As we write this in the year 2019, China is likely to step into a position of global leadership. The nation finds itself buoyed by an increasingly strong economy and impressive military structure.
In many respects, this is a reflection of a proud and illustrious history. For centuries, China was the dominant force throughout Asia. Emperors of several dynasties ruled over a flourishing land. Perhaps more importantly, China was considered vast and unknowable to foreign visitors. Very few outsiders were permitted to enter China. If access was granted, it was by invitation of the ruling Emperor.
Before becoming the superpower that we know the country as today however, China endured a turbulent period. Varyingly referred to as the Century of Shame or the Century of Humiliation, the period between 1839 and 1949 is not remembered with fondness in China. For the first and only time in the nation’s history, Japan and the west considered China an easy target for domination and subjugation.
Once colossal and imperious, China suffered numerous military defeats during the Century of Shame. While other nations modernized and contemporized their armed forces, China remained beholden to traditions that had grown outdated. As a result, China lost control of critical and holy territory. Drastic action was required.
In many respects, the construct of modern China can be traced back to September 1839 and the onset of the First Opium War. This conflict was the catalyst for a chain of events that would bring China to its knees. Thankfully, this adversity also forced change. This change eventually saw the country rise from the ashes, and occupy a seat at the top table of 21st Century world affairs.
The Eve of the First Opium War
The First Opium War was a conflict fought between China and Britain, sparked by perceived inequity in trade between the two nations.
Prior to the 20th Century, much of China’s wealth stemmed from exporting goods. China enjoyed an enviable reputation as a provider of rare luxury assets to the west. Chinese silks, porcelain and tea were particularly popular in Britain and Europe.
Unfortunately, western nations began to feel that these trading agreements were inequitable. Britain, in particular, had nothing to offer China aside from cold, hard currency. For centuries, Britain would pay China for its products in pure silver. Eventually, it became clear that this was not sustainable. The silver stocks of Britain were running low, and China enjoyed a surplus of precious metal. This was not a good look for the all-conquering British Empire.
The British attempted to rebalance the scales of power by smuggling opium, grown in India, into China. Opium had a long history of medicinal use in China, dating back to the 7th Century. It had since been banned as a narcotic, as usage became increasingly commonplace. Intoxication was longed linked to spirituality in ancient China. Many believed that, by imbibing alcohol and drugs, it was possible to commune with the dead. By the 18th Century, opium use in China was considered an epidemic.
The Daoguang Emperor was no fan of opium use among the Chinese population. He firmly believed that the drug was a poison and that no good would come from allowing the country to be flooded. The British, however, created a black market. Opium was sold to Chinese citizens in exchange for pure silver, much to the horror of China’s ruling classes.
Attempts to were made to stem the tide of opium flooding the country. A diplomatic approach was initially taken. An open letter to Queen Victoria, requesting that she cease the activity of her subjects on the grounds of morality, was ignored. Next, China offered a substantial quantity of tea in exchange for a cease to opium trading. This was refused.
By now, the British were making substantial profit from opium. By selling their product directly to Chinese citizens, British sailors were finding themselves wealthier than ever. They could afford all the tea they could possibly wish for, and have change left over. Putting a stop to this trading would hit British sailors where it hurt most; their pocket.
This was obviously unacceptable to the Chinese authorities. In May 1839, a British fleet was forced to hand over their opium stocks upon arrival in China. The drug was destroyed before their very eyes, infuriating the sailors aboard.
This placed additional strain on a relationship that was already at breaking point. The Chinese did not trust the British, deeming them disrespectful as British visitors refused to follow traditional Chinese protocol while in the country. The British, meanwhile, viewed the Chinese as uncooperative and resistant. They were fed up with trading access being restricted to a solitary port. War became inevitable.
The War and the Aftermath
The First Opium War raged between 1839 and 1842, primarily fought at sea. The first skirmish was the Battle of Kowloon. A drunken brawl between British sailors and Chinese nationals in Kowloon, a city within Hong Kong, sparked this conflict.
A Chinese man was killed in the fight, and the Chinese authorities blamed the British for this. Declaring their investigation and punishment of the culprits insufficient, Chinese officials ceased trading food with the British. A ban was put into place that prohibited the sale of perishable goods to British soldiers. The British retaliated by opening fire on the Chinese sailboats that carried this forbidden sustenance.
The Battle of Kowloon ended in a stalemate, but this was far from the end of the conflict. Seventeen more battles followed, all of which were won by the British.
The concluding chapter of the First Opium War was the Battle of Chinkiang. In claiming this territory, the British gained control of China’s entire rail network. Trains were essential to domestic trade within China, transporting rice throughout the country.
The Daoguang Emperor acknowledged that war was unsustainable and victory unlikely. He requested a truce, which did not sit well with the garrison of Chinese soldiers charged with defending Chinkiang. Shamed by their military defeat, many of these troops committed suicide.
Peace was agreed through the Treaty of Nanjing. Alas, this sparked a precedent that would haunt China for the next century. The Treaty of Nanjing was the first of what would become known as ‘unequal treaties’ – post-war agreements that the Chinese people considered to contain unfavourable terms.
The terms of the treaty demanded that China pay substantial amounts of silver in reparations, with British soldiers remaining in the country until the debt was settled. All British prisoners of war were freed, and any Chinese national that aided the British war effort was granted amnesty.
The British were granted comprehensive access to several new ports, and the right to free trade of anything they wished within China. Finally, the British took control of Hong Kong. This region remained under British rule until 1997, when it was returned to China.
The Treaty of Nanjing had a significant impact on China. It drastically reduced the country’s trading power with foreign nations and did nothing to stop the opium problem. This would result in the Second Opium War, and one of the most shameful acts in British and French military history in the form of the sacking of the Summer Palace.
The Second Opium War
In the decade that followed the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing, China was in a state of flux. The country was no longer impenetrable, and Britain enjoyed unprecedented access to trade.
This was not enough, though. Britain demanded amendments to the treaty, expecting even greater access to Chinese ports. This was as part of their ‘favoured nation’ status, which was bestowed by the treaty. This did not sit well with the United States and other European countries. Other territories started to demand access to China on par with the British.
The catalyst for the Second Opium War was a ship named the Arrow. The Arrow was formerly used by Chinese pirates. The ship was repatriated when these lawbreakers were captured, and sold to the British. The Union Jack flag flew from the ship to denote this. One fateful day in 1856, Chinese authorities boarded the ship upon suspicions of piracy and arrested the crew. The registration of the British owners had lapsed, and it was assumed that the Arrow was once again being used for criminal activity.
The British took this as a grave insult, especially as it was claimed that Chinese officials removed the Union Jack flag from the ship upon boarding. Demands were made that the crew were released. An official apology was also expected for insulting the British flag. Nine of the twelve crew members were released, but this compromise was unacceptable to the British. A skirmish ensued that saw Britain firing on Chinese ports, and a bounty placed on the heads of any British soldier captured or killed.
The British government approached the USA and Russia, seeking to forge alliances in the conflict with China. These requests were declined, and Britain was temporarily distracted by mutiny in the Indian colonies. By 1858, however, Britain was ready to take on China all over again.
Further demands to amendments to the Treaty of Nanjing were made, and refused by the Xianfeng Emperor. It was felt that China had already ceded too much ground. Any further compromise would cost the country its national identity.
Undeterred, Britain invaded China. The French military joined the conflict, and even Russia and the USA provided envoys. The aim was simple. Each of these nations wanted to stake a claim for preferred trading partnership with China.
In an attempt at stemming the tide of bloodshed, China negotiated the Treaties of Tianjin. These agreements provided Russia, France, Britain and the USA with additional trading privileges and more financial reparations. Under separate cover, Russia also negotiated the Treaty of Aigun. This redefined the border between China and Russia, granting the latter nation greater control over the Pacific coast.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of the Second Opium War. It was a mere respite.
The Treaties of Tianjin were hugely unpopular with the Chinese people. In 1859, the Xianfeng Emperor decided to renege upon the deals, and hostilities against Britain were resumed. A military force from Mongolia was brought in to assist the Chinese army, but again they fell to the united forces of Britain, America, Russia and France over the course of several battles.
The United States allying with Britain after promising to remain neutral was a particular shock. It was claimed that the Americans considered the British to be closer, and thus more important, allies.
The Sacking of the Old Summer Palace
Further peace talks to end the Second Opium War were attempted in 1860, but one incident changed everything. The British had always resisted the traditions of China, and the diplomatic envoy sent to negotiate peace retained this culture of disrespect. The Chinese imperial envoy was insulted, and the British men responsible were arrested. These British diplomats later died in Chinese custody.
In retaliation, British and French forces stormed the Old Summer Palace, the primary residence of the Emperor. This sacred building was looted, destroyed and burned to ash.
The savagery displayed by these soldiers is legendary. The sacking of the palace is considered one of the blackest days in Chinese history. 4,000 soldiers stormed the palace, and it took three days to raze it to the ground. The Old Summer Palace was considered sacred in China, and playing host to many of the nation’s finest treasures. Most of these were stolen before the fires began to rage.
Remnants of the Old Summer Palace are now scattered throughout the four corners of the globe, found in a variety of international museums. This remains a source of great frustration and shame for the modern Chinese government. Plans continue to unfold to reclaim each and every one of these treasures and restore them to their rightful home.
Until this happens, it remains unlikely that the wound caused by the incident will ever fully heal. The sacking of the Old Summer Palace casts a shadow over Anglo-Chinese relations to this very day. Some atrocities can never be forgiven and forgotten, it seems.
These actions sent shockwaves throughout China. It was as though the British and French soldiers were gripped by temporary insanity, driven by an urge to destroy the very soul of China. If there is any consolation is to be taken, it is that the British authorities were talked out of their initial plan. Without intervention, it would have been the Forbidden City that was attacked. Had this gone ahead, there would surely never been a treaty agreed.
As it was, the sacking of the Old Summer Palace did lead the Xianfeng Emperor to re-open peace talks. These culminated with the Convention of Peking. This agreement re-instated all agreements that had been reneged upon from the Treaties of Tianjin, alongside new concessions.
More trade ports were opened, opium was legalised, religious freedom was introduced to the country, and more Chinese territory was carved between the victorious nations of Britain, France, Russia and the USA.
To lose one Opium War is unfortunate. To lose two is irrecoverably damaging. The signing of the Convention of Peking is seen as a major turning point in China’s history.
For the first time, China was beginning to look weak. The aura of the Qing dynasty was seriously diminished, and the people were questioning the efficiency of their government. This inspired neighbouring nations to see China in a different way. The Century of Shame was well and truly underway.
Japanese Intervention in Chinese Affairs and the Boxer Rebellion
While China was coming to terms with their struggles, Japan was looking on with interest. Japan had recently forged positive relations with the United States. Coupled with the Satsuma rebellion of 1877, the traditional age of the samurai was drawing to a close. Japan was taking a more contemporary and high-tech military approach, and embracing western values and practices. It did not go unnoticed that China had suffered a brace of significant military defeats.
Following the Opium Wars, China found itself embroiled in another conflict. The Tonkin War saw China and France do battle over the occupation of Vietnam between 1884 and 1885. This war went better than the two that came before it, being recognised as a stalemate. France took control over the city of Tonkin in northern Vietnam however; an agreement that was formalised in the Treaty of Tientsin.
Japan’s leadership felt that it should be the leading nation of Asia, not China. This led to the First Sino-Japanese War. China still claimed ownership of Korea at this stage, which did not sit comfortably with Japan. Both countries had previously used Korea to access each other’s territory and launch invasions. What’s more, Japan was determined to spread the message of modernisation throughout Asia.
Sensing an opportunity, Japan’s Emperor Meiji declared war in China in 1894. The First Sino-Japanese War was primarily fought at sea. Many expected China to emerge victorious, as the Chinese fleet had greater numbers than its opponent. Japan had embraced modern technology, however. Japan’s fleet blew that of China out of the water – literally.
In 1885, the war concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki. China ceded control of Korea, allowing the country to be recognised as an independent nation. Swathes of Chinese territory were handed to Japanese control, and reparations were paid. For many, this was the final nail in the coffin of the Qing dynasty. The 19th century had seen a string of military defeats for China, and the people no longer trusted their leaders.
Meanwhile, Japan’s expansion had not gone unnoticed in Europe. The likes of Britain, France, Russia and Germany were concerned by the growing influence of Japan. They had not quashed and oppressed China just for another, potentially more dominant opponent to rise in its place. Treaties were signed and agreed among these countries, many of which involved the carving up and sharing of Chinese territory between these countries. China was not invited to the negotiating table at any stage.
This led to civil unrest beginning to stir in China. Sick of being told what to do by overseas powers, The Boxer Rebellion unfolded at the turn of the century. This was an uprising of China’s peasant class, who sought to drive foreign nationals out of China and reclaim governance of the country for themselves. Followers of the Christian faith, who arrived following the religious freedom enforced by the Convention of Peking, were similarly targeted.
The Boxers held a 55-day siege upon China’s diplomatic quarter in Beijing. Eventually, the rebellion was quashed by what became known as the Eight Nation Alliance. The USA, Austria-Hungary, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia joined forces to invade China.
Amassing a total of 20,000 troops between the eight countries, the Chinese army was defeated and the siege was relieved. These foreign soldiers then proceeded to pillage and ransack the city of Beijing and the surrounding countryside. This was yet another blow to China. A protest against international interference and oppression had been crushed by the very countries that were being opposed.
To make things worse, China was forced to pay yet more in reparations to each country involved in the Eight Nation Alliance. The 20th Century, it appeared, was destined to unfold with the same humiliation as the 19th. When Britain invaded Tibet in 1901, China’s crisis was only deepening. Little did the nation know that the worst was yet to come.
The Impact of the World War I and the Invasion of Manchuria
China played a very significant role in the First World War. This may surprise you, as their western partners have largely erased China’s influence. You can read about China’s influence on The Great War – and mistreatment of the nation’s heroes at the hands of the Entente Powers.
During World War I, Japan issued China with a document known as The Twenty-One Demands. Threats of dire consequences were administered if these demands were not met. If China had accepted, control of the entire nation would have been handed to Japan.
Quite understandably, these demands were rejected. China also leaked the demands to European nations, hoping that the likes of Britain and Russia would take interest. While most European territories were prepared to negotiate with Japan over China, recognising Japan as the new powerhouse in Asia, concerns still lingered as to Japan’s growing influence on global affairs.
An amended version of the document, re-titled the Thirteen Demands after a handful of particularly objectionable expectations were removed, was agreed upon. This was, in some respects, a small victory for China. The accords did not relinquish anything of note that Japan did not already possess.
This remained a bitter pill for many to swallow, however. Once again, a foreign power was meddling in Chinese affairs and taking control over parts of the country. It also shifted the mood in Europe. Other countries began to question Japan’s approach to diplomacy and started to wonder if it would be advisable to ally with China once more. It was now less of a matter of seeing China as weak, but viewing Japan as dangerous.
Sino-Japanese relationships soured further when Japan invaded Manchuria, the northeastern territory of China. Japan had control over Korea by this stage, but still harboured ambitions of claiming China. China, meanwhile, was slowly getting back on its feet. The Manchurian railway, which ran throughout China, was key to this. The Japanese army, acting against orders from their civilian government, vowed to take control of Manchuria.
The invasion unfolded after what was known as the Mukden Incident. In 1931, four members of the Japanese military detonated a tiny amount of dynamite on the rails of the Manchurian railway in the town of Mukden. The explosion was deliberately minor, as it was an act of subterfuge. No damage was intended. The Japanese just wanted to accuse the Chinese army of deliberately sabotaging the railway. This would be deemed an acceptable reason to invade Manchuria.
It should be stressed that the army, not the Japanese government, undertook this act. The authorities in Japan were against the idea. They wanted to goad China into starting a conflict, not light the spark themselves.
Impatience got the better of the senior-ranking officials in the army, however. The dynamite-centric deception unfolded and despite no damage to the railway (a train safely passed over the track moments after the detonation), Japan claimed that the Chinese army were deliberately sabotaging the railway. A successful invasion of Manchuria followed.
Japan took ownership of a wide array of Chinese cities during this invasion, including Beijing and Shanghai. Some historians consider The Mukden Incident to be the first act of the Second Sino-Japanese War (aka The War of Resistance), which waged until the conclusion of World War II in 1945.
Officially, however, the Second Sino-Japanese War is considered to have begun in 1937. This was when China began a full-scale campaign of resistance against the Japanese army, who committed a series of horrific war crimes against the Chinese population.
Japanese Atrocities Against China During World War II
When we think of Japanese war crimes during this period, many of our thoughts automatically turn to the Pearl Harbour bombings. In truth, Japan committed a wide range of atrocities against China during the conflict. The Japanese military destroyed records of many war crimes before surrendering to the Allies. The scars of atrocities against China remain, however.
The most infamous of these is the Nanjing Massacre. Nanjing was formerly the capital city of China, hence lending its name to the famous treaty of 1842. It held this title in December 1937, when the Japanese army seized control of the city.
Rather than a simple and straightforward military victory, however, this was an outright genocide. The Japanese army murdered and raped civilians throughout the city, looting homes as they went and burning the city to the ground. It’s estimated that as many as 300,000 men, women and children were killed over a harrowing six-week period.
Just one high-ranking Japanese military official was alive to stand trial at the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal in 1946. Lieutenant General Hisao Tani was found guilty and executed by firing squad in 1947, alongside lower-ranking Japanese soldiers that took part in the massacre.
Sadly, the Nanjing Massacre is just one memorable example of a Japanese war crime against the Chinese people. It’s far from the only one. On the road to Nanjing, two Japanese soldiers famously engaged in a wager as to who would be the first to kill 100 people with a sword. This contest was covered in Japanese-language newspapers as though it were a joyful sporting event. Countless Chinese women were also enslaved and forced into prostitution throughout the conflict. These were known as, “comfort women”, used and abused as opposition soldiers saw fit.
Unit 731 is another horrifying element of Japan’s wartime history. This was an experimental laboratory set up in China, in the territory formerly known as Manchuria. Chinese civilians and allied soldiers were captured and subjected to chemical and biological experiments. Bacterial infections and diseases were injected into these individuals, and body parts and organs were removed in the name of experimentation.
While World War II – and by extension, the Second Sino-Japanese War – drew to a close, China was undergoing a change in domestic policy. The communist party of Chairman Mao was growing in popularity. The ravages of war, underpinned by the Century of Humiliation, ensured that the patience of the Chinese people with Nationalist ruling bodies was wearing thin.
The United States allied itself with the Nationalist party, hoping to retain order and work with China. The intention was to help the nation return to its former glory, filling the void of power in Asia left by Japan’s surrender to Allies. The USA wanted China to become a stabilising influence in the east. As it transpired, China did not want or need further international assistance. After over a hundred years of pain, the country was ready to stand on its own two feet once more.
The Return from the Brink
Experts have never quite agreed on when China’s Century of Shame officially drew to a close. Many claim that the end of World War II marked the dawn of a new era. The resistance and refusal to concede to Japan in the face of such provocation earned plaudits. China earned status as one of the Big Four victorious allies following the war, alongside Britain, Russia and the United States of America.
For others, the period drew to a close in 1949. This was when Chairman Mao officially formed the People’s Republic of China. Mao had conquered his Nationalist opponents and drawn support from the vast majority of the Chinese people. Finally, the country once again had a leader they could believe in.
Since 1950, China has gradually reclaimed its place as one of the most influential and important countries in the world. Positive relationships with foreign nations have been established, and international leaders no longer see fit to meddle in Chinese affairs. Formerly lost territories have also been returned to Chinese rule.
The Century of Humiliation is far from a distant memory for the people of China, though. Many citizens of the country still carry the burden of these dark times. The trajectory of the nation has pointed upward since the end of World War II, however. Power and prosperity have returned to China. Long may this continue, leading to a Century of Triumph.