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The Xenophile Historian

China Taiwan

A Concise History of China


1279 to 1911

This chapter covers the following topics:
The Yuan Dynasty
The Ming Dynasty
The Opium War
The Taiping Rebellion and the Arrow War
The Paper Dragon
The Boxer Rebellion
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The Yuan Dynasty

1279 to 1368

The reign of Kublai Khan was the high point of the Mongol Empire. Kublai ruled an enormous realm stretching across most of Eurasia, from Korea in the east to Iraq and Ukraine in the west. To the northeast, Kublai extended his authority beyond Mongolia into the nearest parts of Siberia, by establishing tribute-gathering forts near Lake Baikal, at the mouth of the Amur River, and even on Sakhalin Island. Improved roads and communication encouraged trade and missionary activity between East and West. The most famous foreigner to take advantage of these conditions was the Venetian trader Marco Polo, whose writings vividly portrayed the splendors of Asia. However, the empire had grown so large that it could no longer effectively be ruled from one place. This meant that while Kublai could claim to rule the whole empire, once he chose Beijing for his capital he only had control over the eastern third of it; his cousins ruled the other areas in his name and did whatever they pleased. In the 1280s and 90s Kublai launched military expeditions against Burma, Vietnam and Java, but they gained nothing permanent even when they succeeded; Mongols had little desire to conquer lands so different and so far away from the steppes of home. More humiliating was the result when Kublai sent two naval expeditions to conquer Japan; both fleets were destroyed by typhoons, and the Samurai finished off the unlucky Mongols that made it to shore.

For his government Kublai divided the land into twelve provinces and the population into the following four classes:

  1. Mongols (the aristocrats & tax-exempt landowners)
  2. Central Asians, Turks and Europeans (merchants and administrators; Marco Polo fell into this category)
  3. Koreans and northern Chinese (lower middle class)
  4. Chinese who lived under the Song dynasty ("barbarians" without any rights or permission to trade)
Since most of the country's scholars were kept at the bottom of the social ladder, seditious sentiments were widespread and rebellion was an ever-present menace, as Marco Polo reported. To keep a lid on this problem Mongol garrisons were maintained in major cities to discourage outbreaks; they were regularly rotated before the luxuries of urban life could sap their strength. Unemployed Chinese scholars were forced to turn to cultural pursuits, and they made two significant contributions to Chinese literature, the drama and the novel. Both of these literary forms had been around at least as early as the Tang dynasty, but it was only now that they became popular. The government encouraged the development of the Chinese theater, for this was an art the semi-literate Mongols could understand.

Tolerant of all religions, Kublai allowed Islam to make many converts in the western provinces (Gansu, Ningxia, Xinjiang and Yunnan). He also asked Marco Polo's family to bring a hundred monks so that he could learn about Christianity; the pope, however, was more concerned with matters at home, and only sent two monks, who traveled with the Polos as far as Armenia before bad weather persuaded them to turn back. What an opportunity Catholicism missed there!

After Kublai's death in 1294 the dynasty decayed rapidly; so rapidly, in fact, that it ruled all of China for less time than it took to conquer it. Although every Yuan emperor wore a helmet when he posed for a portrait, those who came after Kublai were no warrior-kings--most of them never even saw a battlefield--and they let the maintenance of the country go neglected while they struggled between themselves for power. Between 1294 and 1333 ten emperors rose and fell; after them came a boy of 13, Toghon Temur, who ruled as long as Kublai Khan, though not as effectively. Inflation and high taxes alienated the peasants; the discontented scholars continued to make trouble whenever they saw an opportunity. Strange rumors began to circulate concerning the Mongols' intentions: they would not only ban iron weapons but iron tools; every unmarried boy and girl would be seized for government service; most frightening was a proposal to kill everyone named Zhao, Zhang, Li, Liu, or Wang.(1) Famines, epidemics like the notorious bubonic plague, severe flooding of the Yellow River, and bad land management caused the population to drop from 100 million in the thirteenth century to 60 million by 1393.

In the 1330s, a number of secret religious fraternities became openly political. The most significant of these was the White Lotus Society, which believed that the expulsion of the Mongols would bring about a perfect Buddhist nation. Its members met at night in secret, swore blood brotherhood, took on ritual names, and recruited an army of troops wearing red turbans. When the Yellow River floods severely damaged the Grand Canal, 150,000 laborers were sent to clean up the mess. This played right into the hands of the rebels. Tradition holds that the White Lotus spread a rumor that the end of the evil empire would come shortly after the appearance of a one-eyed giant and then they buried a huge one-eyed statue where the laborers would be sure to uncover it. By 1351 most of the Huai and Yangtze valleys were in revolt. And the Red Turbans were not alone; a pirate named Fang Guozhen made the coast unsafe, while a salt smuggler named Zhang Shicheng proclaimed himself emperor and shut himself up in the city of Gaoyu, blocking the Grand Canal.

The Mongol prime minister, Toghto, responded heroically to the crisis. Accepting that the north would have to feed itself, he organized an emergency program to bring nearly 154,500 square miles of new land under cultivation; he also printed enormous amounts of paper money to boost revenue without raising taxes. During the next few years the government won a string of victories on the battlefield. In the winter of 1354 Toghto led an army in person to besiege Gaoyu. Victory against Zhang Shicheng was in sight, until a letter arrived from Beijing announcing that Toghto had been dismissed from his post. His success had aroused envy at court; soon after that his enemies had him exiled and poisoned. Without him the loyalist army disintegrated, and many of the soldiers joined the rebels. By the end of 1356 the Mongols controlled nothing south of the Yellow River. Meanwhile Zhang pushed north and captured the wealthy city of Suzhou. There, as the ruler of ten million subjects, he began to live a life of luxury beyond what he could have dreamed of when he had rowed illicit cargoes through marshes.

At this point the Red Turbans broke up into four factions, each proclaiming its leader as the next emperor. The smallest but best-organized faction was led by 28-year-old Zhu Yuanzhang, a tall and spectacularly ugly peasant whose beady eyes, pockmarked skin, bulbous nose and jutting chin later earned him the nickname of "the pig emperor." As a teenager, Zhu lost his entire family to starvation, and he survived only by joining a monastery. In 1352 he enlisted in the forces raised by a fortuneteller who predicted that the Buddha was about to return to earth, and he started recruiting his own band of followers, starting with twenty-four childhood friends from his native village. By 1355 he commanded 30,000 men, and in that year he captured the city of Nanjing, which became his base of operations afterward. Other faction leaders were as follows:

  1. North of the Yangtze: Han Liner, the son of the original White Lotus leader. He now called himself the rightful Song emperor.
  2. Hubei: Chen Youliang, a fisherman who called himself the emperor of Han, recalling an even earlier dynasty. He teamed up with an inland pirate fleet whose leader armed himself like a Japanese samurai and was therefore known as Two-Swords Zhao.
  3. Sichuan: An isolated army of Manicheans, the last followers of a third-century Persian religion that combined elements of Christianity and Zoroastrianism.
All of the rebels progressed rapidly from bandit leaders to the rulers of organized states, and they modified their desire for revolution accordingly. Zhang and the pirate Fang even made a deal with the Mongol government, and sent it rice from the south. The Mongols survived in the north for twelve more years because the rebels now fought each other in a struggle for supremacy. Zhu fought Zhang and the Han rebels, finally overcoming both and uniting the Yangtze valley under his control. From Nanjing in 1368 he proclaimed himself Hongwu, the first emperor of the Ming, or bright dynasty.

Now Zhu's leading general, a childhood friend named Xu Da, marched north with a quarter of a million men. The Yuan regime had little power to fight back. It printed paper money by the cartload, but the troops this should have paid also existed only on paper.(2) The last Yuan emperor hid in his palace and devoted himself to esoteric ceremonies he learned from the Tibetan Buddhist monks he favored--sacrifices of human hearts and livers and Tantric ceremonies that looked a lot like common orgies. Finally he gave up and fled to Mongolia, where he died in 1370. Meanwhile the pirate admiral Fang Guozhen provided the ships to transport Ming troops up and down the coast. The Red Turban state in Sichuan was finally overcome in 1371, when its catapults were shattered with a new invention, the cannon. In 1382 the Ming made one final conquest, the Mongol princedom of Yunnan in the far southwest.

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The Ming Dynasty

1368 to 1644

Under the Ming emperors China experienced the third and last great age in its long history. The society and government of the Tang & Song dynasties was restored, though the bureaucracy was smaller and more centralized than before. The civil service exams returned too, but the emperor had a peasant's prejudices against book learning, so he added tests in archery and horsemanship to the traditional essay questions on the classics. Furthermore, he still preferred to appoint his officials rather than test for them. Confucianism flourished at the court, though in his heart Hongwu always favored the Buddhism of his youth. A new tax code was set up that was more efficient and less corrupt than that of the Mongols. All of China was divided into communities of 110 families, each subdivided into 11 groups of 10 families each. In each community the most prosperous group of families provided a headman to represent the community in its dealings with the government, while the other ten groups took turns performing communal labor services. A school, altar, and granary were built for each community, and they held monthly meetings to discuss local problems.

Now that he was in power, Hongwu dissociated himself from the Red Turban revolutionaries. He protested that he never favored their utopian dreams, that he had become a rebel to stay alive, and that the war to expel the Mongols had done more harm than good. As for his own participation, well, his success meant that Heaven was on his side, didn't it?

Hongwu knew why the Mongols had failed; they and their administration had become lazy, incompetent and avaricious, destroying the weak and forcing law-abiding citizens to become bandits. He would not allow this to happen again, but to prevent it, he resorted to force in ways that resembled the tactics of the Mongols whose legacy he was trying to erase. At the same time, however, he realized that cruel punishments don't always work; the ancient sage Laozi had once said that those who do not fear death cannot be deterred by the death penalty. As a result he often substituted forced labor for executions. But such a policy could not keep the emperor from suspecting that somebody would follow his example as a successful rebel. All secret political and religious societies were suppressed, for as long as the slightest danger of insurrection remained, Hongwu could not feel secure.

In 1380 the emperor's suspicions caused a crisis that permanently affected the Ming dynasty. By this time Hongwu decided that all of his foreign problems (skirmishes with the Mongols, Japanese pirates raiding the coast, merchants who continued to trade abroad despite the emperor's wishes) were part of a massive conspiracy against the throne that was led by Hu Weiyong, an old comrade who had served him since 1355. Whether or not such a plot existed, Hu was executed, and afterwards a Soviet-style purge brought forth a wave of accusations and forced confessions; eventually more than 30,000 officials lost their lives because of their supposed association with the disgraced chancellor. Millions of ordinary people suffered as well; surveillance officers brought reports of treason, whether it existed or not; one survivor remarked that even the sinless Buddha would have been lucky to escape accusation. Court officials were flogged for minor errors, and authors were executed for writing poems about natural calamities, which were seen by the emperor as allusions to his own harsh rule. Ministers made final farewells to their families before answering a summons to the imperial palace and rejoiced if they returned alive.

Afterwards Hongwu trusted nobody. He did away with most of the cabinet, taking their powers for himself or his immediate family; for instance, each of his 26 sons became a provincial governor, though Hongwu retained personal control over all the armies. Never again would a Chinese emperor be restrained by his bureaucracy, as had been the case in earlier dynasties. The result was the same as in other autocratic societies; the system worked under a strong, determined leader like Hongwu, but when a poor leader was in charge it became a recipe for trouble.

The emperor's paranoia encouraged corruption, and his efforts to curb it had only limited success. A granary clerk named Kang Mingyuan was accused of embezzlement, twice branded, hamstrung, and lost both kneecaps, but still he continued to pilfer government supplies. Even corrupt officials in the Board of Punishments could not be flogged into obedience when they were caught. The bewildered emperor wrote that he "hoped to control villains on the idea that if one man is punished, a hundred will take warning. But peoples' minds nowadays aren't like this." He died disillusioned in 1398, after writing this note of despair: "Despite my exhaustive efforts, I can't transform bad people, whether they are clever or stupid. I always think things through completely before imposing them on my subjects, yet after a long time nothing produces any results. Alas, how hard it is!"

The next Ming emperors saw defense of the realm as their first priority; for this reason Yong Le (1403-25), the third and strongest emperor of the dynasty, rebuilt the Great Wall and moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing, where he could keep a closer watch on the Mongols. It was Buddhist missionaries, however, that brought a more permanent end to the Mongol threat; by 1600 they had turned most of the fierce nomads into peaceful monks. To the south, Yong Le took advantage of political chaos in Vietnam to conquer that land; it was a Chinese province from 1407 to 1428.

Another unique event that occurred in the early fifteenth century should be mentioned here. Between 1405 and 1433, seven huge fleets of warships, led by a Moslem eunuch named Zheng He, sailed from China on expeditions into the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The fleets carried as many as 20,000 soldiers and 8,000 sailors; by comparison, the ill-fated Spanish Armada carried fewer men on a much shorter voyage. These voyages went to Southeast Asia, India, Persia, Arabia, and East Africa. Everywhere they went Zheng He demanded tribute--and got it! He brought back ambassadors from 50 different states, as well as exotic gifts such as zebras and a giraffe.(3)

Impressive as these expeditions were, they were not done for the purpose of exploration, since most of the lands visited had been trading partners for a long time. Nor was the purpose to establish colonies or even to trade; most Chinese merchants felt little need to look for customers. They already traded on favorable terms for all the products that Asia, Europe and Africa could offer, and Chinese products were in so much demand that they could wait for others to come to them; moreover, China was self-sufficient in everything that was important. The main reason for the expeditions was a political one: China wanted all nations to acknowledge that the Middle Kingdom was still the world's most advanced, most civilized nation. Once this was accomplished, the spectacular and costly voyages came to an end, because the Ming mentality saw no point in pursuing contacts with the rest of the world. The European nations, led by Portugal, started exploring about the time the Chinese expeditions ended, and they were motivated by two things: (1) money, which could be translated into warships and armies that would strengthen them in their incessant wars with both European rivals and Moslem adversaries, and (2) the opportunity to convert unlimited numbers of heathens to Christianity. But neither of these desires moved the Chinese.

The scholars of China were actively hostile to the Zheng He expeditions. The voyages strengthened the position of the much-hated eunuchs who vied with the scholars for the emperor's favor and the high posts that went with it. In addition, the scholars saw the voyages as a foolish diversion of resources that the empire could not afford. They believed it would be better to direct the wealth and talents of the empire to building armies and fortifications to keep out the hated Mongols and other nomads; the memory of foreign rule was, after all, quite fresh. The result was that China turned in upon itself and became an isolationist society. In 1479 the government even burned its records of the Zheng He expreditions, because memories of them were unpopular.

The government allowed trade with the outside world to continue, but followed a mercantilistic policy; strict rules were imposed to regulate commerce, especially concerning where the merchants could go. Merchants going to and from Japan, for instance, could only bring Japanese goods to the port of Ningbo. Likewise, trade with the Philippines had to be conducted through the port of Fuzhou, and trade with Indonesia had to be conducted through Guangzhou (Canton). From this time onward, we also hear reports of Japanese pirates raiding China's coast. Some of the raiders were indeed Japanese, but it appears that most were really Chinese merchants, who had turned to a life of crime because they could no longer trade legally. Most remarkable is the fact that China did not try to drive off these pirates with its first class navy; instead, the response was to extend the Grand Canal from the Yellow River to Beijing so that Chinese ships would not have to go out to sea at all. Meanwhile, the aggressive Europeans exploded outward. It is difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of the consequences for both civilizations and the human race.

For size and majesty the Chinese empire had no rival in the fifteenth century. With more than a hundred million orderly souls, a bureaucracy of indestructible traditions, and a history going back 4,000 years, this was a fact. It was also an attitude; the Ming emperor recognized all other states either as tributary or rebellious members of a world dominion bestowed on him by Heaven. This attitude was not unreasonable so far as east Asians were concerned; Korea and Vietnam had been under Chinese rule in the past and the kings of both still paid tribute, in order to be recognized as legitimate rulers by the Chinese emperor as well as by their own people. Indeed, among China's neighbors only Japan felt it had a national identity of its own; the rest accepted China as the political center of the world and the sole legitimate source of authority. This attitude, however, kept China from keeping up with the rest of the world; the rest of this chapter will show how China lost face when Europe pulled ahead in technology.

However, the first embarrassment the Ming emperors suffered came from an older, more primitive enemy -- the Mongols. In 1449 the Mongols launched a three-pronged raid that broke through the Great Wall and threatened Datong, the capital of Shanxi Province. Zhengtong, the sixth Ming emperor, personally led the army out of Beijing to stop this menace; before leaving, though, he prudently installed his brother Zhu Qiyu as the Jingtai emperor, to rule in case he didn't come back. This whole campaign was the idea of a eunuch named Wang Zhen, and he gave bad advice constantly while they were out of town, until the Chinese army was so disorganized that it was surrounded by an advance force of the smaller Mongol army and wiped out almost to a man. Among the few survivors was the emperor, who was captured. At first the Mongols tried to extort a ransom for the emperor; then they released him when they realized the Chinese government was not going to pay. Still, when Zhengtong returned to Beijing, his brother was not happy to see him, and put him under house arrest in the southern palace of the Forbidden City. That allowed Jingtai to rule as the official emperor until 1457, when Zhengtong ousted him in a palace coup and resumed his own reign. Meanwhile the Mongols did not give the Ming emperors any more trouble, but the shock of that defeat caused the government to pull back from Yong Le's superbly defensible frontiers in the northeast, to a much shorter line just in front of the Great Wall. One consequence of this move was that the Jurchen tribes in Manchuria now regained their independence; make a note of them!

The Ming dynasty marks the heyday of Chinese architecture; most of the buildings in the Forbidden City were built during this time. In art, literature and other cultural pursuits, however, creativity disappeared. Innovation was replaced with a nostalgic imitation of what had been done before. Some historians believe that this conservatism came from the period of Mongol rule, a permanent shock from which China could not recover. By the time the West arrived the damage was done; the Chinese had become smug and incurious, and their culture began to stagnate. If the Ming rulers were aware of this, they accepted it as a fair price to pay for the return of peace after the strife of the fourteenth century.

The first Europeans to reach China were the Portuguese, who dropped anchor in the harbor of Canton in 1513. Half a century later the Spanish conquest of the Philippines made Spain a major customer for Chinese products.(4) Then came the Dutch, who established for themselves a local base of operations by taking over Formosa (Taiwan). The Chinese did not care much for these newcomers; upon meeting these strange-looking people with round eyes, big noses, and hair in many colors, the Chinese asked themselves, "Are these men or devils?" Their uncouth manners did not help good relations either, and that caused more than one violent incident between Chinese and Westerners. Eventually the government realized that the Europeans would not take no for an answer; the tiny Macao peninsula was given to the Portuguese for a permanent trading post, and the Europeans agreed not to spend more than a day in any other part of the country except Canton. There the Europeans remained, causing no more trouble until the nineteenth century.

One group of Westerners did not fall under the restrictions imposed on the merchants: the missionaries of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits. One of the first Jesuits, Father Matteo Ricci, gained the respect of the Chinese by dressing up as a Chinese scholar and studying the teachings of Buddha and Confucius until he knew them as well as his Chinese counterparts. He made Christianity compatible with Chinese culture by permitting ancestor worship and the observance of the traditional holidays, so that converts could remain a part of the society around them. Eventually Father Ricci even got to preach to the emperor. The Jesuits were among the most highly educated people in Europe, so the late Ming and early Manchu emperors employed them as mathematicians, astronomers, diplomats (to Russia, where they arranged the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689), and even gun makers, supervising the casting of cannon; evidently the court wasn't bothered much by the strange religion the barbarian priests taught in their off-duty hours.

This cooperation between East and West ended when the pope found out about the Jesuits compromising Christianity; he declared in no uncertain terms that making sacrifices to one's ancestors or to Confucius is a form of idolatry. The Jesuits were able to remain in the imperial court until 1735, but they made few converts during the last forty years.

The Ming dynasty fell from a combination of the three evils that brought down all Chinese dynasties: invasion, rebellion, and corruption. Of those three, the last one was the worst. As in the Han era, the court eunuchs grew in numbers and power until they became the ones who really ran the country. Gradually the emperors abdicated their political responsibilities; after 1582, they would not conduct court business or even attend meetings with government ministers. When the eunuchs came with something that required a top-level decision, the usual imperial response would be: "Don't bother me with that. Just do what you think is best." And they did! Soon the eunuchs had private armies, secret police, and other agents, with which they terrorized the administration and the common people alike.

At a time when the treasury was depleted from famine, plagues, widespread unemployment, and a costly war against Japan in Korea, the eunuchs saw no limits to their corruption, offering command of the armies to the highest bidder. This was a particularly dangerous action, because in 1616 a barbarian chief named Nurhachi united the Jurchen tribes of Manchuria into one kingdom. Then he launched raids against both China and Korea; thanks to the incompetence of the leaders picked by the eunuchs, Nurhachi won again and again.

In 1625 Nurhachi broke through the Willow Palisade, China's first line of defense on the northeastern frontier. He took the city of Shenyang, renamed it Mukden, and made it his new capital. Remembering his twelfth century ancestors, he declared the establishment of a second Jin empire. One year later, he died of wounds suffered at the battle of Ningyuan. He lost that battle because his side did not have guns, so his son and successor, Abahai, got some--Russian arquebuses presented as tribute from a Mongol tribe. He also realized that China was too big to conquer unless he had substantial Chinese help. Since the names Jurchen and Jin alienated the Chinese (it reminded them of an earlier period of foreign domination--see the end of Chapter 4), Abahai changed the name of his people to Manchu, and the name of the dynasty to Qing, meaning "pure". The latter move made the Manchus look like a clean alternative to decadent Ming rule.

The second to last Ming emperor, Tianqi (1620-27), was a totally controlled puppet, who withdrew entirely from politics to pursue his hobby of carpentry. In his absence, the state was run by the emperor's former nursemaid, Mistress Ke, and a cruel eunuch named Wei Zhongxian. Wei's great influence and fondness for torture and murder silenced most of the critics, except for one brave court officer, who presented the uncaring emperor with a list of Wei's "twenty-four great crimes." "Can your majesty employ as your right-hand man a creature whose flesh the entire empire desires to eat?" the anguished official demanded. He got a clear answer two years later when Wei had him tortured and left to die in prison.

On the death of Tianqi, his seventeen-year-old brother Chongzhen came to the throne. This young man tried to restore integrity to the regime. The eunuch Wei escaped him by committing suicide. His companion in misrule, Mistress Ke, suffered death from slicing, a form of torture in which the victim undergoes amputation over a period of many days, one joint at a time; each wound was cauterized with a hot iron to prevent a quick death from loss of blood. Unfortunately, this was all done too late to save the dynasty. Two major rebellions had broken out in Shaanxi and Sichuan. The Shaanxi rebels captured Beijing in 1644, and the emperor hung himself to avoid falling into their hands; an orgy of looting and murder followed. Appalled at what was happening in the capital, the general commanding the forces on the Great Wall stopped fighting the Manchus and invited them to help him restore order in the country. Amazed at this offer to come into the empire they had been struggling against for a generation, the Manchus agreed. They did clear the rebels out of Beijing, but once they were done, they refused to go home; instead they proclaimed themselves rightful heirs to the Ming. Abahai had died the year before, so now his five-year-old son became the first Qing emperor, taking the name of Shunzhi, meaning "Obedience and Good Order Established."

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The first task of China's new rulers was to assert control over the vast land which had fallen nearly effortlessly into their hands. To start with, they had to deal with the Chinese rebels in Sichuan, who now claimed that they, and not the Manchus, were the rightful heirs of the Ming dynasty. The rebels lost ground steadily, and were driven back to Sichuan; there the last serious pretender to the throne was chased through Yunnan to Burma in 1659, extradited to China, and executed in 1662. A more dangerous challenge came from a half-Japanese noble named Zheng Chenggong, better known to us by the name Westerners gave him, Coxinga. He refused to recognize Manchu authority even when generous peace terms were offered, and raised an army of 100,000 men in revolt; his fleet dominated the central and south Chinese coast. Coxinga's first victories so enraged Shunzhi that he is said to have hacked a throne to pieces with his sword in frustration.

Like many people in other times and places, Coxinga was defeated by a human weakness. In 1659 his army approached Nanjing; expecting to capture the original Ming capital, Coxinga lavishly celebrated his birthday with the soldiers all night. The troops became so careless with sleep and wine that they were surprised by a Manchu counterattack and driven toward the sea in confusion.

Despite this demoralizing reverse, Coxinga still held the offshore islands of Xiamen and Jinmen. The Manchus attempted to starve him into submission by evacuating a long strip of China's coast, but all that did was cause great suffering for thousands of displaced Chinese. In 1661 Coxinga invaded Taiwan, overwhelmed the Dutch outposts, and made that large island his base of operations. He died one year later, and control of the pirate kingdom passed to his son.(5)

The Manchu conquest of China was not a total calamity in the sense that earlier barbarian invasions were. Before they got past the Great Wall, the Manchus adopted for themselves a government modeled after the Ming system; after they took over the Chinese administration was left untouched except for the highest positions, half of which were reserved for the Manchus. In fact, soon the Manchus found themselves running the risk of total assimilation with their Chinese subjects. To delay this for as long as possible, laws were passed that separated the two ethnic groups. Both the Manchu and Chinese languages were used by the government. Manchus were barred from commerce and common labor, and were forbidden to marry Chinese. Chinese and Manchu citizens were required to wear different styles of dress; the traditional pigtail or queue worn by Chinese men first appeared at this time as a symbol of submission. Most of Manchuria was reserved as a hunting ground for the emperors, and thereby closed to Chinese settlement.(6)

Shunzhi died of smallpox in 1661, at the age of twenty-two. His third son, seven-year-old Kangxi, was given the crown because he had survived a previous attack of smallpox and thus was immune to the disease; he also was the only one of the late emperor's sons who felt up to doing the job. He was an excellent choice; Kangxi ruled for sixty-one years and was the greatest emperor China had seen since the days of Taizong, more than 1,000 years before.

Because the new emperor was only a child, a Manchu nobleman named Oboi became the regent of the empire. Under him, Shunzhi's policy of fairness toward the Chinese majority was abruptly thrown out. Chinese officials were also forbidden to criticize the government; those suspected of anti-Manchu sentiments were arrested and tortured. Because of Oboi's harsh rule, Kangxi decided to assume power in 1667, though he was only thirteen. After taking charge he still could not control the ex-regent, so Kangxi arranged for his death two years later. How he did it is uncertain, but according to one story, Oboi was seized and killed by a group of boys playing hide-and-seek in the palace courtyard. They were really youths trained in the martial arts, acting under orders from the emperor.

Kangxi possessed amazing curiosity, energy, and intellect. He rose well before dawn to study the Confucian classics; imperial audiences began as early as 5:00 A.M., although officials who lived far from the palace were permitted to attend a little later. He discussed government issues during this time, paying attention to the smallest problem or detail. Toward the end of the morning, household officials, important visitors from the provinces, and finally foreign diplomats were received. The rest of the day was devoted to family matters and to his own hobbies (usually writing poems or calligraphy). Because he had Jesuit tutors, Kangxi was also interested in Western knowledge: science, mathematics, cartography, medicine, music--and chiming clocks, which he always found fascinating. It was said that Kangxi rarely got to bed before midnight.

Kangxi also spent a great deal of time away from the capital. Part of this was vacation time, which he devoted to practicing his skills in archery and horsemanship. For military training, he brought his soldiers to Manchuria, and they took part in enormous hunting expeditions that resembled military campaigns. Like the Mongols had done previously, they hunted by spreading out to form a circle many miles wide; then they closed in, capturing any beast unlucky enough to get surrounded. Kangxi led as many as 100,000 cavalry and 60,000 infantry on one such expedition. He really enjoyed these excursions, and once wrote: "It is when one is beyond the Great Wall that the air and soil refresh the spirit."

Other trips were tours of the realm. Kangxi in effect revived the archaic practice of personally visiting as much of his domain as possible, inspecting public works, pardoning criminals, listening to grievances, helping those who had fallen on hard times, and sometimes reading the examination papers of aspiring state officials. Occasionally he left his retinue and went by himself, dressing as a commoner to disguise his identity. According to one astonished Jesuit, at times like this he permitted "even the meanest workman or peasant to approach his person," speaking to them "with so much affability and sweetness, as charms them to the heart."

Because he was always a man of action, Kangxi scorned officials who were not willing to dirty their hands to get a job done. When a fire broke out in the Chinese quarter of Beijing, he was furious to observe Manchu officials standing by with their hands in their sleeves. "We'd be better off with less talk of moral principles and more practice of them," he wrote.

Throughout the first half of his long reign, Kangxi often had to fight to keep his empire. The first military challenge came from the three generals who had crushed the Sichuan rebellion; one of them was Wu Sangui, the same general who had let the Manchus through the Great Wall originally. But now they refused to relinquish authority to Beijing, and ruled the territory they had captured like three independent states. When Kangxi moved against one of them, the warlord of Guangdong Province, in 1674, all of the "Three Feudatories" rose up in revolt; the son of Coxinga sent an army from Taiwan to help the rebels. The rebellion nearly brought a premature end to the Qing dynasty, but with the aid of loyal Chinese generals, Kangxi prevailed by 1681. In 1683 he invaded Taiwan, defeated Coxinga's grandson, and made that island part of China for the first time.

Meanwhile to the north, a different sort of trouble was brewing. For a century the Russians, led by Cossack adventurers, had been exploring and settling Siberia. On the Amur River they built a fortress named Albazin in 1655. This was too close to the Manchu homeland to ignore, and Cossack atrocities led the local tribesmen to call upon the Manchus for help. Kangxi responded by setting up roads, bases, river fleets, granaries, a postal service, and military garrisons, making sure that he had more control over the disputed area than the Russians did. Then he attacked the Cossack outposts, destroying them one by one until only Albazin was left. Now Kangxi felt ready to negotiate; he arrived on the scene with a fleet of ninety ships to strengthen the Manchu bargaining position. The result was the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, China's first formal agreement with a Western government. The Chinese got what they wanted--all territory drained by the Amur River--and in return they permitted the Russians to trade in Beijing, a concession no other Europeans enjoyed.

An invasion from the Mongols came in the 1690s, when the Khalkha tribes united under a leader named Galdan and advanced to Jehol, just 200 miles north of Beijing. Kangxi personally led the counterattack, and considered the defeat of this elusive invader the greatest achievement of his career. In a sense he was right; after Galdan committed suicide in 1697, China was secure from all enemies for a century and a half. Outer Mongolia now became part of the Chinese empire.(7)

While China was growing to unprecedented size, it was also enjoying unprecedented prosperity. Industries such as textiles, ceramics, salt and mining grew to surpass Ming levels of production. The introduction of new crops like corn, sweet potatoes and peanuts brought yields from lands that could not grow rice. Cultivation of cash crops like tobacco, cotton and tea was also widespread; before long foreigners, especially the British, couldn't get enough of the tea. The scholars were put to work creating a dictionary that defined the meanings of 80,000 Chinese characters.

Kangxi could not govern his family as well as he did the empire. Of his twenty sons who survived into adulthood, the emperor gave the most attention to the second, Yinreng, expecting him to become his heir. The young man, however, repaid his father's devotion with extravagance and disobedience; he was also a homosexual. Kangxi did not know what to do with him. He dismissed Yinreng as his heir, reinstated him, and dismissed him again. Growing paranoid, he executed some of Yinreng's associates, and even arrested three of his other sons. The domestic turmoil left the emperor so embittered that he refused to name a successor. When he died in 1722, the throne passed to his fourth son, Yongzheng, who was at his bedside during his last days.

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Yongzheng's reign was short and quiet. One event worth noting was the 1727 Treaty of Kyakhta, which opened up trade with Russia. A town named Kyakhta was founded on the Mongolian border for this purpose, south of Lake Baikal; here Russian hunters and trappers came to exchange furs for Chinese tea, silk and porcelain. As with the Treaty of Nerchinsk, the Manchus got the better part of the deal. Russia and China were now swallowing up the territory between them, and though the Sino-Russian frontier soon grew to be more than 2,000 miles long, the Russians could only trade or enter China at this outpost.

Yongzheng was in turn succeeded by Qianlong, who not only ruled for as long as Kangxi (1735-96), but was the last great emperor in Chinese history. When a Mongol tribe that was still independent gave him trouble in the middle of the century, Qianlong went forth and destroyed them (1755-58). Next, Manchu/Chinese armies marched west and exterminated the Dzungars, the tribe currently living in northern Xinjiang. By 1760 Qing authority had been established all over the Tarim basin; China's western frontier was pushed to Lake Balkhash in Central Asia. The remaining Central Asian khanates--Khokand, Kazakhstan, Bukhara, Badakhshan and Afghanistan--became irregular tributary states. So did Nepal, which was humbled by a Qing expedition after the Gurkhas had meddled in Tibetan affairs too often.

At home, Qianlong surpassed all other Qing emperors in his sponsorship of culture. Some 15,000 calligraphers were employed making handwritten copies of 10,000 books for the nation's six largest libraries. The most famous of these was The Complete Works of Four Treasuries, where 300 scholars edited/summarized some 3,500 works on the Chinese classics, a total of 36,000 volumes. The most useful of the Western sciences, astronomy and mathematics, were also given favorable treatment. Hundreds of poets and painters were subsidized to exalt Chinese achievements. No books or art that criticized the Manchus was permitted, however, and with good reason. As in Yuan dynasty days, Chinese scholars were becoming nostalgic for the times when the Chinese ruled themselves. Secret societies, especially the White Lotus movement which had founded the Ming dynasty, were also enjoying a comeback. Qianlong managed to keep a lid on dissent for his entire reign, but the emperors of the nineteenth century would see their troubles grow exponentially on account of it.

The Manchus inherited the Confucian disdain for merchants and commerce. Most of the permitted foreign trade was done under the tribute system, which was used as a means of expressing China's cultural and political supremacy over everyone else. Ambassadors would come to the imperial court in Beijing, and show their submission by kowtowing (bowing on hands and knees and knocking one's head on the ground) three times. Then the ambassadors would deliver the wares of their lands, calling them gifts; the emperor would respond by letting them return home with a sizeable quantity of Chinese products. During the Qianlong era Burma, Siam, Laos, Vietnam, Central Asia, Nepal, Korea and the Ryukyu islands all sent tribute. Russia traded in a similar fashion, by putting ambassadors in charge of their commercial missions. And while other Europeans were eager to trade, the Chinese continued to treat them like lepers. English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and American merchants were only permitted outside of Macao during the months when there was tea for them to buy (April to September), and even then they could only go to Canton. In addition they were forbidden to bring their wives with them; they were not allowed to learn Cantonese, the local Chinese dialect; they could not travel "in droves of more than ten at a time," and they always had to be accompanied by a Chinese interpreter, who was held responsible for their good behavior.

Naturally the Europeans resented all these restrictions, but there was little they could do about it as long as the Chinese did not really want their business. The main reason why the Chinese traded at all was because the Europeans paid for what they bought with silver--usually Spanish coins that came from Mexico via the Philippines. Since the Chinese economy was still cash-poor (see Chapter 4, footnote #1 and footnote #11), these silver transfers gave considerable relief.

The British thought they could loosen the restrictions placed upon them if Britain and China had formal diplomatic relations, so in 1793 they sent a special mission, led by Lord George Macartney, to bring a formal proposal for the establishment of a permanent embassy in China. Like the tribute-bearers of other nations, Lord Macartney brought numerous gifts to help his cause, the most modern products of Western technology. There were modern firearms and saddles, chiming clocks and Derby porcelain, crystal chandeliers, telescopes, and a working mechanical model of the solar system. There was even a hot-air balloon, complete with pilot. When Macartney went before the emperor, he was preceded by a Chinese official holding a banner that read "Tribute-Bearer from the Red Barbarians." The emperor received the mission in an informal setting, the Garden of Ten Thousand Trees at Jehol, to limit any breaches of protocol Western ignorance might cause.

But Qianlong, now a shrewd octogenarian, was unimpressed by what he saw. He was not about to sign an agreement on account of some fancy foreign souvenirs. Indeed, he was not even sure where Britain was, nor did he greatly care. He treated the visitors with every courtesy, but never discussed with them the reason why they had come. After several weeks of frustration, Macartney and his retinue left, with only a letter from Qianlong to England's King George III to show for their efforts. And even the letter was not worth the trouble Lord Macartney went to; in it the emperor conceded nothing. "Our ways have no resemblance to yours," Qianlong said. "As your ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country's manufactures."

While Macartney was there, it went noticed that he had refused to kowtow to the emperor; most Westerners had too much pride to perform such a humiliating act.(8) But the court archivists, fearful that a bad precedent might be set, recorded that he had kowtowed; thus Britain supposedly acknowledged the supremacy of China, in fiction if not in fact. In the next century this blindness would cost the Middle Kingdom dearly.

In Qianlong's day, China was still enormous and prosperous compared with all other nations. Not only did it have the world's largest population, but one third of the world's gross domestic product also came from there. However, social and economic transformations over the past five hundred years, from the Renaissance to the industrial revolution, had brought European civilization to a level of development that compared favorably with China in many areas. European kingdoms were now more efficient at mobilizing their more limited resources. Rivalries between the states of a fragmented Europe had also made for a greater aggressiveness and sense of competition on the part of the Europeans than the rulers of the Chinese monolith could even imagine. China's armies were far larger than those of any European kingdom, but European soldiers were better led, armed, and disciplined. On the economic front, Chinese wet-rice agriculture was both more productive and less damaging to the environment than European dryland farming, and the Chinese rulers had far more workers to cultivate their fields, build their dikes and bridges, work their mines, and manufacture tools, clothing, and weapons. But the machines invented in the West more than made up for Europe's manpower deficiencies. Europe had been technologically behind China for two millennia, but while the Chinese weren't watching, the Europeans caught up with and surpassed them. And as Qianlong had noted, their ways were very different.

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The Opium War

Qianlong abdicated in 1796, three years before his death. Despite all his accomplishments as emperor, he still felt that his grandfather Kangxi had been greater, and did not want to overshadow Kangxi with a longer reign. At this point, China's situation never looked better. Every enemy had been defeated, most of the neighboring countries paid tribute. As Qianlong had told the British, China lacked nothing and needed nothing. At that time there was a fad in Europe for Chinese-style art; a Chinese scholar looking at a model pagoda in an English garden would have concluded that the West was adopting the culture of the Middle Kingdom. But behind the successes of the Qianlong era, there were clouds on the horizon. First of all there was a population explosion, jumping from 100 million in 1650 to about 420 million in 1850. Initially this was seen as a sign of prosperity, but it began to drag the standard of living down in the early nineteenth century. In the year that Qianlong's reign ended, the White Lotus Society started an anti-Manchu rebellion in Hubei, Shaanxi, and Sichuan; large numbers of bandits and smugglers quickly joined it. The revolt was suppressed by 1804, but it was a blow to Manchu prestige; worse, it ate up all the surplus revenue of the Qianlong administration and then some.(9) And finally, just when the barbarian threat from Asia's interior had ended forever, along came new "barbarians" from the sea: the missionaries, traders, and naval fleets of the West.

China's provinces and frontiers, 1820.
The Manchu empire in 1820. Never before--and never again--did China rule over as much land as it did at the end of Qianlong's reign. Besides all of modern-day China (marked by the red dotted line), the Qing dynasty ruled the Ryukyu Islands, Mongolia, the nearest parts of Central Asia, one third of Kashmir, and chunks of Siberia: Altai, Tuva and the whole watershed of the Amur River. The countries colored orange paid tribute, so they were considered vassal states.

Though the balance of trade was heavily in China's favor, Western merchants continued to come to Canton. This was because the demand for Chinese silk, porcelain and tea never let up at home; ever since Marco Polo's travel guide was published, the Europeans couldn't get enough of anything that came from the Far East. Indeed, after England discovered tea in the seventeenth century, it became a political necessity to keep buying tea, no matter what the Chinese charged for it. But as the industrial, technological and military might of the West increased, Westerners became less willing to trade on China's terms. Before long the same Europeans who once admired China would scorn it for being stagnant and backward.

As noted previously, the problem was that aside from gold and silver, the West had nothing that China wanted. That changed when the Chinese discovered opium. The custom of smoking that terrible drug, long practiced in Indonesia, was first introduced by Dutch traders in the seventeenth century. Demand for opium, which the Chinese called "foreign mud," was insignificant for a while, but more Chinese got addicted to it every year. By 1729, 200 chests of opium entered China every year; one chest weighed 135 lbs., and was worth as much as 125 or a thousand silver dollars to the trader who brought it in. Most of the opium came from India, where the British East India Company set aside large plantations for cultivation of the opium poppy.

Officially the Chinese government had long opposed the opium trade. As early as 1729 the emperor outlawed the sale and use of the drug. But there were plenty of corrupt mandarins (the Western term for all Chinese officials), who could be bribed to look the other way on matters regarding opium. Furthermore, the East India Company and smaller entrepreneurs had more ships than any fleet the Chinese could put in the water, so the traders were able to smuggle the opium in with little fear of getting caught.

The drug traffic snowballed in the early nineteenth century. 2,000 chests were imported in 1800; in 1816, 3,000; in 1820, 5,000; in 1825, 10,000; and in 1833, 30,000. The trade situation was now dramatically reversed; millions of dollars in silver now flowed out of China every year. An estimated 12 million Chinese were addicted, including even members of the imperial bodyguard. Opium dens proliferated, ranging from primitive to luxurious in quality. The upper-class dens offered upholstered couches, courteous servants, women, gambling, and anything else one might find in a fancy private club. At the other end of the scale were places like the one seen by an appalled American observer: "Never, perhaps, was there a nearer approach to Hell than within the precincts of these vile hovels."(10)

Matters came to a head in the mid-1830s. At this time Britain's interests in Canton were represented by a trade superintendent named Lord William Napier. Unlike his predecessors, Napier saw upholding the honor of his nation as more important than making a profit. To the Chinese he was a perfect example of a foreign "barbarian": he was tall, rawboned, and red-haired; he seemed to have no manners whatsoever; he ignored all established rules regarding foreigners in Canton. His Chinese counterpart, the imperial viceroy, showed what he thought of Napier by translating his name into Chinese characters that could also be read as "Laboriously Vile." In 1835 he decided he didn't want Napier around anymore and issued an edict ordering him to leave China. Napier refused. The viceroy announced that all trade with the British would be stopped; Napier brought two warships from Macao to Canton. War looked like a real possibility, since the honor of both Britain and China was at stake. But nature provided a perfect face-saving solution. Napier came down with a raging fever, and he agreed to remove the frigates in return for safe passage to Macao. The warships left, and Laboriously Vile was taken away in a Chinese junk, while the Chinese celebrated with drums, gongs, and firecrackers. To the relief of everybody, he died in Macao a few days later.

In 1838, Emperor Daoguang appointed a new imperial commissioner, Lin Zexu. Unlike other mandarins, Lin was so honest that he had the nickname of Lin-the-Clear-Sky. As governor general of Hubei and Hunan, he had ruthlessly suppressed drug trafficking within those two provinces, and he had every intention of doing the same thing for all of China. He made it clear how serious opium addiction was, when he calculated that for 1839, Chinese opium smokers would consume 100 million taels worth of the drug, while the total government spending for that year would be 40 million taels. In 1839 he personally went to Canton with two demands for the foreigners. First, they must immediately hand over all the opium they had ("There must not be the smallest item concealed or withheld."). Second, the barbarians must promise never to smuggle opium again, and he promised to behead anyone caught breaking that pledge. The foreigners did not take him seriously at first, until they realized that this mandarin could not be bought. Lin waited two weeks for his demands to be met, then surrounded the foreigners' compound with soldiers, not letting them out until they gave in. When they did, 20,000 chests of opium were confiscated and promptly burned.

The British government demanded that the traders be compensated for their loss. Lin refused to do this or allow the opium trade to resume. To stop the smuggling, Lin assembled a fleet of eighty war-junks, and after reviewing this task force, he showed his confidence by composing a poem which declared, "A vast display of imperial might has shaken all the foreign tribes, but if they now confess their guilt we shall not be too hard on them." But when the junks approached British ships, they were quickly sunk, and the Opium War (1839-42) began.

At first the Chinese thought the war would be an easy victory for them. They had the advantage of numbers, and a story was spread around that the trousers worn by Western soldiers would impede their movements, preventing them from running. But the Chinese weapons were obsolete matchlock guns and bows. The Chinese navy was entirely sail-driven, while a fourth of the British ships had steam engines, making them faster and capable of moving in any direction, regardless of winds and currents. The result was that the British won every battle, and when the Royal Navy arrived in force, it sailed up and down the coast at will, bombarding anything that got in the way. Nevertheless, Lin Zexu sent back reports of "six smashing blows against the barbarian navy," Chinese victories that existed only in his imagination.

In August 1840 the emperor replaced Lin Zexu with a Manchu relative, Qishan. A more conciliatory commissioner, Qishan immediately started negotiations with the British in Canton, offering them a small fishing island named Hong Kong as a trading enclave, as well as paying the 2.1 million ($10 million) indemnity the British demanded for the lost opium. No such luck; both the emperor and Queen Victoria refused to accept these terms.

The British had refused because the war improved the strength of their bargaining position daily. In 1841 they blocked the mouth of the Pearl River, occupied Canton, and made the city hand over the $10 million indemnity. Then the British sacked Amoy and Ningbo, took Shanghai, entered the Yangtze River, and intercepted the tax barges carrying a big chunk of the government's revenue for 1842. When they reached the outskirts of Nanjing, the Chinese were willing to accept peace at any price.

The treaty that ended the war made Hong Kong a British colony, declared five ports (Canton, Amoy, Fuzhou, Ningbo and Shanghai) open to foreign trade, and increased the indemnity China was forced to pay to 7.35 million ($35 million). One year later, Britain called for, and got, "most-favored nation" status, meaning that any economic agreement China signed with another nation would apply to Britain too. The issue that started the war, opium, was never mentioned in the treaty, so the opium trade continued to increase every year.

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The Taiping Rebellion and the Arrow War

For the first time, China had been defeated by the West. During the next few years the Qing showed all the symptoms of a declining imperial dynasty. At the same time, many provinces were hit by famine, epidemics, pests and flooding from both the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. For many this was evidence that the Manchus no longer had the Mandate of Heaven, and six desperate anti-Manchu rebellions broke out in the 1850s. One of these, the Nian (also spelled Nien) rebellion, happened because the government did not do enough to help the victims of the 1851 Yellow River flood. Far more dangerous, however, was the Taiping rebellion, because it had an ideology. The Taiping leader, Hong Xiuquan, was quite unlike any other rebel in Chinese history, and his followers waged the longest and bloodiest war of the nineteenth century (1851-64).

The 'younger brother of Jesus.'
Hong Xiuquan.

Born in 1814 to a farming community near Canton, Hong Xiuquan suffered a nervous breakdown at the age of 23 after failing (for the fourth time) the civil service exams which would have insured him a prosperous career. In his delirium, he saw himself in a palace where he met an old man with a golden beard. The old man gave him a sword and told him to kill demons with it; a middle-aged man who called himself Elder Brother promised to help. Hong could not explain his vision at first, but six years later (1843) he read a Baptist missionary's tract and the meaning became clear. The palace was Heaven, the old man was God, and Elder Brother was Jesus. This made Hong the second son of God, and the younger brother of Jesus. By placing a sword in Hong's hand, God had given him the assignment of wiping out the enemies of God, namely the Qing dynasty.

Hong started by founding his own church, the Society of Godworshipers. On the surface it resembled Protestant Christianity, but Hong made himself the third member of the Holy Trinity, replacing the Holy Spirit. In the late 1840s, the church mainly suppressed local gangs of bandits and pirates. Then, because of persecution by Qing authorities, Hong turned his words against the government into action. In 1851 his followers captured the mountain town of Yongan in Guangxi province. From there he proclaimed a utopian state, which he called the Taiping Tianguo, or "Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace." Donning yellow robes, the symbol of emperors, he announced he would exterminate all idolaters, and take command of the empire as its true ruler.

Hong's regime attracted not only converts to his religion, but also those oppressed by Manchu taxation, and scholars and students sickened by official corruption and incompetence. In the area under his rule he created a puritanical society where everybody was equal and all goods were common property. Alcohol, tobacco and prostitution were outlawed; rape, adultery, and opium-smoking were crimes punishable by death. Also proscribed was the ancient and painful practice of foot-binding (see Chapter 4, footnote #11); now women could be the equals of men. Women even served in the Taiping army, though they were segregated into separate units from their male colleagues.

The Manchus tried to nip this rebellion in the bud, but they failed to capture the Taiping stronghold. Then Hong and 10,000 followers broke out of Yongan into open country. Gathering recruits along the way, they marched 750 miles north to Nanjing, and took the old Ming capital in March 1853. The whole Manchu garrison and their families--about 25,000 men, women, and children--were slaughtered and thrown into the Yangtze River.

The Taipings were now 500,000 strong, with a fearsome reputation for battlefield discipline that the Manchus could not match. Troops who showed any inclination to retreat or desert were immediately killed by their officers. In 1853 Hong Xiuquan withdrew from active control of policies and administration; he continued to rule by issuing written messages that were both official proclamations and sermons, which were read by his spokesman, an associate named Yang Xiuqing.

It must have looked like the dynasty did not have enough on its plate with the Nian and Taiping rebellions, because it got into a second war with the West at the same time. This time the cause was mutual recriminations; Britain accused China of not fulfilling all its obligations under the 1842 treaty; China accused the British of smuggling in opium, which was still illegal. In 1856 the Canton police seized the Arrow, a Chinese-owned but British-registered ship, and charged the crew with piracy and smuggling. Although the prisoners were eventually released, the tough-minded imperial commissioner in Canton, Ye Mingchen, refused to apologize. Britain responded by bombarding Canton and dispatching troops.

Before long they were joined by troops from France, who wanted to avenge the recent murder of a French missionary in Guangdong province. They captured Canton in December 1857, advanced up the coast, and took Dagu, a port less than 100 miles from Beijing, in June 1858. The emperor, Xianfeng, abruptly capitulated to all the demands of the West. In the Treaty of Tianjin, he agreed to open ten more ports to foreign trade, and gave foreign merchants and missionaries the right to travel anywhere in the country; he also promised to pay a 1.4 million ($6.67 million) indemnity and legalize the opium trade. Finally, he agreed to allow permanent foreign embassies in China, something his predecessors had rejected and was probably what the British and French wanted most of all. And that wasn't all; Russia used the occasion to impose its own treaty. The Russians knew that the Manchus had never done anything with the land they claimed north of the Amur River, so in 1858 they put pressure on the Manchus, until they moved the Manchurian-Siberian border to the Amur.

Once the British and French diplomats left Beijing in June 1859, the imperial government renounced its treaty with the Westerners, and Chinese soldiers shot at the diplomats in Dagu. The troops of the Allies were driven out of China with heavy losses, but in July 1860 another Anglo-French force arrived at the mouth of the Hai River. Dagu was occupied again, and Xianfeng agreed to negotiate, but at the peace talks the Allied negotiators were arrested and jailed as hostages. New fighting broke out, and this time the Anglo-French troops pushed all the way to Beijing. They captured the Yuanming Yuan, the Summer Palace of the Qing emperors and the storehouse of paintings, jewels, jade, royal garments, court treasures, bales of silk, and countless priceless heirlooms that had been accumulating there for centuries. There had never existed a more fabulous collection of wealth and art anywhere on earth.

Nor would it ever be seen again. It took three days for the British and French soldiers to ransack the 200 glittering buildings of the compound and carry the treasures away, though they were aided by hordes of Chinese peasants who broke in and helped themselves to a share of the loot. When it was learned that twenty of the thirty-nine Allied hostages had been brutally tortured and murdered, the British man on the spot, Lord Elgin, ordered that the Summer Palace be burned in retribution. Before this was carried out, the busy arsonists went through the buildings one more time for any loot that may have been overlooked previously. In one outbuilding they found some English-made items: two riding carriages, a double-barreled shotgun, and two cannon. All were in mint condition despite being more than 70 years old. Emperor Qianlong was right when he said he had no use for Lord Macartney's gifts.

The torching of the Summer Palace ended all resistance. Lord Elgin was carried into Beijing on a large sedan chair by eight Chinese porters (the emperor's privilege!), and there he had the Treaty of Tianjin put into effect, along with some new concessions: Tianjin was opened to trade, Kowloon was ceded to Britain as part of the Hong Kong colony, and the indemnity was increased to 2.5 million ($12 million), split 2:1 between the British and French. Emperor Xianfeng, who had fled to Jehol, died in shame ten months later without ever returning to Beijing.

Despite all this, there was a (literal) silver lining. Because of the new treaty ports, China was exporting more products then ever. Moreover, the British eliminated corruption in the customs service by revamping it and staffing it with their own officers. Even the legalization of opium helped China's finances (but not the health of the people), because it caused the price of that drug to start falling. Though the Manchu dynasty could not understand these economic forces, they created a balance of trade more favorable to them, allowing the dynasty to survive past the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Arrow War (also called the Second Opium War) was over, but China's troubles weren't. In the northeast, the Russians used guile to wrest away another huge tract of Manchurian real estate. They claimed that the British & French were planning to occupy Beijing permanently, and only their opposition to the plan had persuaded them to leave. The Chinese thanked them and agreed to Russia's next demand, which was all of the territory east of the Ussuri River. China's northeastern frontier reached its present-day limits, and the Russians promptly built a Pacific port in their new acquisition, which was appropriately named Vladivostok ("farthest east").

Meanwhile, millions of Chinese subjects were still in revolt. Most of the Yangtze valley and southern China was under Taiping rule. The Taipings reached their highwater mark in 1860 when they captured the ports of Hangzhou and Suzhou, but were defeated at Shanghai. At first the West was sympathetic to the Taiping cause, thinking that a Christian emperor would be friendlier than the Manchus. But by now the Taipings had lost their previous idealism. As time went on, Hong made more and more strange declarations, as the leaders of theocracies tend to do. These alienated intellectuals who would have supported Hong if he was just the founder of a new, native dynasty. There was also venomous rivalry among the Taiping leaders; as early as 1856, Hong became suspicious of his sidekick Yang Xiuqing, because of Yang's ambitions, his extensive network of followers and spies, and his declarations when "speaking as God," so Hong had Yang, his family and troops killed. Moreover, the Taipings tended to massacre the population of any town that offered resistance. The West changed its opinion because, as the British ambassador put it, there was little hope of "any good coming out of the rebel movement. They do nothing but burn, murder and destroy."

To protect their newly won concessions (and the opium trade), the Europeans now found themselves supporting the Manchus against the Taipings. Western arms and money went to the imperial forces. A young British officer of exceptional ability, Major Charles George Gordon, put together Western mercenaries and Chinese soldiers to form a modern army. By 1864, "Chinese" Gordon's so-called Ever-Victorious Army had driven the rebels back to Nanjing. On July 16, after a six-week siege, the Heavenly Capital fell. The Heavenly King, according to one report, went out of this life in style by swallowing a lethal quantity of gold leaf; several of his concubines hanged themselves in the trees above his grave. 100,000 other inhabitants of Nanjing also died, either at their own hands or at those of the conquerors. A thirteen-year rebellion that had claimed more than 20 million lives was finally over.

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The Paper Dragon

The stamping out of the Taiping rebellion did not bring an end to internal disorder. There were still the other rebellions to deal with. To start with, there was the previously mentioned Nian rebellion. These rebels used cavalry and modern firearms, so they were faster than their Qing opponents, and spread to nine provinces on the North China Plain. The movement's leader, Zhang Lexing, was killed in 1863, but because of the imperial disadvantages, the rebellion continued for five more years; the imperial commander himself, a Mongol general named Sengge Rinchen, was killed in an 1865 battle. Finally, the imperial army and the Ever-Victorious Army joined forces and crushed the rebellion in 1868. Meanwhile, a rebellion in remote Yunnan, which was led by the Hui (ethnic Chinese Moslems) and supported by the Shans and Kachins (two non-Moslem tribes on the Burmese frontier) dragged on until 1873. Another Moslem rebellion, led by a one Yakub Beg, spread across the entire northwest.

It took an eleven-year campaign, led by a brilliant general named Qe Qongtang, to regain control of the northwest. Qe started by taking back Shaanxi in 1868. Then he marched westward, beyond the ability of the government to keep him supplied. For whole seasons he would keep his army in one place while they planted and harvested crops to feed themselves on the next leg of their journey. Replacements were recruited and trained from the non-Chinese tribes they met along the way. Yakub Beg died in 1877, possibly from unnatural causes, but Qe could not go home yet, because the Russians had occupied the area around Lake Balkhash and the Ili River, supposedly to preserve Chinese sovereignty there. The Qing government ordered Qe to negotiate with the Russians. The result was a treaty in 1878 that handed more than three quarters of the disputed territory to Russia and called upon China to compensate the Russians for "occupation costs." Beijing refused to ratify it, but neither side was in the mood for war. A new treaty in 1881 gave much of the disputed land back to China, in return for more money and trading concessions in Xinjiang Province.

Qe Qongtang's exploits had saved the empire's western territories and suggested to some that China might triumph over its foreign adversaries after all. But in every other way the late nineteenth century was a disaster, a time of total humiliation for the Chinese. The Middle Kingdom had no control over its economy. In 1880, the amount of opium brought in peaked at 150,000 chests(11), and China bought 448 million yards of British cotton. The number of Christian missionaries in China increased fivefold and their converts tenfold. The number of treaty ports--many of them hundreds of miles inland--increased to nearly 100; here foreigners could live, own property, and do business without being subject to Chinese law. Railroads, telegraph lines, churches and other examples of "barbarian architecture" sprouted up, especially around Shanghai and Canton.

The number of potential customers suggested by China's enormous population inspired grand ideas among British merchants. One exclaimed that if every person in China would buy a cotton nightcap every year, the British mills would be kept busy. Another shipped a boatload of pianos in the mistaken belief that Chinese ladies would want to imitate their Western sisters and learn to play; a cutlery firm sent thousands of knives and forks, thinking that the Chinese could be lured away from chopsticks. None of these entrepreneurs took Chinese xenophobia into account and they ended up paying for storage space instead of raking in profits.

The Chinese were robbed not only of their wealth and pride, but also of their land. The Ryukyu islands were annexed by Japan in 1879. Britain gobbled up Burma piece by piece, because it was next to India, and only luck spared Tibet from the same fate. China fought the French for two years in Vietnam (1884-85), winning some land battles there, but France captured Taiwan, and the Chinese had to give up Vietnam to get Taiwan back. Germany took Kiaochow (modern Qingdao) in Shandong, in retaliation for the murder of two German missionaries; this prompted the Russians to annex Port Arthur, on the southern tip of Manchuria, and the French to grab Guangzhouwan, near the Vietnamese border. An 1898 treaty guaranteed British rule over Hong Kong for another 99 years, and gave them a naval base at Weihaiwei, right between the Russian and German bases so the British could keep an eye on both rivals. Even Italy expressed an interest in having a Chinese outpost.

In the last years of the century Europeans thought about carving up China into outright colonies of Europe, the way they had already done in most of the Third World. They were appalled at the lack of human rights in China, as well as the squalor and continuing practice of customs that were seen as pagan or simply degenerate. Surely, many idealists reasoned, it was their moral responsibility to take charge, at least for a while, until they could teach the Chinese a more proper way to live. Then they started drawing lines on the map of China to show who got what, usually following already established "spheres of influence." Russia, for example, would get the areas where it already dominated the local economy: Xinjiang, Mongolia, and two-thirds of Manchuria. Britain would get the lion's share, like it did in so many other places: Tibet, Guangdong, and all of the provinces in the Yangtze valley. France would get Yunnan, Guangxi and Guizhou, since they were on the border of Vietnam. Germany would get the Shandong peninsula, and Japan would get the areas nearest to their Taiwanese and Korean colonies, namely Fujian and southern Manchuria. That left the original Chinese homeland, the north China plain, for the great powers to haggle over.

China in 1900.
China in 1900, showing the foreign spheres of influence.

Cartoon of imperialism against China.

And here is a French cartoon drawn in the 1890s, showing five major powers dividing a pie named "China." Also shown are the rivalries that would eventually lead to World War I. While a Chinese mandarin protests loudly in the background, Britain's Queen Victoria and Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II give each other dirty looks. To the right, Russia's Tsar Nicholas II and Japan's Emperor Mutsuhito think about what pieces they will take, and Marianne (a cartoon character representing France) looks over their shoulders. From Wikimedia Commons.

Fortunately for the Chinese, the United States stepped in at this point and proclaimed the so-called Open Door Policy.(12) China was thus saved from an African-style partition, but the privileges enjoyed by Westerners were not at all decreased. Now foreign customs officers collected duties for the Chinese government and foreign gunboats patrolled the Yangtze River.

Exploitation by the West was bad enough; exploitation by the Japanese was even worse, from the Chinese point of view. Japan, long scorned by the Chinese as a nation of "Dwarf Pirates," was one of China's vassal states, and until now had never amounted to much on the international scene. But when Japan's independence was threatened by the West, the Japanese modernized their nation with amazing speed. In 1894 Japan attacked China with its small but modern army, and won an easy victory that astonished the world. Taiwan and Korea now became colonies of the new Japanese empire.(13)

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The Boxer Rebellion

A few forward-looking individuals saw that the only way to save China was to imitate the ways of the West, as the Japanese had done. But most Chinese felt that road could only lead to disaster. What was the point in saving China, they argued, if it meant throwing away everything that had made China great previously? As a result, the first attempts at reform were done halfheartedly. Then the reformers found a sympathetic ear in the young emperor, Guangxu. In 1898 he gave them a free hand by authorizing a "Hundred Days of Reform." They did so with a flood of announcements that thoroughly alarmed everyone who valued traditional institutions. Plans were made to establish a constitutional monarchy, a public school system, a free press, and elected local governments. The civil service examinations were modified to include Western learning as well as the Confucian classics. The army, navy, and bureaucracy were all marked for modernization.

All this was too much for the emperor's ruthless and reactionary aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi. Her chief general, Yuan Shikai, imprisoned Guangxu, and all of the reforms were promptly undone; the money set aside to build a new navy was used to build a new palace instead!

The Empress Dowager.

This reactionary backlash caused an upswing in xenophobia all over China. Secret societies formed to plot against the Manchus, the "foreign devils," or both. The most famous of these was a group of anti-Western fanatics that called themselves the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, loosely translated as Boxers. The Boxers wore red scarves on their heads bearing the Chinese word for happiness, a red coat of arms on their chests, and red bands on their wrists and ankles; they practiced magic in the belief that it would make them bulletproof.

An American prank goaded the Boxers into action. One day four newspaper reporters in Denver with nothing better to do cooked up an elaborate hoax to get national attention; they published a story that claimed some American engineers were going over to China with plans to tear down the Great Wall, as a symbol of China's willingness to turn its back on its heritage and become a modern nation. When the enraged Boxers heard the news in June 1900, they stormed the foreign legations in Beijing, plundered foreign shops, tore up railroad tracks, and murdered both foreigners and Chinese Christians. All this was done with Cixi's blessing.

An army of cultists that fights mainly with bare hands can do almost anything in a martial arts movie, but real life doesn't work that way. The armies of the United States, Japan, and six European nations moved in to protect their citizens from the Boxers; two months later, the siege was broken; by September 1901, the rebellion was over. Afterwards the foreigners saddled China with an indemnity of 450 million silver taels, to be paid with interest over a 39-year period; in 2010 dollars that worked out to $61 billion, far in excess of all costs and damages. Weak, in debt, and exploited by outsiders, China fell into worse chaos than before. When the land battles of the Russo-Japanese War were fought a few years later, China had to watch the ravaging of her territory as a helpless bystander.

However distasteful the thought was to her, the failure of the Boxer Rebellion convinced even Cixi that modernization was imperative; she spent her last years (both she and Guangxu died in 1908) carrying out the same reforms the emperor had attempted previously. But it was too little, too late. By this time a generation of Chinese educated in America, Europe and Japan had come of age; many of them wanted to transform China into a Western-style democracy. The most important of these revolutionary figures was Dr. Sun Zhongshan, better known by his Cantonese name, Sun Yat-sen. In 1905 he went to Tokyo and founded a political party based on what he called the "Three People's Principles": nationalism, constitutional democracy, and land reform. With the financial support of Chinese living abroad, Sun Yat-sen established revolutionary groups all over the country, with the intention of overthrowing the alien and evil dynasty that had brought China to ruin. The growing anti-Manchu sentiment everywhere supported his plans; the next time an uprising against the Manchus took place it would completely sweep away the old order in only a few months.

This is the End of Chapter 5.


1. These are the five most common Chinese surnames. The ghost of Genghis Khan might have approved of this massacre, because he thought cities were a waste of good pasture-lands, but it is very unlikely that his fourteenth-century heirs really had such a plan.

2. Corrupt commanders were fond of exaggerating the numbers of men under their command, so they could pocket the pay of the non-existent troops.

3. In 2003 Gavin Menzies, a British naval officer, dropped a bombshell of a theory by publishing a book on Zheng He's expeditions, 1421: The Year China Discovered America. Menzies believes that the Chinese didn't stop when they reached Africa, but went on to explore the rest of the world, 71 years before Columbus and a full century before Magellan. According to this theory, the fleet went around Africa to the Cape Verde Islands, and split into three smaller groups. One visited the Caribbean and went around North America, via the "Northwest Passage" and the Bering Sea; one explored the coast of Antarctica and west Australia; one went around South America to enter the Pacific, exploring New Zealand, east Australia, the Philippines, Canada, California and Mexico before returning. Of course a lot of this is conjecture, and depends on rather questionable evidence, because as noted above, offical records of the expeditions no longer exist. I'm also suspicious of the courses they took, which suggest that their captains knew a lot more about what lay ahead than the Europeans would know when they went exploring, plus the idea that fifteenth-century junks could successfully navigate in the same part of the Arctic that defeated all wooden ships from other countries. However, I have a feeling we'll be hearing more about this theory, both pro and con, for some time to come.

4. By the time the Spaniards arrived they already ruled the wealthiest parts of the New World; the Portuguese were pleased to accept them as trading partners, since they always paid with cash. It was Mexican silver that kept Macao viable, after the Dutch destroyed Portugal's trading network.

5. We haven't mentioned Taiwan until now in this work, so this is a good place to bring us up to date concerning that island. Though it is only about 100 miles from Fujian province, Taiwan was ignored by the Chinese for most of their history. The original inhabitants, whom we call Formosans, were a collection of tribes that spoke Malayo-Polynesian languages, meaning they are related to the current residents of the Philippines and Indonesia. Today they only number 300,000, about 1.5% of Taiwan's current population, and live mostly in the less accessible mountains and east coast.

Taiwan appears to have been explored by the kingdom of Wu during the Three Kingdoms era (third century A.D.), but it got little attention except as a base for Chinese & Japanese pirates. In 1590 the Portuguese visited and gave it its other name, Ilha Formosa (Beautiful Island). The Dutch set up a settlement at Anp'ing in the south in 1624, and the Spaniards established one at Chi-lung in the north in 1626.  Taiwan's division ended in 1646, when the Dutch seized the Spanish settlement and ruled the whole island until Coxinga took over.

When Spain and the Netherlands arrived, there were only about 30,000 Chinese living on the island. Most of them had come over just a few years earlier to escape famine on the mainland. That changed dramatically under Coxinga; immigration of other refugees and Ming loyalists swelled the Chinese population to 200,000 and made them the undisputed majority. All things considered, Coxinga's legacy to the modern world was that he made Taiwan a permanent part of China.

6. It is not that way today. Because so many Chinese settlers have moved into Manchuria since 1911, the Manchus are in danger of losing their identity as an ethnic group. The latest census reported ten million people of Manchu descent, but only a few are native speakers of the Manchu language; indeed, the language was in danger of disappearing, until efforts were made in recent years to revive it. The official Chinese name for modern Manchuria is Dongbei, meaning simply "northeast."

7. Because the Mongols now practiced Lamaism, the Tibetan form of Buddhism, Tibet was incorporated into the Chinese empire in 1720 to keep the Mongols quiet. In 1723 the Manchus annexed the Koko Nor region (modern Qinghai province), to shorten communications between Mongolia and Tibet.

8. An Englishman knelt on one knee when addressing his king, and two knees when praying in church; nowhere did he submit by touching his head to the ground.

9. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, the south China coast was afflicted by the worst piracy problem since the days of Coxinga (see footnote #5). The most amazing part is that these pirates, the "Red Flag Fleet," had a female commander, Ching Shih (1775?-1844, also spelled Zhng Sh, Jihng Sih, Hsi Ka and Zheng Yi Sao). Details of her personal life aren't available; we don't even know her real name (the name we have means "Widow of Zheng"). The picture shown here, for instance, is a modern artist's idea of what she looked like.

Ching Shih

Anyway, Ching Shih first appeared in the limelight in 1801, when Zheng Yi, the leader of the pirates around Canton, discovered Ching Shih in a brothel and married her. Zheng Yi's career really took off after that; his force grew by leaps and bounds, and he made a handsome profit from raiding ships, kidnapping, and "protection" rackets. He died in a typhoon in 1807; Ching Shih then took over the fleet, by marrying Zheng Yi's first mate, Chang Pao, and making him the chief executive officer. Of course many pirates thought they could misbehave when a former prostitute was in charge, and Ching Shih responded by imposing a Draconian code of conduct, that banned stealing from other pirates, raids on towns that gave money or supplies to the fleet, cowardice, desertion, rape and even consensual sex while on duty; beheading was the punishment for most violations.

Soon the Red Flag Fleet was more powerful than the Qing government in and around the South China Sea; estimates of the fleet's strength at its peak range as high as 1,800 ships and 80,000 crewmembers. When the authorities attacked the fleet, they lost 63 ships, and captured sailors were given the choice of joining the fleet or being clubbed to death; the Chinese admiral reportedly committed suicide to avoid being captured. The Chinese navy could not beat the pirates even when they had help from Portuguese and British ships in the area.

Finally in 1810, the local governor realized it was a losing battle, and offered a general amnesty to anyone in the Red Flag Fleet who got out of the pirate business and committed no more crimes. Ching Shih accepted--pirates who do not quit while they are ahead die soon, and violently. In negotiating the terms of the amnesty, Ching Shih made sure that everyone got to keep their loot, and her crewmen had the option of joining the navy if they wished; that included a lieutenant's commission for her second husband. After retiring from piracy, she opened up a casino/brothel in Canton and ran it for the rest of her life. Ching Shih may not have become an empress like Theodora, or a governor like Barbarossa, but still she is a contender for the titles of the most successful prostitute, pirate, and businesswoman who ever lived.

10. Besides the British, other Western nations brought opium to China, in smaller amounts. This included the young United States; the American company that handled trade with China was Russell & Company. In the 1830s, Russell & Company's point man, who worked in Canton, was Warren Delano, Jr. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it is because Delano was the maternal grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a future president of the United States. You probably also know that the Roosevelt family was rich, so remember that part of the Roosevelt family fortune came from an illegal drug trade.

11. Opium imports did not decline after 1880 because the Chinese were kicking the habit, but because they were now growing their own poppies within China's borders. Quite a few Chinese remained addicted until the Communists took over in 1949 and destroyed all the opium they could get their hands on, forcing the country to go cold turkey.

12. Ironically, the US played the smallest role in 19th century imperialism and saved China from territorial partition, but Chinese Communists would later regard America as their worst enemy; in the 20th century they would accuse it of reviving imperialism and attempting to suppress popular revolutions. More about that in Chapter 7.

13. The First Sino-Japanese War is covered in more detail on this webpage.

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