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Modern Chinese History Essays

Modern Chinese History

            The First Opium War 1839-42 was the beginning of the modern Chinese history, the concept of which has been defined by several historians. Whether in China or in Western regions, scholars have taken the history of the first Opium War as the starting point in the study of modern China. From historical perspective, Opium War is an opening chapter as the first confrontation between the two cultures and two institutions. The culture of China was static while that of British dynamic. But both these countries were proud of their cultures but the war that followed was won by Britain and this was the beginning of new era in the commercial, diplomatic, cultural, and economical contacts between the two Western and Asian world.
The old system of tributary-suzerain diplomatic relationship and her own system of relationship with the world was changed and there was a beginning of equal nation-to-nation relationship. Though China made efforts to oppose this trend but had to succumb to the change owing to the technological and military powers of the West. It had to open the doors for foreign imperialistic powers that led to the destruction of the Confucian order in China. Initially China reacted violently towards this trend and was quite aware about the opium issues-the biggest factor that had led to the change, which China witnessed. Over and above the Nanking Treaty, that China signed was the beginning of many treaties unfortunately not in favor of China.
Though, efforts were made to conserve the age-old traditions but China was never the same. The
unity of Chinese and Western history brought an end to the Chinese seclusion and beginning of
its involvement in the worldly affairs.
As said by Immaneul Chung Yueh-Hsu, “the interplay of foreign and domestic elements gave rise to revolutionary changes in the Chinese political system, economic situations, social structure, and intellectual attitudes.” 2 Change therefore became a new feature in the social, political and economic life of the people Chinese. Westerners and Manchus created a sense of mixed racial and national consciousness among the people of Chinese and so different this period was from the previous period that it could be treated as a separate entreaty for historical investigations.3
The Opium war was the result of the resistance on the part of the Qing Government to prohibit opium trade in 1839. In the eighteenth century, there was a good market for tea in Europe and America and subsequently the demand of the Chinese silk too increased but it was pre industrial stage in China and was not prepared to accept anything offered by Westerners and as a consequence Britain had to follow imbalance of trade. To remedy this situation, foreigners developed third party trade whereby they would exchange their merchandise in India and thus Britain adopted a third party trade for exchanging merchandise in India and South East Asia for raw materials and semi-processed goods, which could find ready market in Guangzhou. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, raw cotton and opium from India became the most important import products into China inspite of the fact that Opium was officially prohibited. Opium was making an entry into the lands of China with the help of merchants and corrupted bureaucracy. In 1839, the government under the rule Qing formed number of laws to completely
prohibit the entry of Opium in China. Emperor sent his commissioner, Lin Zexu (1785 -1850) to

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2. Immanuel Chung-yueh Hsü, The Rise of Modern China (Oxford University Press US, 2000), p.4.
3. Ibid., p.4.

Guangzhou to curb the opium trade. Lin officially put a complete seize on the stocks illegally gathered by the Chinese dealers, arrested all the foreign traders and seized 20,000 chests of illicit British opium. British showed their retaliation and with this there was the beginning of the first Anglo-Chinese war known as the Opium War (1839-42).
China was completely unprepared for the war and underestimated the power British held. Chinese got badly defeated, and with this was destroyed their image of being a strong imperial power. The war ended with the Treaty of Nanking (Nanjing) (1842) that was signed on board of a British warship by two Manchu imperial commissioners and the British plenipotentiary. 4 Under this treaty, China had to forge the island of Hong Kong or Xianggang in pinyin to the British Empire; and had to put an end to their monopoly over the trade, open five ports to British residence and also foreign trade. Besides, they had to reduce their tariff on trade to five percent ad valorem; exempt British nationals from the Chinese laws and had to pay large amount of indemnity. With this treaty, Britain was given a treatment as the most-favored-nation, in other words British would receive all the trading concessions from the Chinese government in the future too. After this treaty, there were ensued other incursions, wars, and more treaties but all went in favor of foreigners. The Treaty of Nanjing was called by the Chinese national humiliation. 5
Lin Tse-hsü was posted to remote place in Turkestan as a punishment but among all officials of Qing, it was Lin only who first realized the mistakes they had committed during the war. In the letters to the emperor, he suggested and pleaded to adopt Western technology, arms,

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4. J.A.G. Roberts, A Concise History of China (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999), p.167.
5.  Ibid., p. 168.
and methods that could be used during warfare. Lin realized the use of technologies in war but all his pleas fell on deaf years. But after the second war with England, Chinese officials realized the need to adopt higher technologies during warfare. The second set of battles started in 1860 and when ended further forced treaties and humiliations. These wars had reduced the powers of the imperial government. The most important part of the treaty was again reopening of the doors for the opium and the provision to propagate the Christianity in its soils.
Soon after the defeat, Wei Yuan published the Illustrated Gazatteer of Maritime Countries in 1794-1856. This Gazatteer was the first landmark event in the process of modernization in China. Wei Yüan, who was a minor and yet distinguished official, made his good arguments in Gazatteer. The Gazatteer was revelation for the Chinese government to realize the importance of the developed technologies and different methods of warfare. If China remained with their traditional system there would be danger for it to fall in front of the technologically superior Western powers. These initiatives first by Lin Tse-hsü and then by Wei Yüan increased the momentum for the technological advancement and the result was every body to see; china began its journey of “Self-Strengthening” from 1874 to 1895. 6
The mid nineteenth century also saw China engulfed with natural calamities including droughts, famines, and floods. The neglect shown by the Government towards the public works was partly responsible for this or any other disaster and there was negligent or no efforts on the part of Qing administration to relieve them from widespread miseries. The problems at the economic affairs, the defeats poised by the military even after at the hands of Western powers
and the anti-Manchu sentiments were reason enough to spark the fire of unrest especially in the
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6. Richard Hooker, The Opium Wars, http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/CHING/OPIUM.HTM

Southern parts of Western areas. Southern part of China was the last to succumb to the Qing conquerors and was the first area to get exposed to the Western influence, and provided a setting for the largest uprising came as be known as the Taiping Rebellion.
Hong Xiuquan was the leader of the rebels and their force comprised of the peasant class and secret societies. In 1851, they again launched their uprising in Guizhou province and declared himself king of the Taiping Tianguo, heavenly kingdom of great peace. Under his rule, he declared to reestablish the ancient state and allowed peasants to own and till their lands. Slavery, concubinage, arranged marriage; opium smoking, foot binding, judicial torture, etc. were all abolished. But internal disputes, defections, and corruptions soon occupied the leaders of the army. Besides, British and French forces joined the weak Qing administration to give the crushing defeat to the rebel forces. In 1860, the scholar official Zeng Guofan from Hunan province, as an imperial commissioner got the command to overthrow rebels. With the coming of Zeng as a new powerful force of Han Chinese elite, Qing authority got a deathblow. 7
Amidst these uprisings, and occupation of the foreigners into the several Chinese provinces, the scholars were doing their own job of studying and translating the Western learning thoughts. Under the direction of Han officials, they studied the Western science and languages, many special schools were opened in large cities, and number of arsenals, factories and shipyards were opened based on Western technologies and models. Qing also adopted several western ways of diplomatic practices and many students were sent to the foreign lands to study the Western ways and learn the methods to adopt the same in the several areas of their life at home.

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7. Emergence Of Modern China: II, http://www-chaos.umd.edu/history/modern2.html

Soon China saw the change in every aspect of the Chinese social, political and economical life. This movement came to be known as the Self-Strengthening Movement. This movement got its privileged contribution from several scholar-generals and among them Li Hongzhang (1823-1901) and Zuo Zongtang (1812-85) were the main forces. Between 1861-1864, the leaders turned scholar-administrators and took upon the task to establish several modern institutions, basic industries, communications, and transportation, and to equip the military power technologically strong. Still deep within the society many people and bureaucratic regime were in favor of restoring the Neo-Confucian orthodoxy back and several corners, cities and towns were feeling the impact of the Taiping rebellion and over and above encroachments from foreign lands were pausing danger to the integrity of China. 8
Within 103 days from 11th June to 21st September 1898, the Qing emperor Guangxu initiated yet again series of reforms aimed at to bring number of changes in the social institutions. 9 Influenced by the success of Japan in modernization, scholars declared that China needed more than what was required therefore innovation must be followed by the institutional and ideological changes. These reforms included removal of corruption, and reestablishing and reorganizing legal systems, defense establishments and postal services etc. Manchus intensely opposed these reforms and wanted to have moderate and gradual change.  Hundred days reforms came to an end with the re-inducement of the six of the chief advocates. The two earlier leaders, Kang Youwei (1858-1927) and Liang Qichao (1873-1929) escaped into the foreign for
the formation of the Baohuang Hui or protection of the Emperor Society and to work

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8. David Curtis Wright, The History of China (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001), p. 110.
9. Ibid., p. 112.

unsuccessfully to attain the constitutional monarchy in China.
Amidst this, conservatives gave support to the anti-foreign and anti-Christian movement of secret societies known as Yihetuan or Society of Righteousness and Harmony. For the Westerners, this movement was known as the Boxers. In 1900, the group of Boxers had spread all over the north China and in the countryside to burn all the facilities of the missionaries and killings Chinese Christians.10
With the failure of reform measures and the fiasco created by the Boxer uprising made many Chinese to convince that the only solution lay in the revolution. The advocator of the revolution was Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925). He was a republican, an anti-Qing activist who became most popular among the Chinese students staying overseas especially among the students of Japan. Sun’s philosophy revolved around three Principles of the People: “nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood.”11 The nationalism implied overthrowing the Manchus and putting an end to the foreign dominancy over China. The democracy was cultivated to give elected form of government and the people’s livelihood was aimed to help the people through the regulation process in the ownership of the means of production and land. The revolution was started on 10th October 1911 in Wuchang, capital of Hubei. It was followed by various other uprisings and protests within China. The revolt soon spread to the neighboring areas. During late November, fifteen out of the twenty-four provinces had already declared their independence from the Qing Empire. After one month, Sun Yat-sen returned back to China from the United States, where he was raising funds for the uprisings.  On 1st January 1912, Sun was designated as

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10. Richard Hooker, The Boxer Rebellion, http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/CHING/BOXER.HTM
11. Shaohua Hu, Explaining Chinese democratization (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000), p. 59

the provisional president of the new Chinese republic at Nanjing. But the people of Beijing were already supporting the all-powerful commander-in-chief of the imperial army, Yuan Shikai. To prevent the civil war and foreign interventions from further deteriorating the peace and stability of China, Sun accepted Yuan’s proposal to unify whole China under the leadership of Yuan in Beijing. But reign of the Yuan Shikai too did not last long, and the betrayal of Versailles and the failing of the republic increased the fear that China might get divided. This fear was prevalent among the people even under the late Qing dynasty. Meanwhile Darwin theory was gaining popularity and soon entered China. This theory gave little respite to scholars who were still pondering over the thought of divided China. Darwin’s Origin of Species gave scope to analytical thoughts and ideas on the deteriorating state of China. 12
In 1912, immediately after the overthrow of the Manchu empire, Chinese National Party came to power under the leadership of Sun Zhing Shan. Many political groups joined to form Guomindang including the party of Sun’s Hsin Chung Hu, which was founded in 1894. Number of changes confronting Guomindang had made it possible for them to settle all the problems and issues concerning Chinese people. During its tenure in 1936, the population was estimated to be 479 million as per data collected by the Nanjing government statistics covering around 86 million households. The economic condition was satisfactory looking at the extent of the industrial growth in large cities; there was increase in the agricultural production through new scientific techniques and wide network of road and rail transportation. But the other side the economy of China was showing the grim picture as the millions of Chinese people were still
living below poverty line.
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12 Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999), p. 290.

Jobs in the industries increased but there was no increase in the standard of living of the people. 13
 The War, although entitled The Opium War was at the onset appeared to be the war for Opium on the behalf of Britishers’ but it was the war to force the China to open the doors for the foreign traders especially western world to make their economic foothold on its lands. As said by President John Quinay Adams, “The seizer of a few thousand chests of opium smuggled into China by the Chinese government was no more the cause of the Opium War than the throwing overboard of the tea in the Boston harbour was the cause of North American Revolution.”14 In race among the colonial powers, China was the last trophy they could get hold off. This War opened the doors of China but the several upheavals unleashed into China and the treaties ultimately opened every avenue of China’s economic, social, political position for the world outside.

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13. Spence, The Search for Modern China p. 375.
14. Tan Chung, China and the Brave New World (Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Limited, 1978), p.1.

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Allan, Tony. The Rise of Modern China. Heinemann Library, 2002
Chang, Chun-Shu. The Making of China: Main Themes in Premodern Chinese History. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975

Chung, Tan. China and the Brave New World. Bombay: Allied Publishers Private Limited, 1978.
Eberhard, Wolfram. A History of China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

Emergence Of Modern China: II. http://www-chaos.umd.edu/history/modern2.html(accessed October 4, 2008).

Hooker, Richard. The Boxer Rebellion. http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/CHING/BOXER.HTM
            (accessed October 4, 2008).

Hooker, Richard. The Opium Wars. http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~dee/CHING/OPIUM.HTM (accessed October 4, 2008).

Hu, Shaohua. Explaining Chinese democratization. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000.

Hsu, Immanuel Chung-yueh. The Rise of Modern China. New York: by Oxford University Press US, 2000.

Roberts, J.A.G.  A Concise History of China. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.
Wright, David Curtis. The History of China. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.

Chang, Chun-Shu. The Making of China: Main Themes in Premodern Chinese History. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1975
Eberhard, Wolfram. A History of China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977.

 

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