China: 1850-1900

Impact of the West


The tribulations of such a minority might hardly received attention in the general sweep of Chinese history if it were not for the Hakkas' role in the Taiping Revolution of 1850-1864.

The Hakkas formed the core of the movement, and it was the Hakka visionary Hung Hsiu-ch'uan whose mystical revelations inspired the rebellion.

The Revolution was both a product of the internal social problems combined with external influences and as we will see Hung's revolutionary doctrines combined Chinese ideas with Western religious themes.

Hung Hsiu-Ch'uan, the future emperor of the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, was the talented son of a well to do Hakka farmer.


It was the hope of his family that Hung pass his civil service examinations and he enter the bureaucracy.


Hung did succeed in becoming a contender for bureaucratic positions at the age of 16 in 1828, but during the next several years he repeatedly failed the prefectual examination for the lowest gentry degree.


Towards the end of the Ching dynasty in the 19th century this was a familiar theme as those who suffered frustration at having failed the examination system turned against the empire.


Most individuals who failed their exams found solace in Buddhism or Taoism and were able to cool out.


Hung might have taken such a direction had he not been exposed to Christianity.


Hung's exposure was entirely accidental.


After having failed his exams again he was walking in the streets when he encountered a black robed foreign missionary with a long beard.


Hung spoke with the missionary and was given 9 booklets under the general title of "Good Words to Exhort the Age".


Hung returned to his room and put the booklets on his shelf without looking at them.


The following year he tried his exams again.


This time the news of his failure caused him to suffer a nervous breakdown.


For over a month he remained in his room suffering hallucinations and thrashing at devils and falling into deep trances.

Hung then began reading the pamphlets with a growing sense ofrevelation. After reading Hung realized that the black robed figure he met and who was in his dreams was god and that he was the younger brother of Christ sent to China with his demon killing sword to restore Christianity to China.


The foreign devils that Hung sought to destroy were not the Westerners, but rather the Manchus who were preventing the spread of Christianity in China.


Once the Chinese people exterminated the Manchus and recovered their true religion a great age of peace would arrive, uniting the world in universal harmony and brotherhood.


Probably Hung would have been little more than a mystic if there had not existed social forces ready to respond to his prophecies.


The problems of population growth, official corruption, tax evasion and the disruptions of the Opium War created much social discontent.


In the province of Kwangsi social banditry, poverty, unemployment, drought and feuding provided the social powder keg from which the Revolution would explode.


Hung became involved in this tumultuous situation because of hisreligious persecution for smashing Confucian idols.


In 1844 Hung became a leader and co-founder of the Society of God Worshippers which turned isolated villages into self contained religious communities which would later support the Taiping rebels.



The Society of God Worshippers did not grow quickly. When Hung met up with the other leaders in August of 1847 there were only 2,000 followers.


Hung immediately injected a political tone into the religious life of the community, stressing the coming of the great peace.


His arrival also coincided with an escalation in Hakka and Punti conflicts.


The 1840's brought a time of violence, conflict, political tension and unrest to the southern reaches of the empire.


The militant character of The Society of God Worshippers attracted many social dissidents.



As the movement grew another leader fell into a trance and when he awoke spoke in the voice of the Holy Ghost. Three months later still another leader had a religious seizure and completed the trinity by becoming the spokesman for Jesus Christ.


By 1850 the government became alarmed at the growing influence of The Society of God Worshippers who refused.


The government then attacked Hung's group with the intent of arresting them for seditious activities.


Hung's encampment was under siege in the mountains when the other two leaders came to his rescue and defeated the government forces in January of 1851.


It was at this victory that Hung formally inaugurated the "Heavenly Kingdom of the Great Peace or T'ai-p'ing t'ien-kuo.•


The Taiping movement was a radical departure from the former Society of God Worshippers. By proclaiming a new dynasty Hung was announcing the leader's decision to take the offensive against their enemies.


When the Taiping army moved it absorbed the unhappy and disaffected peasantry.


From September to April of 1852 the Taiping forces consolidated their power, broke out of a Manchu encirclement and sweep up into central China like wild fire.


By March of 1853 the Taiping rebels captured the ancient capital of Nanking which would be the new capital of the Chou dynasty of the Taipings.


But by settling in Nanking the movement lost the initial momentum which had kept Ching forces off balance.


Despite the popularity of the Taipings, as long as the Manchus held Bejing they retained the Mandate of Heaven in most people seyes.


The settlement at Nanking also caused problems for the twin pillars of Taiping ideology: communalism would destroy both family and private property.


Essentially "communalism" was an early form of communism where all private property would be would be appropriated by the Taipings and then evenly distributed among all Chinese to be held in common.


 However, once in Nanking Taiping leaders became increasingly wealthy at the expense of following their ideology.



Squabbles were breaking out among the leaders of the Taipings, power struggles undermined the movement.


The 3 years after 1853 saw the turning point for the movement.


Viewed from within, the deadly power struggles within the Taiping ranks seemed to doom the movement by 1856.


However another 8 years would pass before the Chings would successfully put down the rebellion.


Throughout China in the 1850's rebellions broke out on a regular basis.


Secret societies called "triads" took the city of Amoy, the Red Turbans attacked Canton. In the Pearl River Delta 500,000 Hakka were killed in feuds with Punti. There were floods, droughts and earthquakes that destroyed many cities.


It was a time of death.


All told over 30,000,000 people died during the 14 years of the Heavenly Kingdom. A death rate that would not be equaled until the second World War.


As if this death and destruction were not enough, Western imperialism also affected China.


In 1856 on the flimsy pretext that the Chinese were refusing them proper diplomatic respect the English declared war on China.


This time the English demanded 11 new treaty ports, unlimited travel in the interior, more territory near Hong Kong, the legalization of opium and for China to pay for the expenses ofthe war.


The Taiping rebels, however revolutionary their intent, had failed to destroy the traditional order.


But the rebels had forced the regime to defend itself in ways that disturbed the old balance of power between local and central interests, civil and military wings, foreign and native ruling elites.


It was the reaction to the Taipings, not the rebels themselves that had the most revolutionary effects in the end.


One of the more important reactions to the rebel threat was that the central government allowed the formation of private, regional armies in order to defeat the Taipings.


This would later lead to problems of war lordism in the country and the break down of central authority and central military command that would plague China until the end of the Japanese occupation in the 1940's.


The Taiping victories of 1859İ1860 forced the Ching dynasty to grant more authority to private regional armies and warlords.


Some of these private armies fell under the command of Westerners. The American filibuster Frederic Townsend Ward commanded an army of mercenaries in the late 1850's that successfully fought the Taipings.


Two years later Major Charles George "China" Gordon led the"Ever Victorious Army" in many campaigns against the rebels.


Gordon's army was not only successful at defeating Taipings, but it was also a great period of looting. Palaces were looted by Gordon's army and an incalculable amount of priceless, ancient Chinese art, jewels, furniture made its way to London via Gordon's army.


Despite the help that the Ching government received from the West in putting down the Taiping threat, this era of diplomatic cooperation was marred by the growing dissatisfaction of Western businessmen who had failed to develop markets in China for their goods.


Western economists had long insisted that Chinese consumption levels were not high enough to justify the merchants dreams of capturing a market with 400 million customers.


But the myth of the China market was hard to dispel.


When the market failed to materialize, foreign merchants did exactly what they did in 1839 and 1856 they blamed the Chinese authorities for their difficulties.


But Chinese public opinion began to harden against foreigners, especially those from the West.


In Chinese newspapers and periodicals carried lurid pictures depicted Christians as evil pigİlike beasts torturing Chinese and editorials called for the armies to track down and kill the evil demons.


There were demands for government reform from intellectual circles but the conservatives in government opposed any reforms that were inspired from the West.


The conservatives kept their influence in the government because of the politics and support of the Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi, despite the approval of the emperor Tung Chih.


By 1873 Tung died and his death provoked a major succession crisis which Tzu-hsi narrowly won. Instead of putting a true heir on the throne she put her infant nephew in power thus perpetuating her regency for another 15 years.


Her son Prince Kung opposed this move, but he could not risk open defiance due to the army supporting his mother.


Conservatives in the government and the bureaucracy were grateful to Tzuİhsi because she insulated the government of Peking from reformist İminded bureaucrats and officials.


This was a period win which the Ching were concerned with howt hey could create a China which would stand up to the Western powers.


It was also a period of more diplomatic crisis for China.


In 1874 France had established a protectorate over Vietnam. The King of Annam who paid taxes to China for protection pleaded for the Chinese to intervene and help Vietnam escape from French bondage.


Chinese irregular forces began to attack French outposts in northern Vietnam at Tonkin. To expel these forces the French commander occupied Hanoi in April of 1882 drawing dangerously close to the Chinese border.


In the year between 1884 and 1885 France fought a war with China over the desire for the French to permanently occupy Hanoi.


The Chinese were defeated, but despite the French victory the French only gained treaty recognition of their right to colonize Vietnam.


The lesson for the Chinese was that in order to selfİstrengthen reform now was even more imperative. A modern navy and army would have to be created.


By 1885 China had the strongest Asian navy in the Far East, stronger than Japan's.


By the 1890's China and Japan were close to war as the two countries were increasingly conflicting over the future of Korea.


Korea like Vietnam was a former vassal state of the Ching Dynasty.


It was also a country in which many Japanese nationals lived asmerchants and shop keepers, and a country that the Japanese coveted for their own emperor.


In 1876 a struggle had broken out at the Korean court between conservative and reformist factions. Each side invited foreign intervention with the conservatives turning to China and the reformers to Japan.


By 1884 the Japanese were actively aiding uprisings in Korea.



China immediately repressed these revolts.


The Meji officials of Japan led by Ito Hirobumi and a Chinese delegation were able to reach an agreement to respect Korea's neutrality in the Tientsin Convention of 1885.


The Tientsin Convention was put to the test in 1894 as a rebellion similar to the Taiping movement tried to overthrow the Korean monarch who again requested Chinese help.


While the Ching officials deliberated over what to do, the Japanese decided to move first sending troops to Korea to support their faction.


Chinese troops engaged the Japanese in July of 1894 and in August war was formally declared.


In September of 1894 the two fleets clashed and in about 4minutes of the 12 Chinese ships only 4 were still afloat.


The land war was also a disaster for the Chinese for in the same month of September Pyongyang had fallen to the Japanese.


The Chinese troops fled into Manchuria and in October the Japanese landed troops on the Laotung Penninsula and seized Darien, two months later the Japanese capture the Shantung penninsula.


China surrendered in 1895 and ceded the territory to Japan as well as the island of Taiwan and was forced to pay a huge indemnity.


The surrender of so much Chinese territory was humiliating but what was worse was that they had to turn it over to the Japanese.


It was bad enough to be defeated by European nations who were so different from China, but to see the "dwarf bandits" from Japan who had once copied their culture from the Chinese now humble the Ching empire was a serious blow to national self esteem.


In April of 1895 China and Japan signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki.


Public agitation over its provisions for the cession of Chinese territory immediately spread throughout the Ching empire.


Many study societies were created that sought to find a way to reform the Ching empire and asked the question of what happenedto the once mighty and proud middle kingdom in face of not only invasion and war with the west, but also defeat against Japan.


One of the great reformers and thinkers of this period was KangYu-wei who seriously questioned Confucianism.


Kang believed in the scientific basis for a new state and representative government.


Kang struck down those hierarchical values of subordination which orthodox Confucianists revered and declared that the patriarchical family and the centralized non-representative state would prevent China from ever modernizing and competing with the West.


Kang argued that Confucianism was not a religion, but merely an ideology, a manner of thinking of a particular class that justified the inequality in Chinese society and culture.


Kang believed that the fundamental political reform depended on cultural revolution. The May 4th Movement followed this line of thinking as did Mao during his cultural Revolution.


Kang predicted a future world liberated from social and political distinctions, a world of equality.


Property would be communized. Human suffering would be completely eased by a priesthood of doctors and scientists, and all class distinctions would be erased.


Women would have the same status and clothing as men, and the nuclear family would give way to one-year marriage contracts and communal nurseries.


His followers, the reformers wished that China would go the way that Meji Japan did and modernize by following the Western model.


But in the late 1800's there was too much conservative opposition to any social or political reforms.


The Treaty Shiminoseki had significantly altered the balance of power in East Asia.


The Chinese had counted on using the Great Powers, especially mitigate some of the Japanese demands.


By the Treaty of Shiminoseki, Japan had gained a number of exclusive rights in China that seriously threatened the treaty port principle of equal exploitation.


Japan had acquired the warm water port of Port Arthur, which had long been coveted by Russia as a key naval base.


The Chinese appealed to the Russians for help and the Chinese did succeed in getting back the Lao-tung Penninsula.


The Russians in return for helping the Chinese secured a railway concession to extend the trans-siberian railroad through Manchuria.


In 1896 the Russians got this 80 year rail concession after reportedly bribing top Chinese officials for $1.5 million.


The Russo-Chinese treaty of 1896 had immediate and serious repercussions.


The railway infuriated an already hostile Japan, who stepped up military preparations for a showdown with Russian over Manchuria and Korea.


This conflict would not erupt for another 8 years, but when it did it would be the first time in history that an Asia country defeated a European power.


The British were also upset by the treaty. The English had long feared Russian expansionism and now felt that China was no longer a bulwark against the Tsar's imperialist plans in Asia.


The Russian diplomatic victory also threatened to disrupt the delicate balance of power in Europe.


When France, Russia's ally, sought its own railway and mining rights in south China in 1897, Britain was unable to prevent the concession due to Russian diplomatic pressure and insistence.


England, to balance its own power in Asia then sought a naval alliance with Japan that was eventually signed in 1902.


Germany was also alarmed by the Russian initiative to establish a protectorate over Manchuria and sought a German naval base in China.


The German Kaiser's chance came when two German missionaries were
murdered by an anti-Christian mob in Shantung in November of1897.


Wilhelm euphorically cabled the Tsar that due to this anti-German atrocity, the German fleet would seize the Shantung harbor of Kiaochow bay.


The German seizure of Kiachow bay was the signal that every nation with imperialist objectives was waiting for and the scramble for Chinese concessions began.


In China Germany's seizure of Kiachow had reinvigorated the reform movement.


Reformists attack Confucianism, and the political system of China. In 1894 pamphlets wrote that: "Government is an affair of the people and managed by the ruler; it is not an affair of the ruler and managed by the people. Since affairs belong to the people, sovereignty belongs to the people.


Urged on by his tutor and deeply alarmed by China's diplomatic defeats the Kuang-hsu Emperor issued an edict in June of 1898announcing his intention to reform the government in a program called the 100 days of reform.


In the space of that summer the entire government was revamped

on paper.


Manchu sinecures were abolished in the imperial household. Redundant governorships were eliminated; bureaus of commerce, industry and agriculture were established; Buddhist monasteries nationalized and converted into public schools; the examination system was changed to test a knowledge of current affairs rather than the classics; and suggestions were made to replace the army and civil ministries with new institutions.


But there was great conservative reaction against these edicts.


It was hard to find a single group in the bureaucracy that was not somehow threatened and offended by these reforms and ideological resistance began to accumulate in all the areas of reform.


In the meantime, pressure had begun to grow for the empress dowager to intervene and stop the reform movement.


Tzu-hsi had originally favored the reform movement, but she became more and more skeptical as the 100 days wore on.


The reformers soon began to suspect that the empress was conspiring to depose the emperor with the help of some of the generals in the army.


Kuang-hsu the emperor began to take precautions for this coup threat.


But Tzu-hsi acted swiftly on her own, and hurried to the forbidden city and accosted her nephew the emperor on throne.


She accused him of plotting against her Kuang-hsu's resolve broke in the face of her anger and allowed himself to be arrested and imprisoned beneath the summer palace.


Tzu-hsi then assumed power with the support of the army.


The first act of her new regency was to order the arrest of the reform movement leaders. Six were immediately captured and executed including Kang Yu-wei's younger brother. Kang and other reformers were able to escape.


The Shantung area was hard hit in August of 1898 when the Yellow River overflowed its banks, flooding 5,000 miles of the northern plain.


In the province due to the war with Japan roving bands of soldiers, and martial arts expert, social bandits by night and in the day worked as porters and laborers.


Taoist magicians trained women and men in martial arts skills.


Shantung had a long history of rebellions and Ching officials were wary of this new trend in paramilitary training and the forming of private militia.


The German occupation of Kiachow Bay and news of other foreign incursions brought the peasantry of Shantung into a state of panic.


Secret societies were formed, magicians foretold of eminent disaster, flood and war were coming, all of south China would be plunged into chaos, more than half the population of the empire would die, foreigners would devastate the empire and the Shantung peoples would disappear.


Magicians blamed the natural disasters on railways and telegraph lines between Tientsin and Bejing.


Gradually all these ideas coalesced around the martial arts experts who called themselves the Boxers and were trained in Shaolin fighting technique.


The idea of the Boxers was to rid the empire of the Western demons in order to save China and its people.


By the early days of June in 1900, Boxer band entered Bejing from the east and anti-foreigner riots broke out immediately.
Japanese diplomat was caught and murdered by the mob, Christian churches were burned and their worshippers slaughtered.


Western diplomats feared for their lives and the British consul sent for 2,000 troops from Tientsin, but the road to Bejing was controlled by Boxers and they were forced to retreat back.


The Empress despite contrary views at the upper echelons of Chinese government supported the Boxers and formally declared war against the Western powers.


Though declaring war against the West was popular, the empress was still uncertain that China could win such a conflict, but she felt that her country and dynasty should at least go down fighting.


Ching soldiers then set siege to the Legation Quarter, joining 200,000 Boxers who had been enrolled in the Imperial Army.


But the Ching forces were undisciplined and the Legations with a total of 450 guards held out, while mobs pillaged, raped and killed throughout Bejing and the streets became littered with corpses.


The Great Powers quickly prepared an expeditionary force to rescue the diplomats who they assumed to already be dead.


All the West's fears of the yellow peril were evoked by the lurid description of yellow journalists description of white people being beheaded and mutilated, women raped, by hatchet wielding fanatics.


By June of 1900 14,000 troops had been assembled in China and in July another 17,000 troops from Germany, America, France and England and Japan had landed.


By August realizing that her armies would not hold the empress dowager fled to the north.


After the defeat of the Boxers there was the fear that now for once and all the empire would be dismantled and carved up by the Western powers.


But the mutual suspicions of the Great Powers prevented China from being dismembered.


Britain and Japan were distrustful of Russia, though the Russians would not be dislodged from Manchuria until its war with Japan in1905.


The Boxer protocol that was signed on September 1901 forced the Chinese to make public apologies for the Boxer incidents: dismantle all fortifications, convict and execute the leaders at all levels of the Ching government, pay almost $1 billion in
reparations, as well as westernize the government.


The overthrow of the Ching dynasty appeared to be an instantaneous and revolutionary act of violence.


But in the 1900's there were many revolts and rebellions.


Finally one of the revolts succeeded. On October 10, 1911 a military uprising at Wuhan in central China incited a military revolt against the regime and revolution spread across the country.


Sun Yat-sen quickly took charge of the situation from Shanghai where he was elected president of a provisional republic, and February 11, 1912 the Ching dynasty had fallen.


But north China remained under the control of the military general and old friend of the empress dowager Yuan shihİkai.


To achieve national unity Sun Yat-sen agreed to resign the presidency of the new republic and let Yuan take his place.


Unfortunately Yuan wanted to be the next emperor, not president, and in the reaction he crushed the revolutionaries when they tried to overthrow his government in 1913.


Sun Yat-sen fled to the U.S., but in 7 years he had organized anew Nationalist Party the Kuomintang which occupied Canton and began preparations for a northern expedition to reunify the country under progressive democratic rule.


By now Yuan Shih-kai was dead, but China had degenerated into a country run by regional warlords with their private armies, who sacrificed Chinese sovereignty by selling off China for Western railroads for loans and bribes.


Realizing that he needed allies to fight the warlords, Sun invited the Communists to form a united front and join his party.


By 1925, the Communists and the Kuomintang separated due to ideological differences, though Sun tried to hold the alliance together until 1925 for the sake of the projected northern military expedition.


After Sun's death in 1925 one of his aids, Chiang Kai-shek assumed control over the KMT in order to realize Sun's dream of a united China.


Chiang violently conflicted with the CCP, and by the late 1920'sChina was engulfed in civil war between the CCP and the KMT, though Chiang was the provisional head of the Chinese government who ruled from Nanking until the outbreak of WWII