After the shameful defeat of Qing forces during the Second Opium War (1857-1860), the Qing Dynasty’s prestige was at an all-time low. The Emperor had been forced to sign a series of unequal treaties, which granted several foreign countries extraterritoriality, control of five ports, and numerous other privileges. With “foreign barbarians” repeatedly imposing their demands on China, an anti-foreign movement swiftly spread across the country. This movement was coupled with anti-government sentiment, as many people believed that the Qing had failed to adequately protect the country from foreign powers.
Amid social unrest and worsening famine, the atmosphere was ripe for rebellion. It was at this point that a man named Hong Xiuquan came to the fore. Having been influenced by Christianity, Hong claimed that he often had visions of God and believed he was the brother of Jesus Christ. In 1851, he established the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom and sparked a vicious uprising known as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). His rejection of traditional Chinese culture attracted large numbers of followers, who had become jaded with the Qing Dynasty’s staunch observance to tradition. His vision of an egalitarian society sustained by a communal treasury also appealed to China’s impoverished peasants.
In 1853, the Taiping army scored a major victory when they captured the city of Nanjing. However, as the old saying goes, absolute power corrupts absolutely! Soon they were plagued by internal feuds and corruption, which would eventually lead to their undoing. During its fourteen-year long campaign, the Taiping Rebellion resulted in the deaths of an estimated 20 to 70 million people, making it one of the bloodiest conflicts in world history.
It also prompted revolts by Muslim, Miao, and other minority peoples throughout China, most notable of which were the Dungan Revolt (1862-1877) in the northwest, the Nian Rebellion (1851-1868) in the north, and the Panthay Rebellion (1856-1873) in Yunnan province. This series of rebellions crippled China’s economy, as vast tracts of farmland were destroyed, millions of lives were lost, and the imperial treasury was drained to support the Qing army in their fight against the rebels.
Meanwhile, a cunning concubine was clawing her way up the political ladder. Empress Dowager Cixi had entered the imperial palace during the 1850s as a consort to the Xianfeng Emperor. When her five-year-old son ascended the throne as the Tongzhi Emperor in 1861, she virtually took control of the Qing court. She wielded such political influence that, when the emperor died in 1875, she was able to place her pliable nephew, the Guangxu Emperor, on the throne. Thus her stranglehold on the administration continued throughout his reign.
Although the government had attempted to embrace western technology and even established a ministry of foreign affairs known as the Zongli Yamen, the anti-foreign sentiment that pervaded after the Taiping Rebellion was palpable. Animosity was directed mainly towards Christianity, which was believed to have been responsible for the revolt. These tensions culminated in the Tianjin Massacre of 1870, during which a French consul, 2 officials, 10 nuns, and 2 priests were murdered.
At the time, dedicated officials such as Zeng Guofan managed to pacify the French government, but it seems the French never quite forgot about what happened in Tianjin. In 1858, France started expanding its control of Indochina and by 1883 it had full control of all territories leading right up to China’s southern border. In 1884, French forces suddenly attacked a Chinese fleet stationed at Fuzhou, which marked the beginning of the Sino-French War (1884-1885). Although China initially won some significant victories against the French, the Japanese threatened to enter the war and the Qing government decided to end the affair with negotiations. The Emperor was forced to sign another unequal treaty, the Treaty of Tientsin, which acknowledged France’s control of Vietnam, a territory that China had long held suzerainty over. Yet it seemed Japan also had its eye on one of China’s vassal states!
For many years, Japan had attempted to establish a connection with Korea. In 1876, these efforts culminated in the Treaty of Kanghwa, which forced Korea to open up trade with Japan. China was deeply concerned about Japan’s involvement in Korea, but it didn’t reach boiling point until the Donghak Rebellion (1894-1895). In June of 1894, the reigning king of Korea, Gojong, requested that the Qing government aid him in suppressing the revolt. In response, they sent the military general Yuan Shikai with a dispatch of 28,000 troops.
The Japanese felt that this move was tantamount to betrayal, as the Qing government had failed to inform them of their decision to send troops. They countered by sending 8,000 of their own troops to Korea. When Japan suggested to China that they work together to reform Korea’s government, the Qing refused. It seemed that a clash between these two titans was inevitable. On August 1st of the same year, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) officially began.
The war turned out to be a watershed moment in East Asian history. With its modernised fleets, advanced artillery, and Western martial tactics, the Japanese military outranked the Chinese on land and sea. The defeat dealt a humiliating blow to the Qing Dynasty, which was forced to acknowledge the failings in its military institutions. This finally led to the establishment of the New Army, which was trained in westernised drills, tactics, and weaponry, and was led by Yuan Shikai.
At the end of the war, the Qing government signed a peace treaty that granted Japan control of Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula. Russia, Germany, and France forced Japan to change the treaty and relinquish the peninsula. However, it seems sometimes you can’t depend on the kindness of strangers! In exchange for their intervention, they began to press China with demands for more foreign concessions. Following suit, Britain and Japan also started laying claims to various territories. In short, China was being carved up faster than a turkey on Christmas!
In reaction to this crisis, the Guangxu Emperor initiated the Hundred Days of Reform. Over a period of one hundred days, he executed a series of edicts to reorganise the administration, and gave positions of substantial influence to more radical advisers, such as Kang Youwei. Tragically this movement produced no practical results, and many of the reforms were overturned by Empress Dowager Cixi. Meanwhile, China’s citizens reacted quite differently to the impending crisis!
From 1896 to 1898, a vicious anti-foreign uprising took place in Shandong province, in response to the constant encroachment of German forces. It was staged by a band of people known as the Yihequan or “Righteous and Harmonious Fists”, who believed that they were invulnerable to harm thanks to the practise of a mysterious boxing art. For this reason, they are often referred to as the Boxers.
Much like previous revolts, the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) was characterised by a particularly anti-Christian sentiment. What started as bands of roaming bandits killing Chinese Christians and foreign missionaries swiftly escalated into the widespread destruction of churches, railways, and anything of foreign origin. While the Qing court did not condone the Boxers’ actions, they did nothing to stop them. In many ways, they took great satisfaction in seeing the humiliation of the many foreign powers who had subjugated them. By May of 1900, Cixi was secretly supporting the Boxers. After hearing a false report that claimed the foreign powers had demanded she return power to the Emperor, Cixi openly declared war on them.
This move backfired horribly, as foreign troops seized Beijing in August, forcing Cixi and the Emperor to flee to Xi’an. However, the Anglo-German Agreement was signed in October and consented to by Britain, Germany, the United States, Russia, and Japan. This agreement stipulated that, to preserve commercial interests, China should no longer have its territory divided any further by foreign powers. In return, China was forced to pay indemnity, establish permanent foreign guards in Beijing, and dismantle any forts between Beijing and the sea. That being said, to add insult to injury, foreign troops had already seized most places in Hebei province, and the northeast of China had been entirely occupied by Russian forces. By this point, the Qing court had virtually lost all control over the country.