China: 3000 Years of History, 50 Years of Revolution. Robert Louzon 1998

Part II: The Grafting of a New Civilisation: Fifty Years of Revolution

Chapter I: From the Opium War (1840) to the Boxer Movement (1900)

China was provided with and was forced to accept all that the rapid development of Europe was able, thanks to its superior individuals, to produce sooner than China. All this, above and beyond philosophical speculations, can be adapted to the Chinese spirit, and all this, once assimilated, will give to China new means of assimilation, which nothing, neither Europe nor America, will be able to resist. – Alex Ular, 1901 [1]

Two twin dates herald the approach of modern times: the year 1492, when Columbus set foot on the American continent, and the year 1498, when Vasco da Gama, after rounding the Cape of Good Hope, landed in India. [2] Two continents thereby found themselves at the disposal of the Europeans – one whose existence had hitherto been unknown, and the other of which they had often heard, but which had been cut off from them by the Arabs, whose precise function had until then been to act as the necessary intermediary between this continent and them.

The enormous extension which the knowledge of this fact made to the intellectual horizon and field of activity of Europe produced a ‘renaissance’ amongst them, or rather a birth, that of a new civilisation, of which the whole of European history to this day is but a development.

The different ethnic situation of these two continents was bound to influence the different forms of the interventions of the Europeans. Whilst the European found in America only sparsely scattered populations, for the most part uncivilised, irrigation there being practised only in certain parts of certain regions, in Asia, on the other hand, Europe encountered ancient irrigational civilisations covering immense spaces and nourishing dense populations.

The result was that whilst the continent discovered by Columbus became a land where the European, after having exterminated the natives of the temperate zone and enslaved those of the tropical zone, settled down to live, the continent linked by da Gama to Europe could only provide land for domination and exploitation, any possibility of eliminating the hundreds of millions of civilised beings who peopled it being manifestly out of the question.

These two tasks, the peopling of the one and the subjugation of the other, proceeded simultaneously. Their pursuit covers the entire history of the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

As far as Asia was concerned, European penetration went through two phases. In the first, which can be called the period of ‘trading stations’, the Europeans contented themselves with the acquisition of certain places along the coastline which they usually fortified, and which served them as centres of transport and trade with their own metropolis on the one hand and the interior on the other. Colonisation during this period thus bore an almost exclusively commercial aspect.

It preserved this character all through the sixteenth century when it was most of all carried on by the Portuguese, who, profiting from the knowledge they had gained of the new route by the fact that Vasco da Gama was their compatriot, founded nearly all the early trading stations.

But this first phase was soon to be succeeded by a second, during which colonisation no longer only bore a commercial aspect, but also a political character. This is the phase of ‘colonisation’ properly so-called. Starting from the trading posts, the interior was slowly conquered and annexed, although it was the general practice, at first anyway, to leave it to be administered by local chiefs under the direction and control of the European institution, usually a chartered company, that had effected the conquest.

Portugal, being too small to be able to indulge itself in the luxury of large territorial conquests, had to remain in the phase of ‘trading stations’. It was the more powerful northern states that were destined to become the protagonists of the second stage.

From the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Dutch, who during the previous decades had set up their own trading stations in Indonesia, gradually got rid of the Portuguese trading stations already there and established their domination over the whole of the islands of the archipelago and over a great part of Java. By the end of the century, the whole of Indonesia belonged to the Dutch. [3]

The following century, which was to be Britain’s century, just as the sixteenth century had been Portugal’s and the seventeenth century Holland’s, was marked by the British getting a foothold in the interior of India, after it had first got rid of the French in the same way as the Dutch had got rid of the Portuguese. [4] It took it, however, a whole century to achieve the complete conquest of this vast subcontinent, and it was only in the middle of the nineteenth century, in 1856, that Britain annexed the last independent Indian state, and the whole of India became part of its empire. [5]

To become master of the entire Far East, Europe had now only to conquer China. This should have been the work of the nineteenth century. And it was in fact to this task that Europe addressed itself towards the middle of the century – a task in which, after a hundred years of effort, it failed, and had to acknowledge itself defeated. It was Europe’s first defeat since the time of Columbus and Vasco da Gama, a defeat on a colossal scale, betokening the twilight of European civilisation.

Before retracing the main lines of this failed effort, let us point out at once the principal reason why it did not succeed. The reason is to be found in the division of Europe. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were practically only two rival European states in India and Indonesia. Once one of them was eliminated – the Portuguese in Indonesia and the French in India – the Dutch and English found themselves face to face with the natives alone, and because of their superior technique they were easily able to gain the upper hand.

But in the second half of the nineteenth century, the situation was altogether different. By this time, all the great European powers had become colonialists, all of them wanted colonies, and consequently they all turned their eyes towards China, the only great non-European country that had not yet been colonised. Now all these European states – Britain, France, Germany and Russia – were more or less equal in power. It was therefore impossible for any one of them to beat a coalition of the others and so confront the native alone. The result was that China had never to face a European country so independent of the others that by virtue of its superior technology it could, by taking enough time, reduce it to the status of India. Instead, it always found itself face to face with Europe as a whole – in other words, confronting an array of states, each of which wanted to reserve for itself the entire cake, or at any rate the greater part of it, and which with this end in view sought to paralyse the activity of the others. It was above all this that saved China.

Let us now review the succession of events.

The First Stage: Shanghai

The first European trading stations in China came into operation only a few years after those set up in India. By means of a small yearly payment, from as early as 1557 the Portuguese had secured as a concession the island of Macao in China’s extreme south, very close to continental China and its great port of Canton. During the following three centuries, the other powers had to content themselves with uncertain and insecure settlements within Canton itself, which was the only Chinese port then open to foreigners, where the trading stations of the various ‘India companies’ had to install themselves side by side.

It was only a few years before the middle of the nineteenth century that, starting from its trading posts in Canton, Europe began its great offensive. This was to operate in three phases.

It was natural that Britain, having just succeeded in its conquest of India, should be the first to venture upon the conquest of China.

The pretexts put forth by plunderers as an excuse for seizing their prey are always both ridiculous and odious. The one put forward by Britain to start hostilities with China must count amongst the most infamous of those that make up the history of colonial conquest. And there’s plenty of competition! It was because the then Chinese emperor, Dao Guang, refused to allow his subjects to be poisoned by opium that Albion’s puritanical and ultra-Christian rulers, Lord John Russell’s ‘Liberal’ Albion, despatched their ships and soldiers against him. [6]

When the Chinese authorities in the port of Canton seized and destroyed a cargo of opium illegally imported by British merchants in 1839, British forces blockaded Canton and then seized Shanghai, 1000 kilometres to the north. In 1842, China capitulated. [7]

The result of this ‘Opium War’ was twofold. On the one hand, the British forced the Chinese to cede to them the port of Hong Kong opposite Macao at the mouth of the Canton river, thus enabling them to enter into successful competition with the latter port, which until then had been the only European trading station in that part of the world. On the other hand (and this was of far greater importance from a general point of view), China agreed to open to British commerce four other ports apart from Canton, the most northerly being Shanghai at the mouth of the Blue River. Thus Europe was no longer confined to the extreme south of China: it had penetrated the Blue River. That was the first stage.

Opening up Shanghai did not only mean, as in the case of Canton, that the British would have the right to trade there; it also meant that they were able to set up a great trading establishment, a ‘settlement’, which they themselves directly administered without any interference from the Chinese authorities. This territory remained theoretically an integral part of the Chinese state, but all its inhabitants, of whatever nationality, enjoyed the privileges of extra-territoriality analogous to those possessed by embassy personnel.

However, the British had barely signed this treaty at Nanking before the other Western powers called upon China to grant them privileges identical with those they had been obliged to extend to Britain. Within less than five years after the treaty with Britain, the United States, France, Belgium and Sweden were placed on the same footing as Great Britain. So the origin of the famous ‘concessions’ ('concession’ here being the French translation of the English word ‘settlement’) was a war for the freedom to import opium into China.

The Second Stage: Access to Beijing

This first war had therefore given Europe access to the Blue River. Twenty years later, a second war was to give it access to the Great Plain of the Yellow River. But to achieve this objective they no longer dared allow Britain to act alone: France was to accompany it.

It was the murder of a French missionary and the seizure of a small boat flying the British flag in 1856 that provided the sought-for opportunity. This second war lasted until 1860.

This time, Canton was not merely to be blockaded; it was to be seized and occupied; and afterwards, just as an advance had been made northwards to the coveted regions of the Blue River in 1840, now an advance was to be made into a newly-coveted region – that of China’s extreme north, in order from now on to have access to the whole length of the Chinese coast.

Consequently, just as Shanghai had been seized in 1840, so in 1860 Beijing was also to be seized. On the express order of the Lord General commanding Her Britannic Majesty’s troops, the emperor’s palace, after being pillaged, was to be set on fire, and then (for the Europeans were no barbarians) there would be negotiations. [8]

The principal point in these treaties of Tianjin is that Tianjin, the port of Beijing, was to be opened to foreign commerce, and it was also to be subjected to the regime of ‘concessions’.

Canton, Shanghai, Tianjin, the outlets from southern China, the way out from central China, and the outlet from northern China; with these three ports Europe was able to control the whole of China’s foreign trade.

Moreover, at the same time as they were getting themselves granted the ‘concessions’ at Hangzhou, no longer on the coast, like the preceding concessions, but right in the heart of China, France and Britain were obtaining the right to have ambassadors in Beijing, a most important right, since until then it had been impossible for them to have any sort of permanent access to the central power.

But just as 20 years earlier, the other powers were not slow in demanding and obtaining from China the same privileges it had been forced to cede to those who had used armed force against it. Another symptomatic fact is that to be sure of being able to intervene in the same way within a reasonable period of time, the official representatives of Russia and the United States were watching from their own ships the disembarkation of the Franco-British troops destined to march on Beijing.

So the treaties with France and Britain had barely been concluded before Russia caused another to be signed in its own favour, by which China ceded to it all its territories north of the Amur, and what was of still greater importance, opened up Mongolia to its commerce, which assured it the great caravan route leading from Lake Baikal to Beijing via Urga and Kalgan. [9]

In their turn, in the course of the following years, the United States, Prussia, Denmark, Spain, Holland, Belgium, Italy and Austria signed treaties with China, granting fresh advantages to them.

The Third Stage: Widespread Dismemberment

An event of major importance was that in contrast with the preceding two stages, the third move in the subjugation of China was not taken by a European power, one of the old stagers of colonialism like France or Britain, but by a newcomer: the Europeanised Asiatic state of Japan.

Twelve years after the European-American fleets had demolished the old Japan by forcing the Shimonoseki Strait, and eight years after a palace revolution had inaugurated modern Japan, this country also wanted its share of China. [10]

It naturally turned first to that part of the Chinese empire that lay nearest to it, Korea, in other words, a country with which it had formerly been at war, and which was then under China’s suzerainty. It had already possessed rights there for a long time in the port of Pusan which was situated in the strait separating the peninsula of Korea from Japan. Ever since 1876, Japan had felt itself sufficiently strong, without fear of Chinese intervention, to be able to obtain from Korea the right of access to three other Korean ports, where it also arrogated to itself the right to maintain garrisons. Since the Chinese also sent garrisons to these ports, this was obviously going to be the cause of innumerable conflicts.

So when some 20 years or so later, Japan decided that it was sufficiently modernised to risk an open war with China, it was not difficult for it to create an ‘incident’. On 25 July 1894, the Japanese sunk a ship carrying Chinese troops off the coast of Korea, and then immediately themselves disembarked large numbers of troops in Korea, and set about preparations for a march on Beijing through Manchuria.

Against the Europeanised army of Japan, the Asiatic army of China was powerless. Reverse followed reverse. Port Arthur on the southern promontory of Manchuria, Weihaiwei on the northern coast of the Shandong peninsula, along with faraway Formosa which extended to the south of the chain of Japanese islands, all fell into the hands of Japan. China was forced to capitulate, and Japan dictated a peace that offered it considerably more than the European states had hitherto obtained as a result of their own victories. [11]

This was not fair at all! It set all Europe in an uproar. The treaty had to be annulled, and Japan, which had easily been able to vanquish China, but was in no position yet to defy Europe, had to be content with the huge island of Formosa, which however was not so bad.

The European states, however, were not satisfied with this negative result. Since China had agreed to make such substantial surrenders in favour of Japan, it became easy for Europe to extract from it something at least equivalent. Russia, Great Britain and France therefore demanded from China as the price of their ‘good offices’ to hand over to them what they had enabled it to avoid having to give to Japan! Thus it was that Port Arthur, which was to have gone to Japan in the first treaty, was given on lease to Russia for 25 years, and the Russians were also given the right to build railway lines across Manchuria to link up the Trans-Siberian Railway to Mukden and Port Arthur. Thus it was that Weihaiwei, which had been taken by the Japanese, was given on a 99-year lease to Britain, which in addition appropriated the Kowloon peninsula on the Chinese mainland opposite Hong Kong. Finally France, determined not to be left out of it, secured for itself a 99-year lease over the port of Guangzhou, not far from Tonkin in the extreme south of China, as well as the concession for a railway line linking Tonkin with the capital of the Chinese province of Yunnan.

All this happened all the easier because a newcomer, Germany, came to show how it should be done.

Now united, well placed in Europe and having completed its industrial revolution, Germany was resolved that henceforth it too would try its chances in the race for the partition of China. Accordingly, in the year that followed the treaty with Japan, at the end of 1897, taking the murder of two missionaries who happened to be their compatriots as a pretext, Germany disembarked troops in the magnificent Bay of Jiaozhou on the south coast of the Shandong peninsula. Here, as well as obtaining a 99-year lease on Qingdao, it also secured the concession of two long railway lines across Shandong with the sole right of research and exploitation of the mineral wealth along the entire stretch of these two lines. It looked as though the whole of Shandong was on the way to becoming a German possession.

Instead of merely having as a concession a quarter of a city still nominally under Chinese sovereignty, the European states now obtained the exclusive use of a whole port with a great strip of territory around it, over which China retained not even nominal rights for the duration of the lease. Moreover, by the railway line concessions, Europe was no longer confined to the coasts, but could now penetrate the interior.

This time it was well and truly a rush for the spoils. The dismemberment of China had begun.

The Boxer Reaction

A reaction could not fail to take place. It was the reaction of the only China, or almost the only China, that then existed, that of the old China, whose history we have already outlined.

There was one good side to the war with Japan: it had taught China a useful lesson. It had shown that even an Asiatic state, provided it was modernised, could acquire a military power comparable to that of the European states. Accordingly, three years after the treaty with Japan and immediately after the signing of the treaty giving a lease on Chinese territory, the young emperor Guang Xu decided to undertake a series of reforms destined to transform China into a ‘modern’ state. [12]

But if the emperor and some of the intellectuals had understood the lesson from Japan, it was not the case for the whole of the court, or of the majority of the population. Accordingly, the batch of decrees issued in June 1898, which was a first step on the road of reform, aroused such a storm that in a few hours the dowager empress Ci Xi, the leader of the conservative party, was able to put an end to the power of her nephew, to have his advisors executed, and to take upon herself the regency of the empire. [13]

Moreover, a secret society, the traditional weapon of the Chinese people, the Boxers, provided the empress with the popular support that was indispensable for pursuing her anti-modernist policy by eliminating the source of the modernisation. At her instigation on 20 January 1900, the Boxers assassinated the German ambassador in Beijing, and lay siege to all the embassies. Just over two months later, an international force under the command of a German general arrived in Beijing without a shot being fired, and relieved the ambassadors.

Like the Sepoy rebellion in India some 40 years previously, [14] the activity of the Boxers was the last fling of a society that did not want to die. Its reactionary character is perhaps even more clear than that of the revolt of the Sepoys, who only demanded the restoration of the Moghul emperor, since its first action was the suppression of the reforms and the execution of the reformers. Its failure marked the end of the old China, just as 40 years earlier that of the Sepoys marked the end of the old India.

But whilst the Boxer movement marked the end of the old China, it also marked the end of the European attempts against China. In spite of the seriousness of the outrage suffered in Beijing, on this occasion Europe made virtually no claim on China apart from an indemnity, for, less than 15 years before 1914, the relations between the European states were already so strained that none of them could risk unleashing a quarrel over the share of China that belonged to them.

This did not, however, mean that China no longer had to struggle for its independence: quite the contrary! It was, in fact, during the half century that was to follow, that the most determined effort was to be made to subject it, but this effort was no longer to be made by Europe, but by Japan. And for the first time, China was to resist this latest attempt victoriously. Starting from 1900, it agreed to no further concessions; on the contrary, little by little, it was to take back from Europe all that it had formerly been obliged to concede.

The turn of the century was thus also a change in the history of China. The nineteenth century, that marked China’s contact with Europe, with industrial civilisation, in other words, was the era of the development of the thesis: Europe is penetrating China; with the twentieth century begins the antithesis: from its penetration by Europe, China acquired the means of resisting Europe.


1. There is no word-for-word equivalent of these remarks in the English version, A Russo-Chinese Empire, London, 1904, though similar phraseology appears on pp312-3.

2. When Cristoforo Colombo, Latinised as Columbus (1451-1506), sailing in the ships of Queen Isabella of Castille, discovered San Salvador in October 1492, he was the first European to set foot in the new world. He followed this up with journeys to Cuba, Hispaniola, and the mainland. Vasco da Gama, Condé da Vidigueira (1460-1524) was the first European to round Africa and reach Calicut in India in May 1498. He pioneered the creation of the Portuguese trading empire in India, and was its first viceroy.

3. The Portuguese arrived in the Spice Islands (the Moluccas) in 1510. The Dutch followed them in 1599, and by 1667 had completed their conquest, successfully dislodging the Portuguese from their control of the rest of Indonesia.

4. French influence in India came to an end with the British capture of the fort of Pondicherry in 1761.

5. The state of Oudh was annexed by Britain in 1856 using maladministration as a pretext.

6. Dao Guang (Emperor Xuan Zong, 1820-1850) attempted to resist the British importation of opium into China. He was opposed by the British Liberal government of Lord John Russell ('Radical Jack’, 1792-1878).

7. The First Opium War (1840-42) came to an end with the Treaty of Nanking on 29 August 1842.

8. In October 1860, British troops led by General Gordon looted and set fire to the Summer Palace in Beijing, destroying many irreplaceable works of art.

9. The Sino-Russian Additional Treaty of Peking of November 1860 gave Russia extensive trading rights on Chinese territory in central Asia.

10. Japan was first opened up to the West by the breaking of Japan’s isolation by the US Commodore Perry in 1853. This was followed by the bombardment of Fort Shimonoseki by the joint allied fleet in 1864. The ‘Meiji Restoration’ of 1868 destroyed the power of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and launched Japan upon a rapid course of capitalist modernisation.

11. The Sino-Japanese War ended with the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895.

12. The Qing Emperor Guang Xu (1875-1908) attempted his ‘Hundred Day Reform’ between 11 June and 21 September 1898.

13. Nala, the wife of Emperor Xian Feng, first acted as regent for the Emperor Zai Chun (Mu Zhong, 1861-1875), and then, as Dowager Empress Cao Xi, ruled China from 1898 to 1908.

14. The Indian Mutiny began in 1857 with the revolt of the Sepoys (Indian levies) at being issued with cartridges greased with beef and pork fat, which would have involved a loss of caste if they handled them.