IMPERIALISM IN CHINA OVERVIEW
Imperialism in China occurred throughout the Age of Imperialism, alongside other major events such as: British Imperialism in India and European Imperialism in Africa. Imperialism in China is considered to have occurred primarily in the 19th century, but outside interest in China began centuries earlier. The major European nations of the time (Britain, France, Portugal, and Germany) played a significant role in imperialism in China. As well, other important nations that carried out expansion into China included Russia and Japan. By the early 20thc century, these nations claimed large sections of China as ‘spheres of influence’. In all, imperialism in China is a significant event in world history and led to the development of modern China.
CHINA BEFORE IMPERIALISM (QING DYNASTY)
As stated above, the main period of imperialism in China occurred in the 19th century and continued into the early 20th century. At the time, the Qing Dynasty ruled China. In fact, the Qing Dynasty existed from the early 1600s until 1912, when the Republic of China replaced it. The Qing Dynasty was formed following the takeover of the country by Manchu forces, which was the northern region of China and is today referred to as Manchuria. The Manchu forces defeated the Ming Dynasty, which had controlled China since the 14th century.
The centuries during which the Qing Dynasty ruled over China were incredibly significant. In fact, Chinese society prospered during this time, and the Qing rulers were able to take control over large sections of land throughout the Far East. As such, when the first Europeans began to arrive in China in the 17th century, they were amazed by the sprawling and prosperous Chinese civilization.
EARLY EUROPEAN INTEREST IN CHINA
One of the earliest examples of European interest in China comes from the writings of Marco Polo. He was born in the Italian city-state of Venice in 1254. Polo is most famous for his travels along the Silk Road from 1271 to 1295. During this time, he supposedly reached China. His travels were discussed in the book titled ‘The Travels of Marco Polo’, which was published around the year 1300. The book was important in terms of inspiring others to travel to the Far East in the decades and centuries that followed.
The first European to arrive in China was Jorge Álvares, who was a Portuguese explorer during the Age of Exploration. Álvares arrived in southern China in May of 1513. His arrival led to a wave of European merchants that travelled to China in hopes of gaining access to the many different types of goods that that country had to offer. The same was occurring in other regions of Far East Asia in the 18th century, including India and Indochina. For example, Britain famously colonized India with the economic trade of the British East India Company. As well, France had established routes to Indochina, which was partly made up of the modern nation of Vietnam.
For their part, the Qing rulers wanted to limit European trading in their territory. As such, the Qing established the Canton System, which forced all foreign nations to trade only at the port of Canton. The city of Canton, which today is called Guangzhou, is a city in the south of China. The Qing restricted all foreign nations and companies to trade as this port in the hopes of limiting outside influence on Chinese society. The Canton System annoyed the European merchants, because it limited their access to other parts of the country. Regardless, the demand for Chinese goods was high in Europe, which caused the European merchants to obey the Qing restrictions. The most popular Chinese goods in Europe included tea, silk and porcelain.
The demand for Chinese goods and increased trade led the European nations, especially Britain and France, to push China to end the Canton System of trade. This situation led to increasing tensions between the Qing rulers and foreign nations. At the same time, China was struggling with internal issues such as overpopulation and government corruption. As such, historians have argued that the Qing Dynasty began to lose some of its control over the nation. Regardless, the role that opium played in China came to have a significant impact on China’s trade with foreign nations and led to the First Opium War.
The Opium Wars were two major conflicts in China during the 18th century that related to western imperialism in the Asian country. Click on the links below to read more detailed information about each of the two Opium Wars.
The First Opium War was fought between the Qing Dynasty of China and Britain and took place from September 4th, 1839 until August 29th, 1842. At the time, the Qing Dynasty attempted to control outside influence in the country through a trading system referred to as the ‘Canton System’. In short, the Canton System forced all foreign nations to trade only at the port of Canton. The city of Canton, which today is called Guangzhou, is a city in the south of China. The Qing restricted all foreign nations and companies to trade at this port in the hopes of limiting outside influence on Chinese society. The Canton System annoyed the European merchants, because it limited their access to other parts of the country.
The demand for Chinese goods (tea, silk and porcelain) and increased trade led the European nations, especially Britain and France, to push China to end the Canton System of trade. This situation led to increasing tensions between the Qing rulers and foreign nations. In fact, the tensions were one of the main causes of the First Opium War between Britain and the Qing.
The First Opium War was a major victory for the British Empire in the Far East. For instance, the victory resulted in the Treaty of Nanking and gave Britain significant trading power in China. The Chinese referred to it as an ‘unequal treaty’, which is a term they gave to a series of treaties that they signed with western powers that they considered unfair or unjust.
The Second Opium War was another important conflict between the Qing Dynasty of China and the British and French Empires. It that took place from October 8th, 1856 until October 24th, 1860. While the Treaty of Nanking from the First Opium War was incredibly beneficial to British interests in China, Britain wanted to gain more access to the region throughout the 1840s and 1850s. In fact, Britain demanded that opium be legalized in China, and argued for even more control over general trade within all of China.
The Second Opium War ended in October of 1860 following the Convention of Peking, which saw the Qing leadership agree to terms with the British, French and Russia. In all, the Second Opium War (combined with the First Opium War) was a humiliating loss for the Qing Dynasty and led to increased western influence in China. In fact, the major western powers of the time (Britain, France, Russia, Japan and Germany) established major spheres of influence in China that lasted throughout the end of the 19th century. As a result, the Qing loss in the Second Opium War led to increased trade by the western powers in China and resulted in growth for the overall trade of opium in China.
OUTSIDE INFLUENCE IN CHINA
The 19th century was a time of great change for China. At the time, the western powers were at their height in terms of the Age of Imperialism and had established large empires across the world. As such, they were also imposing their influence on China in the form of ‘spheres of influence’. In fact, the major western powers of the time (Britain, France, Russia, Japan and Germany) established major spheres of influence in China that lasted throughout the end of the 19th century. The western victories in the two Opium Wars were important factors in the expansion of these spheres of influence and the downfall of authority of the Qing government. For instance, the Nanking Treaty of the First Opium War, and the four Treaties of Tientsin of the Second Opium War were important factors in western expansion in China. For this reason, China referred to the treaties with the western parties as the ‘unequal treaties’.
As stated above, following its loss of the two Opium Wars, China entered a period where foreign imperial powers developed spheres of influence within its borders. Each of the following nations developed and established spheres of influence in China after the mid-1800s: France, Britain, Germany, Russia and Japan. For example, in 1860, Russia captured a large portion on Northern China and controlled it as its own ‘sphere of influence’.
Japan also took advantage of China in its weakened state. For example, it worked to increase its influence in Korea, a country that China had formally dominated. The two countries eventually erupted into war over control of Korea in the form of the First Sino-Japanese War, which took place from 1894 to 1895. Similar to the previous Opium Wars, the First Sino-Japanese War proved to be another crushing defeat for the Qing Dynasty and China. As a result, China was forced to give control of Korea, the island of Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula to Japan. As well, Japan began to establish its own sphere of influence on the eastern coast of China.
For its part, the United States did not establish its own sphere of influence within China but the United States government argued that it should receive the same commercial and trading rights as the other western powers. More specifically, the United States sought to establish an ‘Open Door Policy’ in China meaning it wanted equal access to trade in China for all nations. The policy was meant to prevent foreign powers from carving up China into colonies, thus denying the United States access to lucrative trade markets.
The next major event in the history of imperialism in China was the Boxer Rebellion, which occurred from November 2nd, 1899 to September 7th, 1901. It saw Chinese nationalists, which were known as ‘Boxers’ rise up and fight against western influence in China. In fact, the Boxers fought to end western imperialism in China, as well as bring a stop to the spread of Christian missionaries. As a result, the Boxer Rebellion is a significant event in the timeframe of western imperialism in China and occurred during the end stages of the Qing Dynasty.
The Boxer Rebellion ended formally on September 7, 1901 with the signing of the Boxer Protocol. The Boxer Protocol was an agreement between the Qing Empire of China and the Eight Nation Alliance. It contained many clauses, but the most significant included provisions for punishment against China and the Boxers, as well as protections for the foreign nations going forward. As part of the agreement, the Qing government was to pay 450 million taels (Chinese system of measurement) of silver to the countries of the Eight Nation Alliance over a period of 39 years. At the time, this was equivalent to around $330 million USD. As well, the Boxer Protocol gave the foreign powers the ability to place their forces in Peking on a continuous basis. Also, it called for the punishment (including execution) of anyone in the Chinese government or Boxer movement that supported the Boxer Rebellion.
In the end, the Boxer Rebellion was a significant event in the history of China. It highlighted the pressures that the country was under at the time, due to the tensions created by foreign influence and western imperialism. As such, historians consider the Boxer Rebellion important to the history of the Age of Imperialism.
SIGNIFICANCE OF IMPERIALISM IN CHINA
In the end, the period of western imperialism in China during the Age of Imperialism was a very significant event. It saw China become dominated by the major powers of the time, such as: Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Russia. As well, the United States exerted its influence in the region with the ‘Open Door Policy’. Regardless, China struggled to maintain its own sovereignty throughout the 19th century and increasingly came under the control of foreign influences.
This opened up China to more trade opportunities for the western powers and created a large market for the goods from across the world. As such, alongside other significant events of the Age of Imperialism (British Imperialism in India and European Imperialism in Africa), Imperialism in China was an important event in world history.
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