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Review: Volume 5 - Imperial China

Review: Volume 5 - Imperial China



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The First Emperor gave us the name by which China is known in the West and, by his unification or elimination of six states, created imperial China. He stressed the rule of law but suppressed all opposition, burning books and burying scholars alive. His military achievements are reflected in the ‘buried armies’ that surround his tomb, and his Great Wall still fascinates the world. Despite his achievements, however, he has been vilified since his death. This book describes his life and times and reflects the historical arguments over the real founder of China and one of the most important men in Chinese history.

From the First Emperor's obsessive - and fatal - attempts to engage the Immortals in 219-210 BC, to the striking creativity that produced the golden age of literature and art in Tang Chang'an, to the culmination of architectural virtuosity seen in The Forbidden City of Yong Lee's Beijing in the fifteenth century, this absorbing new book offers a panoramic sweep of an empire that lasted over two millennia through the imperial cities that were the very foundations of each dynasty. Using original Chinese sources and eye-witness accounts, Arthur Cotterell provides an inside view of the rich array of characters, political and ideological tensions, and technological genius that defined the imperial cities of China, as each in turn is revealed, explored, and celebrated. The oldest continuous civilization in existence today stands to become the most influential, its economy expected to exceed that of the United States by 2020. From the cosmological foundations of the first capital to the politics of empire and cataclysmic civil wars, "Imperial Cities of China" offers a level of insight indispensable for a true understanding of China today.


History of China

The earliest known written records of the history of China date from as early as 1250 BC, from the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC), during the king Wu Ding's reign, [1] [2] who was mentioned as the twenty-first Shang king by the same. [3] [4] Ancient historical texts such as the Book of Documents (early chapters, 11th century BC), the Records of the Grand Historian (c. 100 BC) and the Bamboo Annals (296 BC) mention and describe a Xia dynasty (c. 2070–1600 BC) before the Shang, but no writing is known from the period, and Shang writings do not indicate the existence of the Xia. [5] The Shang ruled in the Yellow River valley, which is commonly held to be the cradle of Chinese civilization. However, Neolithic civilizations originated at various cultural centers along both the Yellow River and Yangtze River. These Yellow River and Yangtze civilizations arose millennia before the Shang. With thousands of years of continuous history, China is one of the world's oldest civilizations and is regarded as one of the cradles of civilization. [6]

The Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC) supplanted the Shang, and introduced the concept of the Mandate of Heaven to justify their rule. The central Zhou government began to weaken due to external and internal pressures in the 8th century BC, and the country eventually splintered into smaller states during the Spring and Autumn period. These states became independent and fought with one another in the following Warring States period. Much of traditional Chinese culture, literature and philosophy first developed during those troubled times.

In 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang conquered the various warring states and created for himself the title of Huangdi or "emperor" of the Qin, marking the beginning of imperial China. However, the oppressive government fell soon after his death, and was supplanted by the longer-lived Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Successive dynasties developed bureaucratic systems that enabled the emperor to control vast territories directly. In the 21 centuries from 206 BC until AD 1912, routine administrative tasks were handled by a special elite of scholar-officials. Young men, well-versed in calligraphy, history, literature, and philosophy, were carefully selected through difficult government examinations. China's last dynasty was the Qing (1644–1912), which was replaced by the Republic of China in 1912, and then in the mainland by the People's Republic of China in 1949. The Republic of China retreated to the island of Taiwan in 1949. Both the PRC and the ROC currently claim to be the sole legitimate government of China, resulting in an ongoing dispute even after the United Nations recognized the PRC as the government to represent China at all UN conferences in 1971. Hong Kong and Macau transferred sovereignty to China in 1997 and 1999 from the United Kingdom and Portugal respectively, becoming special administrative regions (SARs) of the PRC.

Chinese history has alternated between periods of political unity and peace, and periods of war and failed statehood—the most recent being the Chinese Civil War (1927–1949). China was occasionally dominated by steppe peoples, most of whom were eventually assimilated into the Han Chinese culture and population. Between eras of multiple kingdoms and warlordism, Chinese dynasties have ruled parts or all of China in some eras control stretched as far as Xinjiang and Tibet, as at present. Traditional culture, and influences from other parts of Asia and the Western world (carried by waves of immigration, cultural assimilation, expansion, and foreign contact), form the basis of the modern culture of China.


Imperial China, an introduction

Imperial Chinese history is marked by the rise and fall of many dynasties and occasional periods of disunity, but overall the age was remarkably stable and marked by a sophisticated governing system that included the concept of a meritocracy. Each dynasty had its own distinct characteristics and in many eras encounters with foreign cultural and political influences through territorial expansion and waves of immigration also brought new stimulus to China. China had a highly literate society that greatly valued poetry and brush-written calligraphy, which, along with painting, were called the Three Perfections, reflecting the esteemed position of the arts in Chinese life. Imperial China produced many technological advancements that have enriched the world, including paper and porcelain.

“The Admonitions of the Instructress to the Court Ladies,” The Admonitions Scroll. Traditionally attributed to Gu Kaizhi (c. 344–406). Painting on silk with ink and colours, China, a work of the 6th to 7th century © Trustees of the British Museum

Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism

Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism were the dominant teachings or religions in Imperial China and most individuals combined all three in their daily lives. Each of these teachings is represented by paintings in The British Museum, most notably by The Admonitions Scroll after Gu Kaizhi (image above) and the cache of Buddhist scroll paintings from the eighth to tenth century that had been rolled up and sealed away in the eleventh century in Cave 17 at Dunhuang’s Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (discussed in this tutorial).


Friend Reviews


Late Imperial China

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Book Review: Jeremy Black's Imperial Legacies

Jeff Roquen is an independent scholar based in the United States.

Throngs of people lined the excited streets of London. For hours, joyous crowds joined the revelry to mark the sixtieth year of the reign of Queen Victoria and celebrate the accomplishments of the British Empire &ndash the largest empire in world history. After attending an event with Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Buckingham Palace the previous evening, the diminutive Queen began a six-mile journey in an ornate open carriage &ndash powered by eight off-white horses &ndash to St. Paul&rsquos cathedral on Tuesday, 22 June 1897 for her Diamond Jubilee. Amid countless numbers of hanging Union Jacks, deafening waves of applause and outbursts of &ldquoGod Save The Queen,&rdquo British citizens paused to express pride in their monarchy and expansive Empire as a vehicle of progress for peoples across the world.

During its decline from the end of World War II (1945) to the latter-half of the twentieth century, a near-universal consensus among international scholars rendered a far-different verdict on the British Empire. Rather than an engine of enlightenment through the promotion of &ldquoChristianity, commerce and civilization,&rdquo an army of new academics denounced British imperialism as a progenitor of racism, economic exploitation, cultural coercion and violence. By the end of the twentieth century, few politicians defended British colonialism. When Oxford-trained, conservative historian Niall Ferguson published Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and Lessons for Global Power (2002), most of the tenured intelligentsia panned his attempt to quasi-rehabilitate &ldquothe empire on which the sun never sets&rdquo as a flawed yet progressive force in the making of the modern world.

For more than a decade and a half, his defense of British exceptionalism stood virtually alone until the recent publication of Imperial Legacies: The British Empire around the World (2019) by Jeremy Black. Despite being an esteemed professor at the University of Exeter with dozens of influential publications on world, military and European history, his new survey on the long era of British hegemony only partly succeeds in redefining the British Empire as a relatively liberal and humane actor on a world stage replete with despotic states and autocratic empires. While Black renders judgments on the contours of British imperialism on four continents, the crux of his revisionist semi-apologia targets the colonial histories of India and China.

The British and India

In the process of furnishing a broad, composite sketch of a world strewn with competing and emerging empires in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and delving into the complex relations between Britain and the Indian subcontinent in the fourth chapter, Black challenges sweeping stereotypes of British plunder and conquest. Hence, the author begins by noting that the British East India Company, which maintained an army to protect its surging commercial interests in the region, actually recruited Dalits or &ldquountouchables&rdquo from the lowest Indian caste to wage an armed struggle against the formidable Maratha Empire (1674-1818). At the Battle of Koregaon near the Bhima River (south of present-day Mumbai) on 1 January 1818, the combined British East India Company-Dalit forces crushed the army of Peshwa (leader) Baji Rao II and hastened the collapse of Maratha rule. Far from subjugation, Black contends that the victory at Koregaon constituted a substantive opening salvo against the oppressive caste system and symbolized an oft-forgotten and underappreciated dynamic of British imperialism &ndash the willing cooperation of indigenous peoples eager for liberation, trade and/or protection from other empires. In further crediting the British administration for its valiant attempts to eradicate two ultra-patriarchal traditions, female infanticide and Sati (an ancient Hindu-Sikh custom whereby widows immolated themselves upon the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands as a final expression of love and grief) and ushering in lengthy periods of peace in parts of India, the author bolsters his portrayal of the British as a largely civilizing influence. Although Britain developed commerce, transferred medical and transportation technology to the subcontinent and combatted socially-destructive superstitions, Black vastly understates the baleful underside of British rule.

In fact, that underside appears in the foundation of East India Company and its evolution from a trading presence of less than three hundred representatives to wielding effective control of India by the mid-nineteenth century. As commerce spiked through exports from Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata) and Madras (Chennai), the East India Company and its army formed alliances with princes. Six years after repelling an attack mounted by a Mughal viceroy (nawab) and allied soldiers from the French East India Company at Arcot (1751), Major General Robert Clive established British supremacy in Bengal by gaining the support of Hindu elites with shrewd diplomacy, achieving an armed victory at the Battle of Plassey (1757) and replacing the disesteemed nawab with a pliant, pro-Company governor. Thereafter, the reorientation of the agricultural economy in Bengal to suit British ideology and interests plunged a significant percentage of Indian farmers into poverty, despair and death. In some cases, the pursuit of well-intentioned, paternalistic policies disrupted socio-economic mores maintained by indigenous populations and resulted in deleterious outcomes. Due to their unshakeable faith in largely unregulated free-markets (laissez-faire) and the &ldquolaws&rdquo of supply and demand to produce prosperity, colonial officials, who adhered to the non-interventionist economic dogma of Adam Smith and his seminal work The Wealth of Nations (1776), initially refused to set-up direct relief programs during the Agra Famine of 1837-38 &ndash a catastrophe that claimed 800,000 lives. Subsequently, the British directed additional time, effort and resources to preventing and ameliorating the effects of drought and disease in India.

Somewhat inexplicably, Black only makes a passing reference to the seismic event that defined British-Indian relations in the nineteenth century. On 10 May 1857, years of simmering discontent over the erosion of social and economic sovereignty to the East India Company exploded into a subcontinent-wide revolt. On the perception that the paper ammunition cartridges for their Enfield P-53 rifles, which required users to open the packets of gunpowder with their teeth, might contain grease made of pork and beef (sacrilegious to Muslims and Hindus respectively), many of the 300,000 sepoys (Indian soldiers serving in the East India Company army) turned on the regime. News of the inadvertent British slur on the two major religions of India spread quickly and triggered scores of localized and regional rebellions. As the emerging nation of India divided between pro and anti-British loyalties, a gruesome, atrocity-laden war raged until November 1858. Although victorious in thwarting nascent nationalist aspirations, the monarchy and the British government took direct control over India in order to reorganize British-Indian affairs on more equitable lines. Strikingly, Black fails to appreciate the underlying cause of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 &ndash the semi-tyrannical rule maintained by &ldquothe terror of [British] arms&rdquo &ndash a strategy initially articulated by none other than Robert Clive.

Under the Raj (1858-1947), Indians remained marginalized on their own soil. In 1883, a legislative bill proposed to place British citizens under the jurisdiction of Indian courts. From their regnant belief in racial hierarchy and superiority of Anglo-Saxons to other races, outraged Britons vociferously protested and succeeded in enervating the act. At the same time, the administration further consolidated control over the economy by seizing the salt trade and depriving its subjects from storing or marketing the near-universally consumed commodity. After decades of fear and passivity, tens-of-thousands of Indians &ndash stirred by Mohandas Gandhi and his Satyagraha (non-violent civil disobedience) campaign &ndash challenged British control. In March-April 1930, Gandhi and his dedicated followers trekked more than two hundred miles to the Arabian Sea to declare its salt the property of India. Despite arresting of approximately 60,000 dissenters in retaliation for their defiant passive-resistance (including Gandhi), the British struggled to restore order. Indeed, a majority of Indians from the fin de siècle to the eve of Indian independence (1947) shared Gandhi&rsquos view of British imperialism in 1905-06:

And why do I regard the British rule as a curse? It has impoverished the dumb millions by a system of progressive exploitation&hellipIt has reduced us politically to serfdom. It has sapped the foundations of our culture&hellip[and] it has degraded us spiritually.

While the British deserve credit for opening up segments of the Indian economy, introducing the concept of parliamentary democracy, combatting extreme forms of patriarchy and deliveringhumanitarian aid, the East India Company and the Raj must also be charged with harming Indian society with policies and laws designed to circumscribe individual rights through socio-economic exclusion.

Britain & China: A Duality of Imperial Histories

In Chapter 5, Black provocatively re-interprets the historical development of China through a lens overly favorable to the British. From the mid-nineteenth-century to the triumph of Mao Zedong and totalitarian communism in 1949, the discursive underpinnings of Chinese nationalism relied on vitriolically denouncing the British Empire for waging two wars against Beijing (1839-1842, 1856-1860) to preserve the lucrative opium trade irrespective of its prohibition by the state. To buttress the British case, the author declares opium-use not only failed to roil the sensibilities of many (if not most) peoples of East and South Asia but its consumption garnered extensive support. While on-point in his assertion, Black distorts the social and political frame by neglecting key (and utterly imperative) details. On the eve of the First Opium War (1839-1842), for example, nearly thirty-percent of Chinese males had become addicted to the drug. The consequent socio-health crisis in China, which led Beijing to issue decrees curtailing its use, began to alter perceptions of the narcotic, and restrictions on the trade proved increasingly popular among the Chinese. In Britain, public opinion also bifurcated. A substantial coalition in Parliament, including future Prime Minister William Gladstone, railed against the prospect of dispatching the Royal Navy to &ldquoopen&rdquo China to free trade and protect the commercial status of opium. Yet, the government deftly maneuvered to narrowly overcome spirited opposition in the House of Commons and prosecuted the war until the surrender of Beijing on 29 August 1842. When delegates from the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) arrived to sign the Treaty of Nanking under threat of British bombardment, a &ldquoCentury of Humiliation&rdquo had commenced. From the First Opium War until the World War II, Imperial China would endure repeated invasions and ignominious defeats by Britain, France and Japan.

If Black erroneously dilutes the hubristic motives and the sordid impact of British imperialism on China during the Opium Wars, his riposte to the narrative ascribing the mid-nineteenth century decline of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) to Western intervention aligns with the larger geopolitical realities of the period. In 1850, the corrupt Manchu elite faced a formidable rebellion throughout southern China from discontented, impoverished farmers and their fanatical leader Hong Xiuquan &ndash a syncretic Christian zealot with a warped messiah-complex and a plan to re-distribute land on an egalitarian basis. To achieve their myopic utopia, however, the Taipings (followers of Hong Xiuquan) turned to forced conscription and committed countless atrocities against both non-partisan and resistant peasants. To quash the revolt, Beijing welcomed the arrival of British Major General Charles Gordon to command the Manchu-allied, Ever Victorious Army in a series of pivotal campaigns in the latter stages of the civil war. Only months after battling Imperial Britain in the Second Opium War (1856-1860), the Qing Dynasty quickly reversed course and allied with its Western adversary to maintain power &ndash a decision that crossed into realpolitik.

For his professionalism and vital role in ending the fourteen-year war that claimed upwards of 20-30 million lives, the Emperor and other Manchu leaders bestowed military titles and commendations upon Gordon. Hence, Imperial Britain both violated and rescued the sovereignty of China in accordance with mutual national interests. As such, the tacit alliance between Beijing and London during the Taiping Rebellion partly undercuts the Chinese claim of &ldquohumiliation&rdquo and decline at the hands of the British and illuminates how the protean temper of realist politics structured state-to-state relations &ndash as ultimately purported by Black.

Paradoxes without Conclusions: The Elaborate Legacy of the British Empire

On 6 February 2012, the United Kingdom launched a week of Diamond Jubilee events to honor the sixty-year reign of Queen Elizabeth II. At the time her succession in 1952, Winston Churchill had recently returned to 10 Downing Street to serve his second and final stint as prime minister. Despite the loss of India to independence five years earlier, the British Empire remained intact and seemed poised to survive after effectively mobilizing its colonies to defeat Nazi Germany. Only a few decades later, however, Imperial Britain fell under the weight of inexorable nationalist tides in Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Nigeria and elsewhere &ndash prompting myriad scholarly assessments of its legacy &ndash a legacy not easily ascertained due to the vicissitudes of its mission and rule.


‘Imperial Twilight’ Review: An Explosive Mix of Trade and Politics

When President Donald Trump talks about China, he tends to focus on two things: trade imbalances and his high regard for China’s leader, Xi Jinping. “President Xi and I will always be friends, no matter what happens with our dispute on trade,” Mr. Trump tweeted in April 2018. It’s an unusual sight, to say the least: the leader of the world’s dominant economic power flattering China’s powerful ruler while attacking the foundations of an enormously valuable economic relationship.

Yet this combination of enchantment and punishment is not as unprecedented as it might seem. As Stephen R. Platt describes in his masterly “Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age,” Chinese commerce with Western countries has been consistently defined by the dynamics of flattery and scorn, wonder and chastisement, fairness and greed. Mr. Platt, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is careful not to project the concerns of the present back onto the past. But the resonances are inescapable, and his book is important reading not only for those interested in China’s history but also for anyone seeking to understand the explosive intersection between trade and politics today.

The first Opium War (1839-42) is perhaps the best-known event in China’s imperial history: a violent confrontation between the British Empire, which foisted the addictive drug on the Chinese people, and a supposedly hidebound, insular China. Mr. Platt devotes little attention to the fighting itself or to its subsequent symbolic meaning in China, where it is cast as the start of a “Century of Humiliation” that the Chinese Communist Party brought to an end. These topics have been examined in standout recent books by Julia Lovell and Robert Bickers, among others. Instead, Mr. Platt’s goal is to pick apart the complex and fascinating historical strands that led to the war. He tells his story through both Chinese and Western eyes, portraying a torturous history of misunderstandings and miscalculations that careered toward a violent conflict that was “arbitrary and unexpected,” and eminently avoidable.

China around 1800 was a sprawling empire that commanded the respect and illuminated the imaginations of countless Europeans and Americans. Although burdened by corruption and domestic instability, and militarily weak as compared with Britain and its Royal Navy, the ruling Qing dynasty was still a major power. The world’s three largest cities were London, Beijing and Canton (now Guangzhou), the southern port where the Qing decreed that all foreign commerce must take place. Adam Smith was not wrong when he wrote in “The Wealth of Nations” that China was “one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world.”

About the foreigners who traveled to China, Mr. Platt tells an intergenerational story of “two competing worldviews”: a clash between those “who respected China’s power and prosperity” and those who saw China as imperious, backward or worse. Many of Mr. Platt’s vividly drawn characters swung from one of these extremes to the other, such as the first British emissary to the Qing court, George Macartney. Awe-struck and eager to impress in a mulberry velvet suit and plumed hat, Macartney had an audience with the Qing emperor in 1793 to ask for broader economic openness and a permanent embassy in Beijing but left empty-handed, grumbling: “The empire of China is an old crazy first-rate man of war.”


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1 National Archives RG 59 State Department 5315/295. Alston Papers FO 800/248, Mitchel Innes to Campbell, November 2, 1910. Sir Charles Addis served as Chief London Manager of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation from 1911 to 1921. He was also a director of the British and Chinese Corporation and the Chinese Central Railways, Ltd. Thomas W. Lamont was a partner in J. P. Morgan and Co., serving as its “public face.” Sir Charles Addis Papers, Memorandum to Foreign Office, June 24, 1913 and Cohen , Warren I. , The Chinese Connection: Roger S. Greene, Thomas W. Lamont, George E. Sokolsky and American-East Asian Relations ( New York , 1978 ), 47 , 111Google Scholar also, SD 893.51/3788, MacMurray to Hughes, April 11, 1922.

2 See, for example, Chan , Anthony B. , “ The Consortium System in Republican China, 1912–1913 ,” Journal of European Economic History , VI ( 1977 ), 597 – 640 .Google Scholar Parrini , Carl Philip , Heir to Empire: United States Economic Diplomacy, 1916–1923 ( Pittsburgh , 1969 )Google Scholar , and Israel , Jerome Michael , Progressivism and the Open Door: America and China, 1905–1921 ( Pittsburgh , 1971 ).Google Scholar Cohen, the Chinese Connection, 108–117. I am indebted to Professor Noel Pugach of the University of New Mexico for pointing out the similarity of Cohen's ideas to those of the Progressives and for other helpful comments on this article. Also see the historiographical summary of the “realist” position in Hunt , Michael H. , “Americans in the China Market: Economic Opportunities and Economic Nationalism, 1890s-1931,” Business History Review , LI ( Autumn , 1977 ), 277 – 307 .Google Scholar

3 The 1920–21 China Yearbook lists twenty-one loan agreements made between 1908 and 1920 involving British or American capital, exclusive of multiple advances for the same loan.

4 For American loans, see Walter , V. and Scholes , Marie V. , The Foreign Policies of the Taft Administration ( Columbia, Mo. , 1970 )Google Scholar Vevier , Charles , The United States and China, 1906–1913: A Study of Finance and Diplomacy ( New Brunswick, N.J. , 1955 )Google Scholar Field , Frederick V. , American Participation in the China Consortiums ( Chicago , 1931 )Google Scholar and Scheiber , Harry N. , “ World War I as Entrepreneurial Opportunity: Willard Straight and the American International Corporation ,” Political Science Quarterly , LXXXIV ( 1969 ), 486 – 511 .CrossRefGoogle Scholar On the role of Paul Reinsch, see Pugach , Noel H. , Paul S. Reinsch: Open Door Diplomat in Action , ( Millwood, N.Y. , 1979 ).Google Scholar For British loan negotiations, see Sun , E-Tu Zen , Chinese Railways and British Interests, 1898–1911 ( New York , 1954 )Google Scholar Edwards , E. W. , “ Great Britain and the Manchurian Railways Question, 1909–1910 ,” English Historical Review , LXXXI ( 1966 ), 740 – 7691 CrossRefGoogle Scholar Edwards , E. W. , “ British Policy in China, 1913–1914: Rivalry with France in the Yangtze Valley ,” Journal of Oriental Studies , ( 1977 ), 20 – 36 Google Scholar and Chan , K. C. , “ British Policy in the Reorganization Loan to China, 1912–1913 ,” Modern Asian Studies , V ( 1971 ), 355 – 372 .CrossRefGoogle Scholar See also Anthony B. Chan, “The Consortium System in Republican China, 1912–1913,” 597–640.

5 The French group included nine major French banks, and the German group, most inclusive in the Consortium, linked fifteen different banks. The American group included J. P. Morgan and Co., Kuhn, Loeb, and Co., Guaranty Trust, First National Bank, and National City Bank.

6 Great Britain. FO 371/1323 44817/15/10, Addis to F.O., October 23, 1912, minute by Alston FO 371/ 1234 49494/15/10, November 19, 1912, minute by Langley. Crown copyright records in the Public Record Office are used by permission of the Controller of H. M. Stationery Office. On the French bank, see Edwards, “British Policy in China,” 23–25.

7 Part of the correspondence relating to the Crisp Loan was published as a Parliamentary Paper: Cmd 6446, China No. 2 (1912), v. 121 Correspondence respecting Chinese Loan Negotiations. On the Pacific Development Corporation loan, see Foreign Relations of the United States 1919, I. 529ff FRUS 1920, I, 606–616 Documents on British Foreign Policy, Series I, Vol. VI, Nos. 541, 551, 552, 556, 560, 564, 575, 604, 605, 608, 609, 626, 651, 661 and FO 371/6666 4391/3465/10, M. W. Lampson Memorandum respecting Americans loans to China, November 17, 1921.

8 Alston Papers, FO 800/246 Jordan to Langley, November 4, 1912. Cohen, The Chinese Connection, 103–105.

9 Jardine Matheson handled contracting, construction, and supply of materials, while the Hong Kong Bank was responsible for financing the operation. The agreement was made in 1898. See Collis , Maurice , Wayfoong: the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation: A Study of East Asia's Transformation, Political, Financial, and Economic, during the Last Hundred Years ( London , 1965 ), 118 .Google Scholar FO 371/1342 1754/ 1754/10, Jordan to F. O., January 13, 1912 16135/1754/10 Memorandum by Board of Trade re Circumstances of Jardine Matheson & Co., April 16, 1912. Lansdowne Papers, FO 800–120, Satow to Lansdowne, September 10, 1903 FO 371/1629 57655/576/55/10, minute by J. D. Gregory, December 8, 1913 58186/57655/10, Jordan to F. O., December 13, 1913.

10 Frank A. Vanderlip Papers, Vanderlip to Frank Stillman, August 27, 1915 and October 29, 1915 Charles A. Stone to Vanderlip, March 13, 1916 Wilson , Joan Hoff , American Business and Foreign Policy, 1920–1933 ( Lexington, Kentucky , 1971 ), 14 – 16 .Google Scholar Straight's earlier experience as Consul in Mukden and representative of the American Group of the Consortium fitted him perfectly for the job. Straight had, however, come to favor international cooperation as the best path to expand American enterprise. Yet he remained unwilling to take a back seat to the British. Vanderlip Papers, Memo from Straight, September 19, 1916. Pugach , Noel , “ Making the Open Door Work: Paul S. Reinsch in China, 1913–1919 ,” Pacific Historical Review , XXXVIII ( 1969 ), 157 – 175 CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Mazuzan , George T. , “ Our New Gold Goes Adventuring: The American International Corporation in China ,” Pacific Historical Review , XLIII ( 1974 ), 212 – 232 .CrossRefGoogle Scholar Vanderlip Papers, Memo from Straight re Baron Sibusawa, November 25, 1915 Paul Reinsch Papers, Straight to Reinsch, February 28 and June 21, 1916 Willard Straight Papers, Straight to Reinsch, February 5, 1917 Mazuzan, “Our New Gold,” 228–231.


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Opium War: The Conflict That Changed China Forever

The wars were fought to open China to foreign trade, including the selling of drugs.

Key point: London instigated a war of aggression against China in order to force an inequal treaty. Seeing their success, other major imperial powers soon followed suit.

In 1839, England went to war with China because it was upset that Chinese officials had shut down its drug trafficking racket and confiscated its dope.

Stating the historical record so plainly is shocking — but it’s true, and the consequences of that act are still being felt today.

The Qing Dynasty, founded by Manchurian clans in 1644, expanded China’s borders to their farthest reach, conquering Tibet, Taiwan and the Uighur Empire. However, the Qing then turned inward and isolationist, refusing to accept Western ambassadors because they were unwilling to proclaim the Qing Dynasty as supreme above their own heads of state.

Foreigners — even on trade ships — were prohibited entry into Chinese territory.

The exception to the rule was in Canton, the southeastern region centered on modern-day Guangdong Province, which adjoins Hong Kong and Macao. Foreigners were allowed to trade in the Thirteen Factories district in the city of Guangzhou, with payments made exclusively in silver.

The British gave the East India Company a monopoly on trade with China, and soon ships based in colonial India were vigorously exchanging silver for tea and porcelain. But the British had a limited supply of silver.

Starting in in the mid-1700s, the British began trading opium grown in India in exchange for silver from Chinese merchants. Opium — an addictive drug that today is refined into heroin — was illegal in England, but was used in Chinese traditional medicine.

However, recreational use was illegal and not widespread. That changed as the British began shipping in tons of the drug using a combination of commercial loopholes and outright smuggling to get around the ban.

Chinese officials taking their own cut abetted the practice. American ships carrying Turkish-grown opium joined in the narcotics bonanza in the early 1800s. Consumption of opium in China skyrocketed, as did profits.

The Daoguang Emperor became alarmed by the millions of drug addicts — and the flow of silver leaving China. As is often the case, the actions of a stubborn idealist brought the conflict to a head. In 1839 the newly appointed Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu instituted laws banning opium throughout China.

He arrested 1,700 dealers, and seized the crates of the drug already in Chinese harbors and even on ships at sea. He then had them all destroyed. That amounted to 2.6 million pounds of opium thrown into the ocean. Lin even wrote a poem apologizing to the sea gods for the pollution.

Angry British traders got the British government to promise compensation for the lost drugs, but the treasury couldn’t afford it. War would resolve the debt.

But the first shots were fired when the Chinese objected to the British attacking one of their own merchant ships.

Chinese authorities had indicated they would allow trade to resume in non-opium goods. Lin Zexu even sent a letter to Queen Victoria pointing out that as England had a ban on the opium trade, they were justified in instituting one too.

It never reached her, but eventually did appear in the Sunday Times.

Instead, the Royal Navy established a blockade around Pearl Bay to protest the restriction of free trade … in drugs. Two British ships carrying cotton sought to run the blockade in November 1839. When the Royal Navy fired a warning shot at the second, The Royal Saxon, the Chinese sent a squadron of war junks and fire-rafts to escort the merchant.

HMS Volage’s Captain, unwilling to tolerate the Chinese “intimidation,” fired a broadside at the Chinese ships. HMS Hyacinth joined in. One of the Chinese ships exploded and three more were sunk. Their return fire wounded one British sailor.

Seven months later, a full-scale expeditionary force of 44 British ships launched an invasion of Canton. The British had steam ships, heavy cannon, Congreve rockets and infantry equipped with rifles capable of accurate long range fire. Chinese state troops — “bannermen” — were still equipped with matchlocks accurate only up to 50 yards and a rate of fire of one round per minute.

Antiquated Chinese warships were swiftly destroyed by the Royal Navy. British ships sailed up the Zhujiang and Yangtze rivers, occupying Shanghai along the way and seizing tax-collection barges, strangling the Qing government’s finances. Chinese armies suffered defeat after defeat.

When the Qing sued for peace in 1842, the British could set their own terms. The Treaty of Nanjing stipulated that Hong Kong would become a British territory, and that China would be forced to establish five treaty ports in which British traders could trade anything they wanted with anybody they wanted to. A later treaty forced the Chinese to formally recognize the British as equals and grant their traders favored status.

More War, More Opium:

Imperialism was on the upswing by the mid-1800s. France muscled into the treaty port business as well in 1843. The British soon wanted even more concessions from China — unrestricted trade at any port, embassies in Beijing and an end to bans on selling opium in the Chinese mainland.

One tactic the British used to further their influence was registering the ships of Chinese traders they dealt with as British ships.

The pretext for the second Opium War is comical in its absurdity. In October 1856, Chinese authorities seized a former pirate ship, the Arrow, with a Chinese crew and with an expired British registration. The captain told British authorities that the Chinese police had taken down the flag of a British ship.

The British demanded the Chinese governor release the crew. When only nine of the 14 returned, the British began a bombardment of the Chinese forts around Canton and eventually blasted open the city walls.

British Liberals, under William Gladstone, were upset at the rapid escalation and protested fighting a new war for the sake of the opium trade in parliament. However, they lost seats in an election to the Tories under Lord Palmerston. He secured the support needed to prosecute the war.

China was in no position to fight back, as it was then embroiled in the devastating Taiping Rebellion, a peasant uprising led by a failed civil-service examinee claiming to be the brother of Jesus Christ. The rebels had nearly seized Beijing and still controlled much of the country.

Once again, the Royal Navy demolished its Chinese opponents, sinking 23 junks in the opening engagement near Hong Kong and seizing Guangzhou. Over the next three years, British ships worked their way up the river, capturing several Chinese forts through a combination of naval bombardment and amphibious assault.

France joined in the war — its excuse was the execution of a French missionary who had defied the ban on foreigners in Guangxi province. Even the United States became briefly involved after a Chinese fort took pot shots at long distance at an American ship.

In the Battle of the Pearl River Forts, a U.S. Navy a force of three ships and 287 sailors and marines took four forts by storm, capturing 176 cannons and fighting off a counterattack of 3,000 Chinese infantry. The United States remained officially neutral.

Russia did not join in the fighting, but used the war to pressure China into ceding a large chunk of its northeastern territory, including the present-day city of Vladivostok.

When foreign envoys drew up the next treaty in 1858 the terms, were even more crushing to the Qing Dynasty’s authority. Ten more cities were designated as treaty ports, foreigners would have free access to the Yangtze river and the Chinese mainland, and Beijing would open embassies to England, France and Russia.

The Xianfeng Emperor at first agreed to the treaty, but then changed his mind, sending Mongolian general Sengge Rinchen to man the Taku Forts on the waterway leading to Beijing. The Chinese repelled a British attempt to take the forts by sea in June 1859, sinking four British ships. A year later, an overland assault by 11,000 British and 6,700 French troops succeeded.

When a British diplomatic mission came to insist on adherence to the treaty, the Chinese took the envoy hostage, and tortured many in the delegation to death. The British High Commissioner of Chinese Affairs, Lord Elgar, decided to assert dominance and sent the army into Beijing.

British and French rifles gunned down 10,000 charging Mongolian cavalrymen at the Battle of Eight Mile Bridge, leaving Beijing defenseless. Emperor Xianfeng fled. In order to wound the Emperor’s “pride as well as his feeling” in the words of Lord Elgar, British and French troops looted and destroyed the historic Summer Palace.

The new revised treaty imposed on China legalized both Christianity and opium, and added Tianjin — the major city close to Beijing — to the list of treaty ports. It allowed British ships to transport Chinese indentured laborers to the United States, and fined the Chinese government eight million silver dollars in indemnities.


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