On 14 August 1900, an international invasion force of 19,000 men captured the Chinese imperial capital of Beijing. British, French, German, Russian, Italian, Japanese, and American troops all took part in a military operation whose purpose was to suppress a nationalist revolt against colonialism.
The revolt was led by members of a secret organisation called ‘the Society of the Righteous Harmonious Fists’ (popularly known as ‘Boxers’). It enjoyed the tacit support of the beleaguered imperial government of the Manchu Dowager Empress Tzu Hsi. Boxer rebels and Imperial troops fought side-by-side against the invaders.
The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) was neither the first nor the most powerful Chinese uprising against 19th century colonialism. The earlier T’ai-p’ing Rebellion of 1850-1864 is reckoned to have cost the lives of between 20 and 30 million people, making it the bloodiest conflict in history before the Second World War.
European merchants had coveted the wealth of China since the travels of Marco Polo in the 13th century. But China was conservative and self-sufficient, and did not need anything the Europeans had to offer.
The British East India Company solved this problem in the early 19th century by turning large areas of India over to the cultivation of a commodity that creates its own demand: opium.
By 1810, the Company was selling 350 tons of opium a year to the Chinese. When the imperial government attempted to stop the trade, the British went to war. The two Opium Wars of 1839-1842 and 1856-1860 were therefore wars fought by the British Empire on behalf of corporate drug-barons.
Chinese history had been a ‘revolving door’ in which imperial dynasties were occasionally displaced by revolt and conquest, but the essential structures of state and society were preserved. The last revolution of the door had taken place in 1644, when the disintegrating Ming dynasty had been overthrown by the Manchus.
By origin barbarian invaders from the north-east (Manchuria), the Manchu emperors had quickly accommodated to the dominant mandarin culture of the Chinese state. The mandarins were the highly trained, richly rewarded, and ultra-conservative bureaucrats who controlled the civil service. They ruled China in alliance with local landlords and city merchants.
By the middle of the 19th century, corruption and oppression had again reached crisis point, with the peasantry set to explode. This time, however, the revolving door would be wedged stuck – by the intervention of European imperialism.
The two Opium Wars exposed the chronic military obsolescence of the insular Chinese state. In the first war, the British used a flotilla of warships and an expeditionary force of soldiers and marines to seize Canton, Shanghai, and other Chinese ports. They then moved up the Yangtze River and threatened Nanking, forcing the imperial government to sue for peace.
The Treaty of Nanking required China: 1) to hand over Hong Kong; 2) to open four ports, including Canton and Shanghai, to British trade; and 3) to pay a large war indemnity.
But this was not enough. Official Chinese resistance to further British demands led to a second war only 15 years later. This time, France, Russia, and the USA joined in the rape of Chinese sovereignty.
The war culminated in the capture of the Taku Forts at Tientsin and an advance inland to Beijing by 18,000 British and French troops. The imperial capital was captured and the summer palaces of the Emperor were looted and burnt.
One result of the Opium Wars was a vast increase in the highly profitable drugs trade. By the end of the 19th century, Chinese consumption of opium had increased a hundred-fold and one in four adult males was an addict.
Another result was European control of Chinese ports and trade. A string of foreign enclaves or mini-colonies – known as ‘concessions’ – was established on the coast. European officials had control of Chinese customs and European residents enjoyed ‘extra-territorial’ rights (i.e. immunity from Chinese jurisdiction). European missionaries, meantime, were free to seek converts wherever they could.
The Opium Wars and the foreign concessions exposed the decay of the ruling Manchu dynasty and the ancient imperial state. This in turn helped trigger the peasant revolt that had long been brewing in the villages of rural China.
The movement began among peasants, labourers, and impoverished dissident intellectuals in southern China. Its leader was a schoolteacher and Christian mystic called Hung Hsiu-ch’uan.
Hung claimed that his divine mission was to destroy devils and establish a ‘Heavenly Kingdom’ of ‘Great Peace’. The Heavenly Kingdom would be characterised by equal division of land, communal ownership of goods, and the abolition of social distinctions: an inspiring message of social liberation that gave rise, in the circumstances of the moment, to a powerful mass movement.
But the extreme poverty of 19th century China soon snuffed out the egalitarian idealism of the early years. Scarcity meant that only a few could live well, and the T’ai-p’ing leaders exploited their positions to ensure that they and their cronies were the favoured few.
In this, the T’ai-p’ing Rebellion conformed to type: previous peasant revolts had quickly morphed into new imperial dynasties no less oppressive than the old. The economic preconditions for true social emancipation did not exist in traditional China.
Nonetheless, the T’ai-p’ing movement retained tremendous support and momentum. What saved the Manchu dynasty was the intervention of foreign imperialism against the rebels.
A reorganised army, funded by Chinese merchants, equipped with European weapons, and commanded successively by an American and a British officer, eventually crushed the revolt.
The success of the ‘Ever Victorious Army’ had a profound effect on Chinese history. The T’ai-p’ing Rebellion represented the possibility of a reinvigorated imperial state committed to reform and modernisation in response to the threat posed by imperialism. Its defeat blocked this historical avenue.
Instead, the ailing Manchu dynasty survived, a political relic propped up by imperialism – even when, as in 1860 and 1900, it was decisively defeated and its capital city placed under foreign occupation.
The Manchus and the foreigners needed each other – as mutual support against the Chinese masses. For China was not like Africa: it could be raped, but it could not be dismembered.
The Chinese were not only numerous – there were perhaps 350 million of them in the mid 19th century. They were also linguistically, culturally, and historically a single people. Any attempt to conquer China would quickly have stretched the military power of an invader to breaking point. Any such attempt would have been doomed to eventual defeat.
This was to be the fate of the Japanese invasion between 1931 and 1945. The Japanese succeeded in occupying the coastal regions, but were never able to dominate China’s huge hinterland, and the relentless military struggle required the permanent deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops.
The combination of Manchu rule and the foreign concessions effectively choked off independent Chinese development during the 19th and early 20th centuries. While Europe, America, and Japan went forwards, China went backwards.
This contradiction gave rise to a protracted sequence of revolutionary upheavals between 1911 and 1949. Only then could the political impasse be broken and the economic potential of the Chinese people be realised.
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