This article is part of the Chinese Meiji universe.

China in the Early 1800s

003-The Imperial Portrait of a Chinese Emperor called 'Daoguang'

Emperor Daoguang of the Qing Dynasty, circa 1840

By the end of the 18th century, China's Qing dynasty was in slow decline from a high point. Internally, the Chinese were faced with many problems. Corruption was rampant in the bureaucracy, and the economy stagnated. China also suffered serious social strife usually resulting from the conquest and subjugation of non-Qing (Manchu) ethnic groups. In addition, a population boom caused by the prosperity during the height of the dynasty strained the environment and food supply, leaving a trace of famines, failed crops, malnutrition, and disease though the country was lucky that the population wasn't one billion just yet.

Perhaps the most important issue for China at that time, however, was how to deal with other countries, especially European nations. For many centuries past, China enjoyed hegemony over the region of East Asia. According to the Sino-centric view of the world, China was the "Middle Kingdom" full of civilization and is the center of culture, while all other countries are collectively termed "Outer Kingdoms," and China had the right to dominate. Thus according to this mindset, China did not share with the Europeans the same concept of foreign relations.

In the nineteenth century, however, the major European powers were strengthening their economy through industrialization and maritime trade, and expanding their power through imperialism. Meanwhile, the Chinese economy became antiquated with lack of progress and the lack of keeping up with the progress of Europe after centuries of being the world's greatest power. The early 1800s saw a steady increase of trade between China and Europe, since Europeans greatly demanded Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain. On the other hand, Chinese merchants showed very little interest in European goods, and would only accept silver in exchange. Thus loads of precious European metals were drained to China in this unbalanced trade system. By the first quarter of that century, many European nations, especially Britain and France, were concerned with this situation and sought to even out the trade imbalance.

The Experimental Armies

In the first few years during the reign of Emperor Daoguang (1820-1850) several governmental officials were sent overseas to observe how the Europeans were doing in affairs concerning war. The Chinese military system was quite old. Traditional armies consisted of hereditary “Bannermen” and “Green Standard Army” which were divided along ethnic lines, and after many years of disuse, they became antiquated.

The most influential military observer was Wang Yiwei, who was sent to tour England and France. When he returned in 1836, he asked the Emperor permission to start and train a Western-styled army using hired military advisors from Europe. The Emperor agreed to experiment and provided Wang with a modest budget. Wang and a few other Chinese students sent abroad quickly set about to create a Western army from scratch. They drafted about 50,000 landless peasants, divided them into regiments, and hired advisors from Britain and France. Equipped with limited supplies of firearms and munitions purchased from Europe, these troops were known as the “Experimental Army.”

Also included within the experiment were two warships purchased from England, and many Chinese junks that were slightly modified to admit one or two decks of guns. Both the fleet and the army trained in Western tactics and maneuver. Despite the beginning of the westernization progress, it was slow and painful at the same time due to budget concerns and the low number of well-trained Chinese supervisors.

The Opium War

Destroy opium 2

A painting of Lin supervising the destruction of opium

Meanwhile the British came across a solution to the trade problems with China. They discovered the opium trade, which was able to stabilize the trade deficit. Between 1821 and 1837 imports of the drug to China increased by five times.

The Qing government wished to end this trade due to its harmful effects on public health, since many opium addicts were appearing in opium dens among trading ports throughout China. Opium causes people to fall asleep. The Emperor charged governmental official Lin Zexu to try to solve the issue. He wrote a letter to Queen Victoria of Great Britain, which was an unsuccessful attempt to stop this illegal trade that had poisoned thousands of Chinese civilians. He eventually forced the British Chief Superintendent of Trade in China, Charles Elliott, to surrender all remaining stocks of opium for destruction in May 1839.

In July 1839, however, rioting British seamen destroyed a Chinese temple around Kowloon and murdered a man named Lin Weixi who tried to stop them. The British government and traders in China wanted "extraterritoriality", meaning that the British in China must be tried in under the British judicial system. The British refused when the Qing authorities demanded the guilty men be handed over for trial. Six sailors were tried instead by the British authorities in Canton, but they were immediately released since the court had no legal authority. The Qing authorities demanded that British merchants will not be allowed to trade unless they agreed to follow Chinese laws, acknowledged Qing legal jurisdiction, and signed a bond promising not to smuggle opium. Charles Elliot refused and ordered the British residents in China to leave Canton and prohibited trading with the Chinese. They seized Hong Kong as a base, blockaded to Pearl River, and prepared for war.

Hostilities began on November 3, when a British merchant ship, the Royal Saxon, attempted to sail to Canton up the river. When the British fired a warning shot at the Royal Saxon, the Qing navy attempted to protect the merchant vessel. However, the junks were hopelessly out-classed by the Royal Naval ships, and many Chinese ships were sunk. The following year, the British captured the Bogue forts which guarded the mouth of the Pearl River -- the waterway between Hong Kong and Canton. By January of 1841, their forces commanded the high ground around Canton, and went on to defeat the Chinese at Ningbo and Chinhai.

Opium War-guangzhou

Combat near Canton during the Opium War between the British and the traditional Chinese army

Losing on both land and at sea, Emperor Daoguang decided to put the Experimental Army to test. Wang Yiwei and others objected, however, because the armies were not fully completed. Most importantly, the Army lacked well-trained officers to lead the ranks of conscripts. However the Qing court insisted on testing the army they spent money building for quite a while, and believe that it was the key to their victory. The generals quickly promoted several low-ranking soldiers to officer level and marched to war.

The Army met the British at Hong Kong on March 20th and successfully defeated the small garrison there. It then moved on along the Pearl River to relieve Canton's encirclement. Meanwhile the Experimental fleet sailed towards Shanghai to defend the mouth of the Yangtze from the British navy, where they fought the Battle of Shanghai on the 17th. After a long engagement and heavy casualties on both the Chinese and the British sides, the numerically superior Chinese managed to end the battle as a stalemate. The Chinese was left with only one heavily damaged European ship and three junks while four heavily mauled British ships were spared from sinking.

The Army skirmished briefly with the British forces near Canton in the second week of April, and serious fighting began on April 14th. After five days of fierce fighting and heavy casualties, the Chinese finally won what appeared to be a Pyrrhic victory, trapping the outnumbered British against the Pearl River, known as the Battle of Canton. The battle had cost the Chinese more than half of their Experimental Army, and their limited supply of munitions had been almost depleted. The British, who had been outnumbered two to one from the start, had also suffered heavily in the fighting though not nearly as many men as had Chinese. At this point, both the Chinese and the British were willing to agree to a ceasefire and delegates from Britain were sent to Beijing to negotiate a peace treaty.

Representatives signed the Treaty of Peking on September 2, 1841, officially ending the Opium War. The treaty denied the British extraterritoriality, stated that merchants must follow Qing laws and be tried at Qing courts, and expressly prohibited the smuggling of opium into China. In exchange, the Chinese greatly modified the Canton trading system to make it less restrictive, and allowed trading in nearly all major port cities.

Military Reform

Chinese Imperial Army Training

A Westernized Chinese army in training, circa 1850.

At the conclusion of the war it was apparent to the Chinese that its traditional military required change. The Experimental Army, though not fully completed, proved far more effective in battle than the Bannermen and Green Standards, and it was only through the Army's intervention that the Chinese turned near defeat into an inconclusive outcome. However, the Army suffered greatly in the war, and the fleet was reduced to almost nothing.

Wang Yiwei and military officials quickly set about restructuring the Chinese military. Wang submitted a list of changes to the Emperor suggesting a non-ethnically segregated conscript army under direct control of the Board of War including reserves as well as an active standing army, and academies in which to train officers for the army. The Bannermen and the Green Standards, which were under direct control of the Emperor, were to be abolished.

Emperor Daoguang agreed to the reforms and China set about constructing a Western-style army with the help of experienced veterans from the Experimental Army and military advisors from Europe. A law passed in 1843 required one out of every four able-bodied male citizens between the ages of 20 to 40 to receive military training, after which they may return home as reservists. The Beijing Academy of Modern Warfare opened to officer-hopefuls in 1845, and would become one of the most prestigious military schools in the last quarter of the century. By 1848, China's military forces had 8 divisions.

Modern firearms and artillery were purchased from France but the Chinese intended to begin manufacturing its own modern European-style weapons.

1848 Revolution

Anti-Manchu sentiment had been growing over the years, especially resentment of the peasant class over being drafted into what many saw as a non-Chinese army. Inspired by the revolutions happening all over Europe in 1848, troops in Anhui and Henan mutinied on August 27th when several army deserters were executed for treason without a trial. The revolt was led by Western scholar Zhang Luoxing and gained momentum rapidly when garrisons and reservists all over central and southern China joined the movement. By mid-October, the rebels' ranks swelled to 200,000 professional army personnel.

The rebels took hold of Zhu Chongqing, a Henan boy whom they claimed was a direct descendant of the Ming Dynasty rulers. They used him as a mascot and seized control of major cities and imprisoned high-level governmental officials. Throughout the month of November they handily defeated loyalist forces around Nanjing, Suzhou, Xian, Shanghai, and Tianjin, and captured Beijing on the 21st. There, they forced the Emperor to abdicate, and declared Zhu as the new Yonghe Emperor of the Second Ming Dynasty. Qing forces regrouped around northern Zhili and assaulted the capital on December 8th in the Battle of Beijing. The Ming repulsed the attackers, and the last remnant of resistance was swept away.

Chinese nationalists and scholars set about creating a constitutional monarchy. Throughout 1849 the National Convention formed from representatives all over China met in Nanjing to draft a constitution. On July 10th the constitution was signed, establishing a government nearly identical to the British model, and Zhang Luoxing became the first Chinese Prime Minister.

That same time, Karl Marx's book was introduced to China. When the government got the information from the book, they believed that to change the government into a single-party communist constitutional monarchy. Everything in a constitutional monarchy was the same, except that it has all aspects of Communism and it also has a rule that human rights must be tight to control the huge population along with the other ethnic groups in their empire.

During the revolution, opportunistic regional lords from parts of Tibet, East Turkestan, and Mongolia formed independent kingdoms, but all parts of the former Qing empire were recovered by revolutionary troops by 1851.

Under the glory of The Second Ming Empire, the Hans ethnic was free from foreign rule. Thousands of Banner people (Manchurian), the once foreign aristocrat of the Qing Dynasty were being prosecuted for treason and the destruction of the first Great Ming Dynasty. Most cultures or clothing associate with Manchurian were banned, man were order to cut their queue to leave long for Han Chinese hair style or adopt the western hair cut. Hanfu, the traditional Han clothing was reintroduced to China along with western clothes. In a decade all influence of Manchurian disappear, Manchurian population surprisingly decrease possibly due to many Manchurian reclassify them self as Han Chinese.

The Second Ming Empire

By 1850, most nations recognized the sovereignty of the Second Ming. The exception was Russia, which refused recognize the Second Ming as the successor to the Qing and therefore inheritor of the terms of the Nerchinsk Treaty signed in 1689 granting the Chinese control of the Amur River Valley.

Chinese Imperial Army had 12 divisions in 1850:

  • 350,000 active duty volunteers and 1st line Reserve personnel (Conscripts with two years active duty)
  • 490,000 Second line Reserve (Conscripts with 6 months training)
  • 280,000 National Guard
    • 1st National Guard - 35 to 40 year old men from end of 1st Reserve to 40 years old.
    • 2nd National Guard - untrained 20 year old and over 40 year old trained reserves.
  • 6.54 million males available for service and mobilization.

See Also