China was never ‘not there’ in history. Beginning with the semi-mythical Xia dynasty, China maintained the continuum despite the rising and declining dynasties dictated by the ‘mandate of heaven’. From a vast Game of Thrones-like history, consisting of numerous dynasties, warlords, eunuchs, and a great wall, modern China chose the ‘century of humiliation’ to shape its self-image (EFSAS).
The Last Dynasty
It was the reign of the Qing dynasty, a Manchu minority which ruled over the majority of Chinese people from 1644 until it succumbed to the revolution of 1912. The ‘middle kingdom’ asserted its authority with the Tribute system or the Cefeng system. The system constructed a loose network of international relations that facilitated trade, and the idea was to render a ceremonial submission to the ‘Son of Heaven’ by sending exotic tributes.
In 1793, a British diplomat George McCartney reached the king’s palace with presents, or tributes as the Chinese thought, proposing trade, but on equal terms. While parting, the Qianlong Emperor handed an edict for the British King George III, congratulating him on his ‘sincere humility and obedience’, adding that China did not have ‘the slightest need of Britain’s manufactures’ (Keay). Qianlong did have substance to his claim.
McCartney failed in his mission, but thenceforth, the Qing period would be forever marked for ‘the disastrous handling of the insistent Western demand for commercial penetration’ (Keay). European traders used to buy silk, tea, and ceramics from China to sell in their countries. In return, as Qianlong has said, China needed nothing but payment in silver. This tilted the balance of payment in favour of China and deeply worried the European mercantilist sensibilities. Consequently, the British East India Company forced Indian farmers to cultivate opium that would be sold to the Chinese people, despite being illegal, and would eventually balance the trade for them. Hence, starting a horrendous network of colonial tyranny under the banner of free trade.
Pretext to the First Opium War
The smuggling of opium disturbed the societal stability in China. The habit spread from Canton to the mainland, addicting people of all classes. The several bans announced by the government did not stop the traders. The British were joined by the Americans, who sold cheaper opium from Turkey. This decreased the price of opium and resulted in increased demand which was satiated by other European traders jumping in. The trade also benefited the Chinese merchants, who kept ignoring their government’s orders. All this reversed the balance of trade. Further, with rapid industrialisation and the adoption of the gold standard, Britain needed more silver. Thus, at the end of the 19th century, the west desperately sought additional trading rights in China.
The First Opium War
In 1839, the Daoguang Emperor appointed Lin Zexu as the Special Imperial Commissioner to end the opium trade. Lin seized the opium stockpiles from the warehouses of the traders and publicly destroyed each one of them, scandalising the European traders. The British government promised its traders compensation.
The immediate cause of the war was the killing of a villager in Kowloon by a group of British merchants. The British superintendent Elliot refused to hand over the men to the Chinese authority. This led to the Battle of Kowloon, in which the British prevailed. It was followed by a full-fledged opium war sanctioned by the British parliament that continued till 1842. The first opium war concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, the first of a series of unequal treaties. The Chinese had to pay a war indemnity, cede the island of Hong Kong to the British, end the canton system, and allow trade at five treaty ports. It was followed by the Treaty of Bogue, which granted British extraterritoriality and the most favoured nation status.
Cutting the Chinese Melon
In the mid-1850s, Britain sought yet more access to the Chinese market and asked for the revision of the Treaty of Nanking. The Chinese government declined. An attack on a British cargo ship called Arrow by Chinese authorities in 1856 gave Britain the reason to start the second opium war. France joined hands to avenge the execution of a missionary, Auguste Chapdelaine. Already dealing with the Taiping Rebellion, Xianfeng Emperor had to negotiate the Treaties of Tianjin in 1858. The treaties permitted Britain, France, Americans, and Russians to install legations in Beijing, ten additional ports would be opened to foreign trade, foreigners would be permitted to travel through the interior, and reparations would be paid to Britain and France. In addition, the Russians signed the separate Treaty of Aigun, which gave them coastal land in northern China. The war ended in 1860 with the British and French burning the summer palace.
Meanwhile, Japan which had modernised under the Meiji rule, was looking for some imperialist engagements for itself. The first Sino-Japanese war was fought in 1894, and China lost Manchuria, Formosa, and the Korean to Japan, causing grave humiliation for the Qing Dynasty. Russia received mining rights in Manchuria and rights to build railway lines in the region to financially help China. The USA came up with the Open Door Policy in 1898, which argued against the carving out of spheres of influence. As nationalist leader Sun-Yet-Sen to argued, China became a colony of not one but all European powers following the cutting of the Chinese melon.
Countdown to the Chinese Republic
By the end of the 19th century, China was suffering from a political breakdown and natural disasters. The ‘mandate of heaven’ was shaking. A group rose in northern China which pointed fingers at the foreigners, especially Christians, for their starvation. They were called Boxers by Europeans because they practised martial arts. The Boxer Rebellion began in 1899 and targeted Europeans and Chinese Christians and their properties. The Chinese government did not try to suppress the uprising, which led to the Eight-Nation Alliance of American, Austro-Hungarian, British, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Russian. They defeated the Imperial Army in Tianjin and started executing the Boxers. A boxer protocol was signed in 1901, demanding the execution of government officials who supported the Boxers, stationing of foreign troops in Beijing, and payment of 450 million taels of silver to the eight countries over the course of 39 years.
After the Boxer Rebellion, Empress Dowager Cixi reluctantly started the New Policies Reforms in 1901. The imperial examination system was eliminated, western education was included, bureaucracy was simplified, and new taxation policies were introduced.
All these reforms only accelerated the activities of revolutionary secret societies. Nationalists and revolutionists got their supporters in the Chinese students in Japan. The secret societies started infiltrating the army. Sun Yat-sen, the undisputed leader of the revolution, united three groups; Revive China Society, Huaxinghui, and Guangfuhui, in 1905, establishing the unified Tongmenghui (United League). He was a western educated physician who proposed three principles of the people; nationalism, rights of the people, and livelihood, but led several failed attempts to bring down the Qing dynasty.
An accidental explosion by one such group led to the Wuchang Uprising on 10th October 1911, which spread to several provinces. Sun Yat-sen became the first president of the republic centred in Nanjing in December 1911. Meanwhile, the palace hastily recalled Yuan Shikai, an army official earlier sent into forced retirement and appointed him as the Prime Minister to negotiate with the revolutionaries. It should be mentioned here that by this time Qing government was highly decentralised, and the armies were maintained by provincial lords. Yuan Shikai’s powerful Beiyang army was loyal to him, not the king. Yuan Shikai started playing for both sides and negotiated a presidency for him in return for supporting the revolutionaries. Finally, on 12th February 1912, six years old, Emperor Puyi abdicated. Sun Yat-Sen handed over the presidency to Yuan Shikai on 10th March 1912 as promised.
Unrelenting foreign intervention, the patchy success of Cixi’s new reforms, an increasing movement of republicanism adopted from western ideals, and a powerful army initiated by the Qing’s new policies brought success to the Xinhai Revolution (Teachers).
Towards the Communist revolution
Yuan Shikai failed to consolidate a legitimate central government, declared himself the Emperor, and died in 1916, leading to decades of political division and warlordism, including an attempt at imperial restoration.
Sun Yat-sen, who was in exile, returned once more to realise his philosophies and re-established Kuomingtang in Canton. He was joined by the Chinese Communist Party in his fight against the warlords which is called the First United Front. Sun died in 1925, and Chiang Kai-Shek declared himself the Generalissimo. In 1927, he launched the white terror to eradicate the Communists who were resisting Kai-shek’s power consolidation. While Kai-shek was busy targeting the Communists, Japan captured Manchuria in 1931. Generalissimo continued his encirclement of Communists strongholds which ultimately led to the famous ‘Long March’ of 1934-35. The march started from the Southeast of China to the northwestern Yan’an region, covering 6000 miles. Only ten percent survived of the 100000 who began the march. It was during this time that Mao Tse-tung rose through the ranks.
Amidst this civil war, Japan started a full-scale encroachment in 1937. Mao offered to form the second United front with the KMT to fight the foreign invasion. The KMT faced a direct confrontation with the Japanese and suffered huge losses. The Communist Red army preferred Guerrilla warfare. This alliance broke down in 1945 with the end of World War II. At this time, the Communists had huge membership and support. They were also supported by the USSR. The USA, on the other hand, supported the KMT. A civil war broke out in June 1946, which the communists called the war of liberation. Chinese Communist Party fought with local support, and Mao declared the People’s Republic of China on 1st October 1949. He ruled it until his death in 1976. Chiang Kai-shek was forced to flee to the island of Taiwan, which he ruled till his death in 1975 as the Republic of China. The war never officially ended, and tensions recur in the news even now.
This series of events, from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, form the collective national memory of today’s China. The diplomatic and military humiliation by Westerners stirred the nationalist feeling of the Chinese intellectuals. They called it the ‘century of humiliation’, which remains a major component of modern China’s founding narrative. The promise is to ‘never again’ let China fall into this state. Understanding this history is important for understanding Chinese foreign policy and worldview.
EFSAS. “Rise or Resurgence? China’s ‘Century of Humiliation’ and the Role of Historical Memory in Contemporary China.” March 2021. European Foundation For South Asian Studies. 31st July 2022.
Keay, John. China: A History. New York: Basic Books, 2009.
Teachers, Chinese History for. Xinhai Revolution 1911 Overview. n.d.