China: Imperialism, Opium War, and Self-Strengthening



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China: Imperialism, Opium War, and Self-Strengthening

  • Through the 1700s, China's imperial system flourishes under the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty. China is at the center of the world economy as Europeans and Americans seek Chinese goods. Western nations are experiencing an outflow of silver bullion to China to gain luxury goods, and they bring opium into China as a commodity to trade to reduce the flow of silver.

  • 1839. China's attempt to ban the sale of opium in the port city of Canton leads to the Opium War of 1839 in which the Chinese are defeated by superior British arms and which results in the imposition of the first of many "Unequal Treaties," the Treaty of Nanking. These treaties open other cities, "Treaty Ports" — first along the coast and then throughout China — to trade, extraterritoriality (when foreigners don’t have to follow the law of the nation they are in, but only their home nation’s laws), foreign control of tariffs, and Christian missionary presence. Hong Kong is now owned by Britain (which keeps it until 1997!)

  • Mid-1800s. Europeans are backed by military might which China cannot match. China's position in the world and self-image is reversed in a mere 100 year period from leading civilization to subjected and torn country. They attempt a “Self Strengthening Movement,” in which they reform their military to be more like the West’s, but reject other aspects of Westernization and instead preserve Chinese values and learning.



  • 1860s. The Taiping Rebellion, a decade long anti-Manchu/anti-Qing rebellion, seeks to kick out the “foreign” power of the Qing Dynasty. It results in tens of millions of deaths and results in a huge amount of internal chaos in China.

  • Late 1800s, early 1900s. The Qing dynasty of the Manchus is increasingly seen as a "foreign" dynasty by the Chinese. The well-known "Boxer Rebellion" of 1898-1900 is directed against the Westerners in China. As a symbol of revolution, Chinese males cut off the long braids, or queues, they had been forced to wear as a sign of submission to the authority of the Manchus. The emperor is not able to serve as a focal point for national mobilization against the West, as the emperor is able to do in Japan in the same period. The Boxer Rebellion ends with European powers and Japan being called in to restore order.



  • 1908. China is said to be "carved up like a melon" by foreign powers competing for "spheres of influence" on Chinese soil. Russia, France, Britain, and Japan all have an area of influence.

  • 1894-1895. Japan defeats China in a confrontation over influence in Korea called the first Sino-Japanese War. This victory reverses the traditional position of China and Japan in Asia.


JAPAN and the West: The Meiji Restoration (1868-1912)

  • Early 1800s. The Japanese witness China’s experience with the military power of Western nations.


  • 1853 – 1854. When the United States sends a naval delegation, led by Commodore Matthew Perry, to "open" Japanese ports in 1853, the Japanese are well aware of the "Unequal Treaties" that have been imposed upon China in the previous ten years (since the Opium War of 1839-42) as a result of the superior military power of the Western nations.


  • 1868. Reform-minded samurai effect political change. They launch the reform movement under the guise of restoring the emperor to power, thereby eliminating the power of the shogun, or military ruler, of the Tokugawa period. The emperor's reign name is Meiji; hence the title, "Meiji Restoration" of 1868.



  • 1868-1870. The emperor's effective power remains the same, but the reformers use the imperial symbol to rally public support and national sentiment for rapid modernization. In China, where a foreign power, the Manchus, holds imperial power from 1644-1911 (Qing dynasty), the similar use of imperial legitimacy — to mobilize popular support for social and political transformation to meet the challenge of the West — is not possible.

  • 1870s – 1880s. The Japanese carry out this modernization by very deliberate study, borrowing, and adaptation of Western political, military, technological, economic, and social forms — repeating a pattern of deliberate borrowing and adaptation seen when Japan studied Chinese civilization (7th century to 8th century). Japan is able to adapt to match the power of the West and soon establishes itself as a competitor with the Western powers for colonial rights in Asia.

  • By 1900. Economic, political, and social changes that have taken place during the preceding 250 years of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate (1600-1868) lay the basis for the rapid transformation of Japan into a modern industrial power, with a constitution, a parliament, a national, compulsory education system, a modern army and navy, roads, trains, and telegraph — in less than 50 years.

  • 1894 – 1895 & 1905 – 1906. Japan's successful transformation into a modern, military power is demonstrated in two wars. First, Japan challenges and defeats China in a war over influence in Korea, thereby upsetting the traditional international order in East Asia, where China was the supreme power and Japan a tribute-bearing subordinate power. Then, Japan defeats Russia, a major Western power, in the Russo-Japanese War, over rights in Manchuria and Korea. Western nations take note of Japan's new power.

  • After 1906. Japan, which had isolated itself from international politics in the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), enters an international system of the late 1800s where imperialism dominates. Japan rapidly becomes a major participant in this international system and seeks particular imperialist privileges with its East Asian neighbors, China and Korea.


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