialisation and the intransigent view of the outside world left China weak and inflexible in the face of western aggression. The stubborn conservatism of the Imperial court in the face of the spread of opium and Christianity left it no room for reform or management of those forces. When Lord McCartney arrived in Tianjin attempting to establish an embassy, an invitation was offered to the Chinese to join the rest of the 18th century world. China, in rejecting that invitation, rejected a world that refused to put aside its economic intentions at the behest of what it saw as an uncooperative and barbaric regime. Marx was right to say that a western power caused the problems of the Manchu – but wrong to ignore the role of China itself in that collapse.
Karl Marx Revolution in China and in Europe, June 14th 1853, New York Daily Tribune.
Frederick Wakeman, Jr. The fall of Imperial China, 1975 The Free Press
J.A. G. Roberts The Complete History of China 1996, Sutton Publishing Ltd, Gloucestershire
Reginald F. Johnston Twilight in the Forbidden City 1934 (Victor Gollancz) 1989 (Oxford University Press)
Jonathon D. Spence The Search for Modern China 1999
John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman China A New History Harvard University Press 2002
W. Travis Hanes III and Frank Sanello The Opium Wars 2002 Robson Books
Tom Glasoe The Emergence of Modern China
Peter Fleming The Siege at Peking 1959, Richard Clay and Company
Mark Elliot The Manchu Way: the Eight Banners and Ethnic Identity in Late Imperial China, 2002, Stanford University Press
Edmund Fung The Military Dimension of the Chinese Revolution (1980)
Mary Wright China in Revolution: The first phase 1900 – 1913, 1973, New Haven, Yale University Press
P.C. Kuo A critical study of the first Anglo – Chinese war with Documents Shanghai 1935, reprinted 1970 Ch’eng Wen publishing Co.