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International Relations: Britain

During China’s long history confrontations with neighbouring countries had led the emperors and their advisors to consider other peoples as “barbarian,” meaning culturally less developed than the Chinese nation. A lower stage in evolution did not preclude the possibility that China suffered an occasional military defeat at the hands of the less civilized strangers. Military strength, however, was not generally interpreted as cultural superiority. This attitude was also kept alive for some time in the face of the two-fold defeat against Great Britain as the result of the two Opium Wars (1839–42 and 1856–60).

But it became more and more difficult to believe in China’s cultural superiority while confronted with military and political humiliation. As a result, many Chinese intellectuals became increasingly impatient with their country’s failure to defend itself militarily and doubted the validity of the Zhong Guo’s cultural tradition because of that frustration. They started looking to Europe as a source of innovative ideas, including those by Marx and Engels.

The Opium Wars which had a critical effect in that direction were fought upon the request of British merchants to support their economic activities in mainland China. Those included (but were of course not limited to) the sale of the life-threatening opium to wealthy Chinese, more and more of whom became addicted to it and were eventually incapacitated by its use. When the Chinese government acted to restrict the import of the dangerous drug, British tradesmen asked their king in London to intervene militarily on the side of Western business interests. Reflecting upon this phase in history tends to place the modern Western observer on the side of China’s leadership in its early struggle against drug addiction.

Britain and the Western powers won both wars. Having defeated China militarily, mainly on account of their more advanced level of industrialization and its resulting military technology, they imposed humiliating conditions in their peace negotiations. Apart from that, British and French soldiers marched into Peking. There they looted and destroyed the emperor’s Summer Palace. In the present, a European visitor to Peking may be confronted with those acts of barbarism. Typically, he or she is then asked the question of what they think of such behaviour; the implication being, that how Western foreigners conducted themselves on Chinese soil was clearly barbarian in light of what happened during and after the Opium Wars.

As a consequence of its defeat China was forced to allow foreign powers to install independent enclaves, primarily in important trade regions like Shanghai and Hong Kong. In addition, Christian missionaries were given the right to settle in China anywhere they wanted (Poerner 2011: 169). To be allowed to pursue their religious goals under such political conditions obviously backfired. It was to burden Christian missions with an atmosphere of foreign military intervention that may take centuries to overcome.

In summary then, between 1840 and 1860 the ethical balance of foreign politics seemed to have clearly tipped in the direction of China as the innocent victim of rampant European colonialism and imperialism. But this is merely the thesis provoking the antithesis as we go back further in history and ask what had happened earlier.

Moral judgment shifts if one turns back in time by half a century and looks at Occident-Orient relations from a British perspective. Merchants from the United Kingdom had traded with China during the 18th century, but the official policy imposed by the emperor there limited import as well as export activities to the port of Guangzhou, then – and frequently to this day – referred to by Westerners as Canton or Kanton.1

In 1793 a large British vessel carried an official royal delegation to China in the hope to establish diplomatic relationships between King George iii (lived 1738–1820, ruled 1760–1811) in England and Emperor Qianlong in Peking (Beijing) (lived 1711–1799, ruled 1735–1796). The journey is known as the Macartney Embassy, also called the Macartney Mission, after the name of the person in charge, George Macartney. He was instructed in London to present to the emperor the wish of Great Britain to increase trade with China and accordingly

  • to have some of the restrictions lifted which had been imposed on foreign trade,

  • to allow Great Britain to maintain a permanent embassy in the Emperor’s capital Peking (Beijing),

  • to permit Great Britain “to use a small unfortified island near Chusan (Zhoushan) for the residence of British traders, storage of goods, and outfitting of ships,”2 and finally

  • to reduce tariffs on merchandise traded in Canton (Guangzhou).

The journey undertaken with these goals in mind lasted from 1792 to 1794 and must be judged as morally of the highest standards and diplomatically fair and open-minded on the part of King George iii and of Great Britain as a nation. The mission pretended to come for the purpose of congratulating the emperor on his 80th birthday. However, this minor lack of sincerely – if that is indeed what it was – cannot be regarded as serious.

The whole undertaking failed, however, due to the conviction on the Chinese side, that China was superior in every respect to foreigners in general and to Great Britain and its King George iii in particular. The attitude of the emperor and his advisors cannot be documented in any better way than by quoting the letter which Emperor Qianlong wrote to King George iii. In spite of the considerable length of the letter it is included here in full because of its importance.

You, O King, from afar have yearned after the blessings of our civilization and in your eagerness to come into touch with our converting influence have sent an Embassy across the sea bearing a memorial [memorandum]. I have already taken note of your respectful spirit of submission, have treated your mission with extreme favor and loaded it with gifts, besides issuing a mandate to you, O King, and honoring you at the bestowal of valuable presents. Thus has my indulgence been manifested!

Yesterday your Ambassador petitioned my Ministers to memorialize me regarding your trade with China, but his proposal is not consistent with our dynastic usage and cannot be entertained. Hitherto, all European nations, including your own country’s barbarian merchants, have carried on their trade with our Celestial Empire at Canton. Such has been the procedure for many years, although our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce. But as the tea, silk and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces, are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves, we have permitted, as a signal mark of favor, that foreign hongs [groups of merchants] should be established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence. But your Ambassador has now put forward new requests which completely fail to recognize the Throne’s principle to “treat strangers from afar with indulgence,” and to exercise a pacifying control over barbarian tribes, the world over. Moreover, our dynasty, swaying the myriad races of the globe, extends the same benevolence towards all. Your England is not the only nation trading at Canton. If other nations, following your bad example, wrongfully importune my ear with further impossible requests, how will it be possible for me to treat them with easy indulgence? Nevertheless, I do not forget the lonely remoteness of your island, cut off from the world by intervening wastes of sea, nor do I overlook your excusable ignorance of the usages of our Celestial Empire. I have consequently commanded my Ministers to enlighten your Ambassador on the subject, and have ordered the departure of the mission. But I have doubts that, after your Envoy’s return he may fail to acquaint you with my view in detail or that he may be lacking in lucidity, so that I shall now proceed … to issue my mandate on each question separately. In this way you will, I trust, comprehend my meaning….

Your request for a small island near Chusan [a group of islands in the East China Sea at the entrance to Hangchow Bay], where your merchants may reside and goods be warehoused, arises from your desire to develop trade. As there are neither foreign hongs nor interpreters in or near Chusan, where none of your ships have ever called, such an island would be utterly useless for your purposes. Every inch of the territory of our Empire is marked on the map and the strictest vigilance is exercised over it all: even tiny islets and far-lying sand-banks are clearly defined as part of the provinces to which they belong. Consider, moreover, that England is not the only barbarian land which wishes to establish … trade with our Empire: supposing that other nations were all to imitate your evil example and beseech me to present them each and all with a site for trading purposes, how could I possibly comply? This also is a flagrant infringement of the usage of my Empire and cannot possibly be entertained.

The next request, for a small site in the vicinity of Canton city, where your barbarian merchants may lodge or, alternatively, that there be no longer any restrictions over their movements at Aomen [a city some 45 miles to the south of Canton, at the lower end of the Pearl (Zhu) River delta] has arisen from the following causes. Hitherto, the barbarian merchants of Europe have had a definite locality assigned to them at Aomen for residence and trade, and have been forbidden to encroach an inch beyond the limits assigned to that locality. …If these restrictions were withdrawn, friction would inevitably occur between the Chinese and your barbarian subjects, and the results would militate against the benevolent regard that I feel towards you. From every point of view, therefore, it is best that the regulations now in force should continue unchanged….

Regarding your nation’s worship of the Lord of Heaven, it is the same religion as that of other European nations. Ever since the beginning of history, sage Emperors and wise rulers have bestowed on China a moral system and inculcated a code, which from time immemorial has been religiously observed by the myriads of my subjects. There has been no hankering after heterodox doctrines. Even the European (Christian) officials in my capital are forbidden to hold intercourse with Chinese subjects; they are restricted within the limits of their appointed residences, and may not go about propagating their religion. The distinction between Chinese and barbarian is most strict, and your Ambassador’s request that barbarians shall be given full liberty to disseminate their religion is utterly unreasonable.

It may be, O King that the above proposals have been wantonly made by your Ambassador on his own responsibility, or peradventure you yourself are ignorant of our dynastic regulations and had no intention of transgressing them when you expressed these wild ideas and hopes…. If, after the receipt of this explicit decree, you lightly give ear to the representations of your subordinates and allow your barbarian merchants to proceed to Chekiang and Tientsin [two Chinese port cities], with the object of landing and trading there, the ordinances of my Celestial Empire are strict in the extreme, and the local officials, both civil and military, are bound reverently to obey the law of the land. Should your vessels touch the shore, your merchants will assuredly never be permitted to land or to reside there, but will be subject to instant expulsion. In that event your barbarian merchants will have had a long journey for nothing. Do not say that you were not warned in due time! Tremblingly obey and show no negligence! A special mandate!3

Obviously and consistently the text of the emperor’s letter treats the king of Great Britain as his subject, demanding full and unlimited obedience to the emperor of China, who considered himself the ruler of the world.4 His letter contained open threats and used the command “tremblingly obey” at the end. In London, clearly the text of the document and the implied attitude could only be judged as humiliating and provocative.

Thus the stage was set for European diplomats to be replaced, in England as elsewhere, by military strategists. The two Opium Wars seemed implicitly justified by the condescending tone of Emperor Qianlong’s letter of 1793 to George iii. In 1840 the British took Chusan (Zhoushan) by force, having asked for it in a diplomatic but futile way as item no. 3 (see above!) on the agenda of the Macartney Mission in Beijing in 1793. In 1841 Zhousan was returned in exchange for Hong Kong which at that time was merely a fisher village.

Did Emperor Qianlong’s condescending letter addressed to the King of Great Britain give rise to the Opium Wars and their long term consequences? It may have led up to those, which does not mean that it literally caused or justified them. But how could the emperor consider the European nations barbarian and even call them by that name? Apart from the fact that this attitude of superiority was applied to all non-Chinese nations, not just the Europeans, a search for “objective facts” in support of the Chinese view of a savage Europe at the time leads to disturbing results:

England, September 1st: George Macartney, 1st Earl Macartney sails from Portsmouth in hmsLion as the first official envoy from the Kingdom of Great Britain to China.

France, September 2nd: During what becomes known as the September Massacres of the French Revolution, rampaging mobs slaughter three Roman Catholic bishops and more than 200 priests.5

In view of such occurrences Emperor Qianlong may not have found much reason to ask himself or his advisors, how appropriate it still was to consider the people of Europe barbarian.

Be that as it may, the international relations between China and the West during the 18th and 19th century led Chinese intellectuals to an utterly ambivalent attitude toward Europe, and at the same time to an increasingly critical evaluation of their own Chinese traditional culture. Why did the European communist movement gain so much support from Chinese intellectuals that it eventually led to the rule of Mao Zedong (lived 1893–1976) in China? How can we explain that during the past century the West could not influence mainland China with other ideas as decisively as with the teachings derived from the Germans Marx and Engels? Their Marxism was transported east to China directly as well as via China’s “European” neighbour Russia after having been enhanced there with Lenin’s and Stalin’s influence. But what is it that made these revolutionary ideas from the 19th and 20th century more attractive to Chinese intellectuals than older Western achievements like ancient Roman rationalism, Judeo-Christian thinking, and humanism? Threat and disappointment from the West caused them to give preference to that type of European thought that was itself critical of European conditions. That applies to texts from the 18th century by authors as Montesquieu (1689–1755), Voltaire (1694–1778), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) preceding and leading up to the French Revolution, as well as later to the writings by Marx and Engels published during the 19th century.

Russia, Japan, and Germany

Apart from the Chinese view on Europe as a threatening continent in general, there developed a special relationship between China and Russia, the only European power with territory bordering on the “Center Country.” After Japan had defeated China in the war of 1894–95 and thereby dealt an additional severe blow to the centrist self-perception (Schmidt-Glintzer 2014: 28), Li Hongzhang, then one of the most important political advisor to the emperor, was invited to St. Petersburg for the coronation of Tsar Nikolas ii in 1896. The diplomatic outcome of that visit was the signing of a secret treaty between Russia and China, in which the two nations promised to come to each other’s military aid in case Japan attacks Russia, China, or Korea (Kindermann 1970:78).

The treaty also specified that the Chinese ports should be open and available to Russian military operations in such a case. In addition, China agreed to permit Russia the construction of a railway through parts of Manchuria with the explicit permission to transport Russian military personnel and equipment through Chinese territory (ibid: 79). The only part of the treaty that became known to the public was the plan to build the railway.

The implied hope that Russia, the European ally, would help protect China from the increasing military strength of Japan, turned out to be an illusion: Instead Japan even defeated Russia at the end of the war of 1905! This victory of an Asian nation over what was considered a first rate European power had lasting symbolic and ideological consequences in China. In Europe it helped level the field for the Russian Revolution.

At the occasion of China being defeated by Japan in 1895 the ambitious German emperor William ii had written in a letter to the Russian Tsar that Germany too was interested in establishing a colony in China. No negative reaction came from the Russian side, so the Kaiser felt emboldened to go ahead with that plan (ibid: 80). When in November of 1897 two German missionaries were murdered in the province of Shandong, the German emperor used that sad event as a pretext for taking military action. The city and port of Qingdao (known also as Tsingtau) was taken by German troops after they overpowered the Chinese garrison there.

The imperial government of China was hoping for support from Russia against the German intervention. Finding itself, however, defeated militarily and diplomatically isolated on the issue, China had no choice but in March 1898 to sign an “agreement” leasing Qingdao to Germany for 99 years, similar to Britain’s lease on Hong Kong. In addition, China was forced to give to Germany the rights to build railways and to exploit mines throughout the province of Shandong (ibid.).

The Chinese Experience: Threat and Disappointment

About two decades later the outcome of the negotiations that were intended to conclude World War i with the Versailles Treaty of Peace of June 28, 1919, aggravated even more China’s view of The West of the early 20th century, which now more visibly included America. China had perceived itself as ally of the anti-Germany coalition. It sent an envoy to Versailles hoping to negotiate at least to the effect that the former German colonial holdings in Shandong province, including the city of Qingdao would be taken away from defeated Germany and returned to China. That, however, did not happen.

Instead China’s assumed allies, the “Big Three” nations represented by British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau and American President Woodrow Wilson, decided in Versailles to ignore China and to pass control of the formerly German colony in Shangdong to Japan. The Europeans and the United States thereby severely humiliated China and disappointed the educated class in their expectations of finding justice and fairness in the way their presumed allies would treat them. The effects of this disappointment about Western equity – or rather the lack thereof – can still be found in the attitudes of elderly intellectuals in China today.

Looking back at the small selection from the history of Chinese-European relations that we considered in this chapter, it seems plausible why from a Chinese perspective the inferior and barbarian nations of the West including the United States mutated to members of a threatening industrial culture, later of course to be identified with “capitalism.”

In addition to the West having proven dangerous militarily and unreliable politically, it was also experienced as threatening from the perspective of the economy. Throughout China’s history its economic balance in rural areas had depended upon combining the production of agricultural goods with the manufacture of handicraft. “As far back as the time of Mencius the peasants were being urged to plant mulberry bushes at their homesteads for the production of silk” (Fei 1953: 114).

Silk, tea, and porcelain, commonly referred to as china, were the standard handicrafts made in the countryside of China. Cotton spinning was also widespread. During the busy times of the year every farm hand was needed in the field, however, “rural activities are quite seasonal” (ibid: 115). That gave the population in the countryside the opportunity to add to what they grew as peasants the goods they manufactured as handicrafts.

The wealthy gentry, who frequently extracted painfully high payments from the tenants of the land, circulated some of that money back to them as buyers of their products and thereby helped assure that the peasants secured the needed additional income. But when European companies of mass production started selling their goods in Shanghai, Hong Kong and other trading points in China, the members of the gentry increasingly purchased the more prestigious products that had been imported from Paris or London. As a consequence, the local goods no longer found buyers. “If a countrywoman who has spun some cloth cannot find anyone to buy from her, whom can she blame? She will simply sigh and cease to spin” (ibid: 117).

The rise of Chinese business in the big cities as the result of imports from the West thus contributed to the decline of the countryside. There the poor peasants could then justifiably see themselves of victims of Western capitalism. Fei observes that during the Japanese occupation, which sadly blocked traffic between countryside and big cities, the countryside recovered, because their handicrafts were again in demand (ibid: 109).

The Chinese peasants of course realized the causal relationship between blockage of traffic and their improved condition and were aware of the paradox that they experienced something beneficial on the basis on a terrible war. In general, then, as a result of threatening Western business activities they experienced the added hardship of poverty, which was imposed on them before and after the last war with Japan. As a result, the notion became wide spread in China that Western nations were dangerous militarily, unreliable politically, and threatening from the perspective of the economy.

Why Did China Not Defend Herself?

Looking back at the many military provocations facing China from European countries and from Japan the question must be raised, why the huge country did not display more military power to defend herself. A prominent Chinese view on the reluctance to fight reads quite sober as follows: A simple young Chinese may feel inspired by a great man, wanting to follow him. That leader may then put such individuals in the military and send them “to fight. They will be killed whether they go forward or turn back. That is dangerous to them” (Lin 1936: 200). They may have been inspired to “forsake their own private pursuits and join the military service, and when they are poor, those above do not pay them any attention. Of course they remain poor. Now who likes to be in danger and poverty? Therefore, they will mind their own business and will be interested in building their own houses and will try to avoid war” (ibid.). This statement must be read in the context of the prevalence of private interests over public service.

But indeed there have been wars throughout Chinese history. In a striking piece of research, published in 1931, J.S. Lee (Lee 1931) presented empirical support for a cyclical philosophy of history. He pointed to the periodic recurrence of disastrous civil wars in China. He presented with considerable plausibility the scheme of three cycles of about 800 years duration each with a sequence of political hubris and actual greatness, followed by catastrophic decline. These cycles cover roughly the intervals between 200 bce and 600 ce, next between 600 and 1400 ce and finally between 1400 ce and our approaching future of the year 2200. Each cycle starts with a maximum of centralized power and the striking employment of technical and human resources, then ends with the collapse of one or several dynasties.

In cycle one monarchic power and cultural greatness enabled China in the years 220–206 bce to build the Great Wall in its earliest version. The construction was ordered by Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of a unified China who died in 210 bce after having had thousands of terracotta soldiers6 modeled for his mausoleum. In addition, the same tyrannical ruler commanded the construction of a colossal imperial palace, the Epangong (阿房宫) which after his death was set on fire by rebellious crowds and burnt for three months.

Cycle two started around 600 ce with “the building of the Grand Canal under the Sui Emperor, who had also magnificent palaces” built, “noted for their grandeur and luxury” (Lin 1936: 27). The cycle ended in the rule of foreigners over China, the Mongol emperors, referred to as the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368 ce).

Cycle three started at about 1400 with the renewal of the Great Wall and its extension to its present form. In addition, new canals and dams were constructed and, most importantly perhaps, the city of Peking was built under Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty.

After between 200 and 300 years of their respective existence and increasingly during the second half and toward the end of each cycle, brutal internecine wars occurred in which Chinese killed each other in large numbers. It is disquieting, that the publication by Lee and the comments about it by Lin occurred decades prior to the most recent Chinese civil war and the Cultural Revolution (compare: Leese 2013), events which Lee might have predicted in the continuity of his comparative research about the three cycles of history.

These speculations about the real or imagined repetitions in Chinese history lead up to the following question: How can it be explained that this people, identified by a continuous culture, survived the repeated political disasters it suffered? Maybe this happens because the strength of China comes out of its families rather than its government and its military. Can public weakness and even vices be compensated in a society by private virtues?

That name was derived from the pronunciation of the name of the province Guangdong surrounding the city of Guangzhou.

Wikipedia, entry: Macartney Mission.

“Qianlong Letter to George iii (1792)” University of California, Santa Barbara. Retrieved January 30, 2014. http://www.history.ucsb.edu/faculty/marcuse/classes/2c/texts/1792QianlongLetterGeorgeIII.htm.

In 1874, Queen Victoria took the title “Empress of India.” The British monarchs kept the title until 1947.

Wikipedia, Entry “1792”.

The Terracotta Army was discovered outside Xi’an in 1974 by coincidence when workmen were digging a well.

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China: Promise or Threat?

A Comparison of Cultures