The Tumultuous 19th Century of China: External Aggression and Internal Chaos

The History of China. Editor: David Curtis Wright. 2nd edition. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2011.

John Bull in the China Closet

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the British, having failed to persuade China to alter its business and diplomatic practices to their own liking, and aghast that the Chinese would dare attempt to interdict British narcotics trafficking, simply bullied their way into China and imposed their will on the hapless nation through brute force. The Opium War, fought between the two nations from 1840 to 1841, ended with British victory and the Treaty of Nanking, which compelled Qing China to cede the island of Hong Kong to the British crown in perpetuity, pay Britain an enormous war indemnity, and open several coastal cities to British residence and trade. The Opium War and its aftermath inaugurated China’s “Century of Humiliation,” which endured until 1949 and the final victory of the Chinese Communist revolution. During this long and challenging century, the British, and also other foreign powers following at their heels, dominated but never quite subjugated the Chinese. China did manage to escape the utter ignominy of India, which was completely conquered and incorporated into the British empire.

The main grievances the British had with the Chinese concerned commerce and diplomacy. Much to the dismay of anxious British merchants and investors, the Chinese trade restrictions were myriad. Since the mid-eighteenth century, trade had been restricted to the single port city of Canton (Guangzhou) in southern China, where trade could be conducted only from October through January. British ships sailing to Canton were required to submit to numerous inspections, measurements, fees, and irregular tariffs. Venal Chinese functionaries hinted broadly that generous “presents” or bribes would grease the gears of commerce. Other expenses incurred involved the hiring of Chinese go-betweens, ship pilots, and linguists who communicated with the Westerners in a puerile language known as “pidgin” English, which applied English vocabulary to Chinese word order (which fortunately was largely the same as English). Items to be traded had to have been cleared and contracted for a year in advance, and prices for the goods were fixed by Chinese merchant guilds without open competition or bidding, to the great frustration of British and other Western traders who coveted maximum profit for their transactions. Western merchants had “factories” (actually warehouses) where they could stay while they traded, but they were not permitted to tarry in Canton for long and were expected to leave the city soon after they had concluded their business. They were not allowed to bring their wives to Canton, and their mobility in the city was restricted to a few hundred yards around their factories. They were also forbidden to communicate with Chinese government officials, draw undue attention to themselves, or learn the Chinese language. Qing law was another source of apprehension for the British, who found it incomprehensible and were terrified of the penalty (usually death by garroting) meted out for any number of legal infractions.

The British found it difficult and frustrating to communicate with the Chinese government about their grievances with the trading procedure. On the two notable occasions when the British did present their grievances and requests directly to the Chinese government, diplomatic tensions arose when the two peoples discovered that their models and notions of diplomacy were vastly dissimilar. For the British, as well as all other Western nations, diplomacy was conducted between equally sovereign and independent nation-states, each of which stationed full-time residential diplomats in other nations’ capital cities to facilitate official government-to-government contacts. This was not at all the way Qing China conducted foreign relations with its neighbors. The Chinese considered their country the center of world civilization, and all people were naturally drawn to China because of its wealth, prestige, and power. Accordingly, foreign countries would dispatch envoys to China as humble tribute bearers who meekly petitioned for an audience with the emperor. While in China, the envoys would naturally perform the kowtow to the emperor. And when their diplomatic functions were concluded, the foreign envoys might graciously be allowed to remain in China for a few days of trading and sightseeing before being required to return to their native lands. Any notion of other nations being China’s equals or of foreign diplomats remaining in China indefinitely would have been unthinkable. Furthermore, the Qing government viewed involvement with commerce as beneath the dignity of the Chinese government; commerce involved private contact between petty men concerned with profit, a somewhat ignoble motive in traditional Confucian moral estimations, and did not require government-to-government contact.

In short, neither nation had a full appreciation of the diplomatic sensibilities and norms to which the other subscribed. This became quite apparent in June 1793, when the British government sent Lord Macartney to the Qianlong emperor (r. 1736-1796) with a wish list for, among other things, residential diplomatic representation in Beijing, trade throughout China, and exemption for British subjects from Chinese legal jurisdiction. The Qing government received Macartney and his retinue as tribute bearers coming to congratulate the Qianlong emperor on the occasion of his 83rd birthday. Macartney, however, steadfastly refused to perform the kowtow, which would have led to a considerable diplomatic contretemps for both sides had the emperor not ultimately dispensed with the requirement.

The substance of Macartney’s requests were summarily denied in a highly condescending missive from Qianlong to King George III. One might well imagine how badly the smug ethnocentricity of this letter would have clashed with what the French have called la morgue britannique, or British haughtiness.


You, O King, are so inclined toward our civilization that you have sent a special envoy across the seas to bring our Court your memorial of congratulations on the occasion of my birthday and to present your native products as an expression of your thoughtfulness. On perusing your memorial, so simply worded and sincerely conceived, I am impressed by your genuine respectfulness and friendliness and greatly pleased.

As to the request made in your memorial, O King, to send one of your nationals to stay at the Celestial Court to take care of your country’s trade with China, this is not in harmony with the state system of our dynasty and will definitely not be permitted…. There has never been a precedent for letting them do whatever they like.

The Celestial Court has pacified and possessed the territory within the four seas. Its sole aim is to do its utmost to achieve good government and to manage political affairs, attaching no value to strange jewels and precious objects. The various articles presented by you, O King, this time are accepted by my special order to the office in charge of such functions in consideration of the offerings having come from a long distance with sincere good wishes. As a matter of fact, the virtue and prestige of the Celestial Dynasty having spread far and wide, the kings of the myriad nations come by land and sea with all sorts of precious things. Consequently there is nothing we lack, as your principal envoy and others have themselves observed. We have never set much store on strange or ingenious objects, nor do we need any more of your country’s manufactures. (Teng and Fairbank 1963, 19)

In 1816 Britain made one last attempt to alter China’s business and diplomatic practices peacefully. Lord Amherst, a former governor of India, traveled to China with a wish list more or less identical with Macartney’s. Like Macartney, he refused to perform the kowtow and was ultimately unsuccessful in his mission.

The Opium War

The balance of Sino-British trade was very much in China’s favor throughout the eighteenth century. The Chinese commodity the British most desired was tea, but they also purchased large quantities of silk and porcelain. The Chinese purchased a few odd woolens and knick-knacks from the British, but it was mostly silver that flowed out of Britain and into China. Finally the British hit upon one commodity for which the Chinese would pay most handsomely: opium, a highly addictive narcotic that was usually smoked. British opium was produced in Bengal and then sold to smugglers who ran the drug into Chinese harbors in small, fast boats under cover of night. Opium flowed into China in insignificant amounts during the eighteenth century, but by the early decades of the nineteenth century the opium habit began taking hold in southern China, and addiction rates soared exponentially, first equalizing the balance of trade between the two countries and then tipping it massively in Britain’s favor by the early 1830s. By the middle 1830s southern China’s opium problem was reaching crisis proportions. The British East India Company claimed all the while not to have anything officially to do with the opium trade, but it was an open secret that the British were now essentially dope pushers who were growing enormously wealthy at the expense of an addicted Chinese populace that would do and pay just about anything to sustain its drug habit. (Not to be outdone by their erstwhile colonial masters, some Americans in wealthy New England families increased their fortunes by selling opium made in Turkey to the Chinese.)

In 1834 the British East India Company was disbanded, and private traders made their moves to get in on the lucrative opium trade. Knowing that a multiplication of private British traders would require greater governmental facilitation, the British government sent Lord William John Napier to China as superintendent of trade, an official government position. Napier, a pompous and overbearing man from a family line that served British imperialist interests, was overly anxious to extend the dignity of the British crown and his own office to the Chinese. In presenting himself to the Chinese authorities in Canton he violated just about every Chinese sensibility and regulation imaginable, and when they were taken aback by his brusque demeanor he blustered that Britain was quite ready for war with China. He called in British warships and announced that he would “hand his name down to posterity as the man who had thrown open the wide field of the Chinese Empire to the British Spirit and Industry” (Hsu 1990, 175). The spirited captains of British industry and commerce were considerably less enthusiastic about his saber rattling and the disruption of trade it produced, and they refused to support him. Napier eventually backed off and returned in September to Macao, where he died the next month. After the Napier incident, the British government appointed Captain Charles Elliot superintendent of trade in 1836 and instructed him to be less confrontational in dealing with the Chinese. Elliot eventually engaged in open military conflict with China over opium.

By the late 1830s the Qing government decided, after a brief flirtation with the idea of legalizing the opium trade, to interdict opium. A fiery and energetic Chinese official named Lin Zexu was appointed imperial commissioner and sent to Canton as the emperor’s personal representative to rid China of the opium problem once and for all. Commissioner Lin arrived in Canton in March 1839 and gave the foreigners (mainly the British) a deadline for surrendering all their stockpiles of opium. When his deadline passed with no action, Lin blockaded the foreign factory area in Canton, trapping several foreigners inside, including Charles Elliot himself. After several weeks passed, a crisis atmosphere emerged as foreigners in the surrounded factories began running out of food and supplies. Then a remarkable idea dawned on Elliot: he would simply give Commissioner Lin exactly what he wanted. In his official capacity, Elliot issued a proclamation making all of the opium in Canton the property of the British crown, and no longer the property of the private traders. His motive was simple: if Commissioner Lin trifled with Crown property, it would be sheer effrontery to Her Majesty. This in turn would constitute a Chinese provocation and serve as a perfect pretext and justification for war with the Chinese.

Now I, the said Chief Superintendent… do hereby, in the name and on the behalf of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government, enjoin and require all Her Majesty’s subjects now present in Canton, forthwith to make a surrender to me, for the service of Her Said Majesty’s Government, to be delivered over to the Government of China, of all the opium belonging to them or British opium under my control… and I… do now, in the most full and unreserved manner, hold myself responsible, for and on the behalf of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government, to all and each of Her Majesty’s subjects surrendering the said British-owned opium into my hands to be delivered over to the Chinese government. (H. Chang 1964, 264-65)

On June 6 (the Opium Prohibition Day formerly celebrated annually in Nationalist China), Commissioner Lin accepted the surrendered opium and destroyed it. Elliot then reported this “outrage” to the British government, and in the late 1839 he learned that a British expeditionary force would be sent to China. In early 1840, Britain declared war on China.

The expeditionary force did not arrive until June 1840, when British warships took the fight right to the emperor’s doorstep, anchoring off the shore of Tianjin, Beijing’s outlet to the sea. When Qishan, the Manchu governor-general of the region, persuaded the British to return south to Canton for talks without firing a shot, he was handsomely rewarded by the Qing government and appointed to deal with the British. When the talks began, Qishan was aghast at British demands for payment of an indemnity for the lost opium and permanent cession of the island of Hong Kong, demands he knew Beijing would never accept. Ultimately unable to placate the British any further and unsuccessful at preventing a resumption of Sino-British hostilities, Qishan was recalled in disgrace and exiled to northern Manchuria.

Eventually a British naval force sailed up the Yangtze River to the city of Nanjing and poised itself to bombard the city if a formal peace agreement were not forthcoming. The thought of this was more than the Qing government could bear, and in August 1841 the Treaty of Nanking was concluded aboard a British ship anchored outside Nanjing. The treaty provided for the formal cession of Hong Kong in perpetuity to the British Crown, the opening of five other port cities along China’s southern and eastern coasts to British trade, payment to a large indemnity, abolition of the trade restrictions disliked by the British, and a uniform tariff. A subsequent agreement gave the British some measure of extraterritoriality, or exemption from Chinese legal jurisdiction.

For the Chinese, the Opium War was about just that: opium. They had not asked the British to come to China, after all, and yet they were willing to accommodate Britain’s insatiable appetite for commerce as long as the British respected Chinese ways and ceased selling dangerous and addictive narcotics. The British, on the other hand, insisted that the Opium War was fought because of China’s obstreperous impedance of commerce, indignities offered the Crown, and refusal to bend to Britain’s diplomatic norms. The British pretended that opium itself was a mere epiphenomenon compared to these larger issues, and they won their point through simple force of arms.

As the first of the humiliating “unequal treaties” imposed on China by imperialist powers, the Treaty of Nanking endures in infamy in the modern Chinese nationalistic consciousness. This was the treaty that began it all, that led to China’s descent from the rarified heights of the Celestial Court to a terrestrial nadir as the “Sick Man of Asia.” The British had drawn first blood in China, and soon other Western nations smelled the blood in the water. In July 1844 the Treaty of Wanghsia was concluded with the Americans, and in October 1844, the Treaty of Whampoa with the French. The rest of the nineteenth century was a time of sustained nibbling away at the edges of the Qing empire by imperialist powers (mainly Britain, Russia, and Japan) in specific instances too numerous to discuss in detail in this brief narrative. With the Treaty of Nanking, China’s Century of Humiliation had begun, one that would be compounded synergistically in future decades by internal upheavals.

The Opium War did not solve all of the friction between Britain and China, and the Treaty of Nanking did not provide for Britain’s ultimate goal of diplomatic representation in Beijing itself. Even though other coastal cities or “treaty ports” were opened to British commerce and residence as per the Treaty of Nanking, the city of Canton refused to admit the British. Attempts to open Canton and extend trade to other Chinese cities were unsuccessful, and by the mid-1850s the British had concluded once again that only war would convince China to bend to their demands. All the British needed was a causus belli, a provocation to justify military action. This came on October 8, 1856, not this time as an indignity to the Crown, but to the flag. The Arrow, a Chinese-owned but British-registered ship flying the British flag, was boarded near Canton by Chinese forces searching for a wanted pirate. When the British protested the boarding, the Chinese coolly informed them that this was none of their affair: the ship was owned by Chinese and was boarded by Chinese in Chinese waters. The ship’s flag was all that mattered to the British, and in response they shelled Canton for five days in late October. After this the British sent Lord Elgin (who had been Governor-General of Canada from 1847 to 1854) at the head of another expeditionary force, this time joined by the French, to chastise the Chinese. In December 1857, marines under Elgin’s command stormed Canton, captured the defiant and xenophobic governor-general who resided there, and carried him away in captivity to British India. Elgin’s force then sailed northward to Tianjin in early 1858 and menaced the city. The terrified Qing government sent negotiators to deal with the British, and Elgin bullied them into signing the Treaty of Tientsin on June 26, 1858. The treaty provided for residential British diplomacy in Beijing, the opening of several new ports, indemnities for Britain and France, and unrestricted travel through all parts of China for all foreigners, including Protestant and Catholic missionaries. (Before the treaty, missionaries and other foreigners had been allowed only in the treaty ports.)

But the fighting was not over yet. In March 1859 the Qing government offered minimal resistance when the British ambassador attempted to travel to Beijing to take up his post there. This provoked Britain into dispatching another expeditionary force against China, once again led by Lord Elgin. This time British and French ground troops made it all the way into Beijing, and eventually they burned the Manchu emperor’s Summer Palace (Yuanming Yuan) to the ground. This was the first time a modern imperialist power had ever stormed into a Chinese capital, and tales of it still elicit Chinese indignation. (The site of the ruins of the Summer Palace is preserved today as a hallowed, nationalistic ground for the Chinese, much as the hulk of the U.S.S. Arizona, lying at the bottom of Pearl Harbor and marked with a monument, is for Americans.) On October 24, 1860, Lord Elgin dictated to the Chinese the Convention of Peking, which allowed the British once and for all to station residential diplomats in Beijing. Other provisions included more indemnities, the cession to Britain of the Kowloon Peninsula opposite the island of Hong Kong, and the right of French Catholic missionaries to own property in the Chinese hinterland.

The Taiping Rebellion

If the intrusion of the British and other Westerners was China’s great external calamity of the nineteenth century, by far its most disastrous internal upheaval was the Taiping Rebellion, a pseudo-Christian uprising that very nearly toppled the Qing dynasty It was suppressed in 1864 only with the greatest of difficulty, and not before 40 million people had died in what was, and still is, the most cataclysmic civil war in world history Overpopulation led to the disastrous calamity. By the nineteenth century, China’s population had grown to unmanageable proportions, and millions of people in the Chinese countryside were facing malnutrition and even starvation. By the 1840s millions of peasants unable to eke out an existence on their tiny plots of land abandoned farming altogether and began to roam the countryside as bandits.

The leading figure in the Taiping Rebellion was Hong Xiuquan, a mentally unstable and intensely imaginative man who was convinced that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. He was born to a poor peasant family in southern China’s Guangdong province, but it was quickly apparent to Hong’s family that he was a bright, precocious boy. Accordingly, his extended family clan exempted him from all manual labor and allowed him to study for the imperial service examinations. Hong, however, failed the examinations repeatedly and eventually suffered a nervous breakdown. During his feverish delirium he saw images of a venerable old man with a long white beard who gave him a sword and told him to exterminate demons. A middle-aged man also figured into the hallucinations.

Soon, after the fever broke and Hong returned to the rhythms of everyday life, he picked up a Christian tract he had accepted a few years earlier and was astonished to find in it the interpretive key to his earlier dreams. He concluded that the Biblical “Kingdom of Heaven” mentioned in the tract was none other than China, that the demons were the Manchus, and that the elderly and middle-aged men he saw were none other than God the Father and Jesus Christ, respectively. All of this he interpreted as personal instructions to rise up against the Qing regime and reclaim the Heavenly Kingdom of China in the name of his vision of the Christian faith. In 1847 he sought religious instruction from Issachar Roberts, an American Southern Baptist preacher from Tennessee. Roberts, who found Hong venal and unstable and in general unsuitable for Christian conversion, eventually refused him baptism and distanced himself from him.

This did not seem to matter to Hong, however. He began gathering followers and converts to himself. He read in Acts 2 about the early Christian community of believers and attempted to replicate this communal sharing among his followers. Subsequent reading in the Old Testament about the armies of Israel further enthralled him, and by the early 1850s he had transformed his following from a few desperate peasant fighters into a militant pseudo-Christian movement the members of which cut their queues and proclaimed allegiance to the Taiping Tianguo, or the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace. His armies eventually proceeded northward through Hunan province, captured the city of Changsha, and made their way to the Yangtze River with tens of thousands of dedicated fighters. The “Taipings,” as they came to be known, were victorious wherever they went. They built a large navy and floated all the way down the Yangtze to Nanjing, which they captured in 1853, and named the capital of their new theocratic government after mercilessly slaughtering every Manchu they found in the city.

Hong’s seditious intentions were abundantly clear the moment he named his movement a “kingdom” and had his followers cut off their queues. He made good on these intentions by attacking Peking, but for once he was defeated and beaten back. After 1855 he decided to remain in Nanjing and consolidate his power there. Nanjing in the late 1850s and early 1860s contrasted quite favorably with the rest of China; its streets were cleaner, its people happier, and its women much freer. (Taiping women did not bind their feet and were given the unprecedented freedom to walk around in public on city streets.)

Foreigners, initially fascinated with the Taipings, eventually backed away from them and remained neutral as the Qing government moved to crush the rebellion. Christian missionaries had concluded by the early 1860s that Hong’s garbled version of Christianity was quite heterodox, and Western merchants and diplomats began to fear that the favorable agreements they had reached with the Qing might be subject to cancellation should the Taipings actually create a new dynasty in China.

Western Christians were not the only ones who viewed the Taipings as heterodox. To Chinese traditionalists, the ideology and religion of the Taipings seemed the very antithesis of Confucian ethical teachings. The Qing government, by this time quite Chinese in its world outlook, resolved to crush the Taipings at all costs. In the 1850s the Qing government entrusted the fight against the Taipings to one man: a high government official named Zeng Guofan, a native of Hunan (a province the Taipings had largely devastated). Regular Qing armies had tried but failed to defeat the Taipings. Zeng was given free reign to raise and train new armies and fight the Taipings as he saw fit. The Qing dynasty more or less turned its destiny over to Zeng and trusted him implicitly.

Zeng named his new army the Hunan Braves and in 1854 captured the central Chinese city of Wuhan from the Taipings, but the Taipings soon recaptured it. A stalemate between Zeng and the Taipings then developed and endured until 1860. In 1862 Zeng finally launched a massive attack on the Taiping stronghold at Nanjing. Li Hongzhang and his Anhui Army (Huai Army) also helped out with the final attack, as did forces under General Zuo Zongtang. In 1864, after the Taipings had fought valiantly to the very last man, Nanjing was finally recaptured.

The Qing dynasty was never the same after the Taiping Rebellion. Even though Zeng Guofan surrendered power over his army shortly after the defeat of the Taipings, the power of the Qing central government had drastically declined during the rebellion and never recovered. Regionalism in China began to develop as provinces far from Beijing more or less began to pursue their separate destinies and were less and less influenced by Qing directives. During the next decade, the weakened Qing government was unable to resist foreign attacks on its territory: a brief Japanese occupation of Taiwan in 1874, a Russian invasion and occupation of part of Xinjiang from 1871 to 1881, and a French invasion of Vietnam, a Qing tributary state, in 1885. Weakness and regionalism endured beyond the fall of the dynasty in 1912 and reached its tragic culmination in the warlord period, which lasted from around 1917 to 1927.

The Taiping Rebellion inspired future revolutionaries in China. Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, admired the Taipings and grew up hearing heroic tales about Hong Xiuquan’s exploits. The Chinese Communists today regard the Taipings as protorevolutionaries who did the best they could against the Qing government and foreign imperialism without the guiding ideology of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought.

Self-Strengthening: Halfhearted Reforms

The Qing dynasty, having narrowly escaped ruin during the Taiping Rebellion, attempted to recover some prestige for itself and restore order and confidence in China. It launched a fairly superficial program of institutional and technological modernization, often known as the Self-Strengthening Movement, which lasted from 1861 to 1895. During this time the Qing government instituted something roughly equivalent to a foreign diplomacy office, established schools for foreign language instruction, reformed and expanded its customs service (which was, much to the humiliation and consternation of later generations of Chinese patriots, run directly by the British), and learned the rudiments of international law.

Zeng Guofan and especially Li Hongzhang, the two main heroes of the civil war with the Taipings, emerged as enthusiastic advocates of Self-Strengthening and emphasized selective adaptation of Western technology, particularly military technology. Many Chinese during the Self-Strengthening period were convinced that China could retain all of its traditional heritage and needed only to learn how to make and use the superior weaponry of the West to overcome foreign domination. The Chinese provinces utilized foreign assistance and consultation to modernize the Chinese military and to establish arsenals, shipyards, mines, textile mills, and telegraph lines. A modern Chinese navy began to take shape. These modernization efforts appeared impressive but ultimately proved to be limited in scope and vision because they had very little leadership or coordination from the Qing central government, which had been greatly weakened in the wake of the Taiping Rebellion. Provincial rather than national in scope, self-strengthening efforts failed because they were not accompanied by all of the sweeping changes necessary for effective modernization. The advocates of self-strengthening were too selective in what they sought to learn from the West; they did not understand that the key to the West’s great military power was not based on technological superiority alone but also on its social, political, and economic systems. Experience ultimately showed that equaling the West in military power would entail many more changes in China than the Self-Strengtheners were willing to contemplate. As a result, China, toward the end of the nineteenth century, was woefully unprepared for its first modern military clash with a much more effectively modernized state: Japan.

The First Sino-Japanese War 1894-1895

War between China and Japan, over Korea, which had been a tributary state to China since early Ming dynasty times, broke out in 1894. A newly modernizing Japan insisted in the 1870s that Korea was an independent state. In essence, Japan wanted to transfer Korea from the Chinese to the Japanese orbit. Japan’s desire to dominate Korea intensified in the 1890s, and in July 1894 a Japanese warship sank a Qing ship in Korean waters. On August 1 China and Japan declared war on each other. Thousands of Japanese troops landed in Korea, and much to the surprise of the international community, the smaller but faster, and better-trained Japanese navy defeated the Qing fleet. The provisions of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed in April 1895, included cession of the Liaodong Peninsula and Taiwan (which had been made a province in the 1880s) to Japan, formal Qing recognition of the independence of Korea, and payment of an enormous war indemnity to Japan.

Subsequent Qing investigation into the defeat of the Chinese fleet uncovered extensive corruption and incompetence in the navy Funds earmarked for naval development had gone elsewhere, and it was even discovered that some of the Qing ships’ magazines contained not gunpowder but sand. Prewar preparations and combat readiness were also inadequate. Before the war, when the noted writer on Asia Sir Henry Norman inspected a Chinese battleship, he found after the canvas had been removed from a quick-firing gun that its barrel had been filled with chopsticks and was generally littered with rice and pickles (Paine 2003, 155-56).

China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War marked the emergence of Japan, not China, as the preeminent military and economic power in East Asia. It also revealed the full extent of China’s weakness as the “Sick Man of Asia.” Soon other vultures were circling overhead, demanding their fair share of the “Chinese melon” that was being divided among “the Powers,” or the imperialist nations. In 1895 the Russians joined the French and the Germans and intimidated Japan into surrendering its hold over the Liaodong Peninsula. Not long after this, the Russians secured railway rights in Manchuria and seized the port cities of Dairen and Port Arthur on the southern tip of the Liaodong Peninsula for themselves. In 1897 the Germans pressured the Qing into leasing part of Shandong province to them for 99 years. The next year, China was once more John Bullied into surrendering more territorial sovereignty to the British; this time the New Territories opposite the island of Hong Kong on the mainland were leased to Britain for 99 years. (The lease finally expired in 1997, when the British gave the New Territories, as well as Kowloon and the island of Hong Kong, back to China.) The Americans, busy in 1898 with their war with Spain and their subsequent beginnings of empire in the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico, were too slow to get in on the divvying up of the Chinese spoils.

Many Chinese patriots were humiliated by the aftermaths of the First Sino-Japanese War and concluded that the halfhearted self-strengthening efforts were insufficient to modernize China and enable it to stand up to the international community. Some advocated more radical reform programs; others such as Sun Yat-sen espoused outright revolution against the Manchu Qing regime.

The Taiwan Republic

In May 1895 a short-lived republic was declared on Taiwan in an attempt to stave off the impending Japanese colonial takeover of the island. This “Republic of Taiwan” or “Republic of Formosa” was headed by Tang Jingsong (Tang Ching-sung, 1841-1903), the former Qing governor of the island. James Wheeler Davidson, an American (and later Canadian) adventurer and journalist in Taiwan at the time, was an eyewitness to the rise and fall of this republic. Many of his accounts of it are priceless because much Chinese documentation of the republic is no longer available. Davidson recorded, for example, the English version of the republic’s official declaration of independence, which no longer exists in its Chinese original:

Official Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Formosa

The Japanese have affronted China by annexing our territory of Formosa, and the supplications of us, the People of Formosa, at the portals of the Throne have been made in vain. We now learn that the Japanese slaves are about to arrive.

If we suffer this, the land of our hearths and homes will become the land of savages and barbarians, but if we do not suffer it, our condition of comparative weakness will certainly not endure long. Frequent conferences have been held with the Foreign Powers, who all aver that the People of Formosa must establish their independence before the Powers will assist them.

Now therefore we, the People of Formosa, are irrevocably resolved to die before we will serve the enemy. And we have in Council determined to convert the whole island of Formosa into a Republican State, and that the administration of all our State affairs shall be organized and carried on by the deliberations and decisions of Officers publicly elected by us the People. But as in this enterprise there is needed, as well for the resistance of Japanese aggression as for the organization of the new administration, a man to have chief control, in whom authority shall centre, and by whom the peace of our homesteads shall be assured, — therefore, in view of the respect and admiration in which we have long held the Governor and Commander-in-Chief Tang Ching Sung, we have in Council determined to raise him to the position of President of the Republic.

An official seal has been cut, and on the second day of the fifth month, at the ssuhour [9 a.m. May 25], it will be publicly presented with all respect by the notables and people of the whole of Formosa. At early dawn on that day, all of us, notables and people, farmers and merchants, artizans [sic] and tradesmen, must assemble at the Tuan Fang Meeting House, that we may in grave and solemn manner inaugurate this undertaking.

Let there be neither delay nor mistake.

A Declaration of the whole of Formosa.

[Seal in red as follows] An announcement by the whole of Formosa

(Davidson 1896; Davidson 1903, 279-80)

Davidson, an American republican, whose beliefs led him to see this declaration as important, was disappointed in its reception. His account of the public reaction to the declaration the next day in Taiwan is a classic for its acuity and substance:

The first day of the new republic was greeted with a drizzling rain. The mass of the Chinese were unable to appreciate the seriousness of their position; in fact the Declaration of Independence appeared to them to be of but little more importance than any other piece of official business. I expected that the memorable day would find the streets filled with holiday makers arrayed in their best clothes, the houses gay with flags, and the day noisy with fire crackers. It was not so; for all jogged along as usual. The pretty tea-girls (and Formosa has some pretty girls) were picking tea with no addition to their old time coquettishness, the tea-box makers and painters were working away in their usual busy style. Not a new flag or a fire cracker in the settlement. At the president’s yamen, however, the court was crowded with enthusiasts, the whole square was brilliant with new flags, including two large banners which bore the characters, “The President of the Republic of Formosa;” while above them all, floated the new flag of the nation; a blue background with the centre decorated by a hungry looking yellow tiger possessing a tail of greater length than is customarily allotted to a real tiger. The people, principally officials and their friends, fired off crackers and chattered and buzzed away with the idea, no doubt, of mutual encouragement; for the lack of enthusiasm with which the townspeople regarded the affair must have been rather disheartening to the leaders. It was somewhat amusing to note how many of the Chinese merchants condemned the movement wholly, because the ex-governor had introduced it during the busy season. As one local tea merchant informed me: “My talkee that new fashion blong velly good, but just now my too muchee pidgin, no have got time.” [I think this new thing is very good, but I have too much business, and I have no time.”] (Davidson 1903, 281-82)

Davidson’s description of the republic’s flag is valuable because only half of the flag has survived to the present. Modern re-creations of the flag take Davidson’s account into primary consideration, particularly his depiction of the tiger’s long tail.

Advocates of Taiwan independence occasionally tout this shortlived regime as the first republic in East Asia and as a historical precedent for the independence of their island, but they sometimes neglect to mention that the republic recognized the suzerainty of the Qing dynasty and the Emperor of China over it and that Tang Jingsong designated himself as “President of the Republic of Formosa and Ex-Acting Governor of Formosa.” (Indeed, Tang even called his republic a tributary state to China.) Tang Jingsong and his successors in the fledgling republic fled to the mainland when the Japanese army was drawing near, and the entire republic collapsed after only a few months. Japanese colonial rule over the island lasted until the end of World War II in 1945, when the United States defeated and occupied Japan.

The Hundred Days Reform

The most prominent of the radical reformers was Kang Youwei, who eventually emerged as an enthusiastic advocate of thoroughgoing reform and a constitutional monarchy for China on the Japanese and British models. Kang was a highly intelligent and idealistic man who had passed his Jinshi examinations with the distinction as Optimus (Zhuangyuan), the top-ranked examination graduate in all of China. In 1898 Kang began to barrage the throne with passionately written memorials arguing for the necessity of drastic reform if China as a nation and civilization were to survive in the modern world. The Guangxu emperor (r. 1875-1908) was impressed with Kang’s forthrightness and summoned him for a personal audience in June 1898. The audience lasted for an unprecedented five hours, during which Kang Youwei convinced the emperor of the validity of his reform program.

From June through September 1898, there issued from the throne a series of imperial edicts for reform. Because the reforms were announced over a period of approximately 100 days, they subsequently became known to Westerners as the Hundred Days Reforms. The wide-ranging edicts called for drastic changes in China’s laws and the examination system. They also advocated overhauling the Qing government into a federalized constitutional monarchy, complete with a parliament, various administrative branches, and the treatment of the Qing emperor as head of state. This was more than the emperor’s aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi (a cunning and ruthless woman who had been the real power behind the Qing throne since 1862), could stand. On September 21 she had her nephew arrested and assumed control of the Qing government herself. She quickly reversed all reform edicts and issued arrest warrants for Kang and his supporters. Kang managed to flee to Japan, where he was given a hero’s welcome. He remained there for many years, where he advocated his vision of a modernized constitutional monarchy for China and established his Emperor Protection Society (Baohuangdang), a body that favored the retention and protection of the Manchu emperor.

Kang’s reforms failed because they offended the empress dowager’s sensibilities and because he did not secure the backing of the military. Chinese Communist historians today regard him as a bourgeois reformist whose class and educational background deceived him into thinking that mere institutional reform would save China. The failure of his reforms convinced revolutionaries such as Sun Yat-sen that the Manchu dynasty would have to be overthrown by means of violent revolution.