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‘Century of Humiliation’: The Modern History of China

1. Introduction

China was never the ‘not there’ chapter in the history. Beginning with the semi-mythical Xia dynasty, China maintained the continuum despite presence of the rising and declining dynasties dictated by the ‘mandate of heaven’. From a vast Game of Thrones-like history, consisting of numerous dynasties, warlords, eunuchs, and a great wall, the modern China chose the ‘century of humiliation’ to shape its self-image (EFSAS).

2. The Last Dynasty

It was in the reign of the Qing dynasty, a Manchu minority ruled over the majority of Chinese people from 1644 until it succumbed to the revolution of 1912. However, the ‘middle kingdom’ asserted its authority with the Tribute system or the Cefeng system. The system, thereby, constructed a loose network of the international relations that facilitated trade while the central idea was to render a ceremonial submission to the ‘Son of Heaven’ by sending exotic tributes.

Image: Qing Dynasty Map

In 1793, a British diplomat George McCartney reached the king’s palace with some presents and as a tribute the Chinese thought of proposing trade but on equal terms. While parting, the Qianlong Emperor handed over an edict for the British King George III, congratulating him on his ‘sincere humility and obedience’, adding that China did not have ‘the slightest need of Britain’s manufactures’ (Keay). Qianlong, obviously, did have substance to his claim.

McCartney failed in his mission, but thenceforth, the Qing period would be forever marked for ‘the disastrous handling of the insistent Western demand for commercial penetration’ (Keay).

The European traders, on the other hand, used to buy silk, tea, and ceramics from China to sell in their countries. In return the Chinese were provided with silver, as Qianlong has before said that China needs nothing but payment in silver. This tilted the balance of payment in favour of China and deeply worried the European mercantilist sensibilities. Consequently, the British East India Company forced Indian farmers to cultivate opium that would be sold to the Chinese people, despite being illegal, and would eventually turn the balance the trade for them. Thereby, starting a horrendous network of colonial tyranny under the banner of free trade.

3. Pretext to the First Opium War

The smuggling of opium disturbed the social stability in China. The habit spread from Canton to the mainland, addicting people of all the classes. The several bans announced by the government did not stop the traders. The British were joined by the Americans, who sold cheaper opium from Turkey. This decreased the price of opium and resulted in increased demand which was satiated by other European traders jumping in. The trade also benefited the Chinese merchants, who kept ignoring their government’s orders. All this reversed the balance of trade in China. Further, with the rapid industrialisation and the adoption of the gold standard, Britain needed more silver. Thus, at the end of the 19th century, the west desperately sought additional trading rights in China.

4. The First Opium War

Image: First Opium War

In 1839, the Daoguang Emperor appointed Lin Zexu as the Special Imperial Commissioner to end the opium trade. Lin seized the opium stockpiles from the warehouses of the traders and publicly destroyed each one of them, scandalising the European traders. This raged the British, however, the British government promised its traders sufficient portion of compensation.

The immediate cause of the war was the killing of a villager in Kowloon by a group of the British merchants. The British superintendent Elliot refused to hand over the men to the Chinese authority. This led to the Battle of Kowloon, in which the British won. It was followed by a full-fledged opium war sanctioned by the British parliament that continued till 1842. The first opium war concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Nanking, the first of a series of unequal treaties. Further, the Chinese had to pay a war indemnity, cede the island of Hong Kong to the British, end the canton system, and allow trade at five treaty ports. It was also followed by the Treaty of Bogue, which granted British extra-territoriality and the most favoured nation status.

5. Cutting the Chinese Melon

Image: Cutting the Chinese melon

In the mid-1850s, Britain sought yet more access to the Chinese market and asked for the revision of the Treaty of Nanking. The authority of the Chinese government, thereby, declined.

Moreover, an attack on a British cargo ship called Arrow by the Chinese authorities in 1856 gave Britain the reason to start the second opium war. France also joined hands to avenge the execution of a missionary, Auguste Chapdelaine. Furthermore, already dealing with the Taiping Rebellion, the Emperor Xianfeng had to negotiate the Treaties of Tianjin in 1858. The treaties permitted Britain, France, Americans, and Russians to install legations in Beijing, ten additional ports would be opened to foreign trade, foreigners would be permitted to travel through the interior, and reparations would be paid to Britain and France. In addition, the Russians signed the separate Treaty of Aigun, which gave them coastal land in northern China. The war, thus, ended in 1860 with the British and French burning the summer palace.

Meanwhile, Japan which had modernised itself under the Meiji rule, was looking for some imperialist engagements for itself. The first Sino-Japanese war was fought in 1894, and China lost Manchuria, Formosa, and the Korean to Japan, causing grave humiliation for the Qing Dynasty. Moreover, Russia also received mining rights in Manchuria and the right to build railway lines in the region to financially help China. The USA came up with the Open Door Policy in 1898, which argued against the carving out of spheres of influence. As nationalist leader Sun-Yet-Sen argued:China became a colony of not one but all European powers following the cutting of the Chinese melon.

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  • According to UPSC Syllabus
  • Includes Previous Year Questions
  • PYQ Analysis
  • Plenty of Maps, Images for Illustration
  • Also useful for State PSC Examinations
  • A must-have book for all UPSC Aspirants

6. Countdown to the Chinese Republic

By the end of the 19th century, China was suffering from a political breakdown and series of natural disasters. The ‘mandate of heaven’ was shaking. In this scenario, a group rose in the northern China which pointed fingers at the foreigners, especially Christians, for their starvation. They were called Boxers by the Europeans because they practised martial arts. The Boxer Rebellion began in 1899 and targeted Europeans and Chinese Christians and their properties. The Chinese government did not try to suppress the uprising, which led to the Eight-Nation Alliance consisting of American, Austro-Hungarian, British, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Russian. They defeated the Imperial Army in Tianjin and started executing the Boxers. A boxer protocol was signed in 1901, demanding the execution of government officials who supported the Boxers, stationing of foreign troops in Beijing, and payment of 450 million taels (erstwhile Chinese weight unit) of silver to the eight countries over the course of 39 years.

Image: Boxer Rebellion

After the Boxer Rebellion, Empress Dowager Cixi reluctantly started the New Policy Reforms in 1901 under which the imperial examination system was eliminated, western education was included, bureaucracy was simplified, and new taxation policies were introduced. 

All these reforms only accelerated the activities of revolutionary secret societies. The nationalists and revolutionaries got their supporters in the form of the Chinese students in Japan. The secret societies soon also started infiltrating the army. Sun Yat-sen, the undisputed leader of the revolution, united three groups: Revive China Society, Huaxinghui, and Guangfuhui in 1905, establishing the unified Tongmenghui (United League). He was a western educated physician who proposed three principles of the people: nationalism, rights of the people, and livelihood, but led several failed attempts to bring down the Qing dynasty. An accidental explosion by one such group led to the Wuchang Uprising on 10th October 1911, which spread to several other provinces. On the other hand,  Sun Yat-sen became the first president of the republic centred in Nanjing in December 1911. Meanwhile, the palace hastily recalled Yuan Shikai, an army official earlier sent into forced retirement and appointed him as the Prime Minister to negotiate with the revolutionaries. It should be mentioned here that by this time the Qing government was highly decentralised, and the armies were maintained by provincial lords. Moreover, Yuan Shikai’s powerful Beiyang army was loyal to him, not the king. Yuan Shikai started playing for both sides and negotiated a presidency for him in return for supporting the revolutionaries. Finally, on 12th February 1912, six years old, Emperor Puyi was abdicated and Sun Yat-Sen handed over the presidency to Yuan Shikai on 10th March 1912 as promised. The unrelenting foreign intervention, the patchy success of Cixi’s new reforms, an increasing movement of republicanism adopted from western ideals, and a powerful army initiated by the Qing’s new policies brought success to the Xinhai Revolution (Teachers).

7. Towards the Communist Revolution

Yuan Shikai failed to consolidate a legitimate central government, declared himself as the Emperor. However, he died in 1916, leading to the decades of political division and warlordism, including an attempt at imperial restoration.

Image: Sun Yat Sen

Sun Yat-Sen when in exile, returned once more to realise his philosophies and re-established Kuomingtang in Canton. He was joined by the Chinese Communist Party in his fight against the warlords which is called the First United Front. However, Sun died in 1925, and Chiang Kai-Shek declared himself the Generalissimo. In 1927, he launched the white terror to eradicate the Communists who were resisting Kai-shek’s power consolidation. While Kai-shek was busy targeting the Communists, Japan captured Manchuria in 1931. Generalissimo continued his encirclement of the Communists strongholds which ultimately led to the famous ‘Long March’ of 1934-35. The march started from the Southeast of China to the north-western Yan’an region, covering 6000 miles. Only ten percent survived out of the 100000 who began the march. It was during this time that Mao Tse-tung rose through the ranks. 

“The key to success is action, and the essential in action is perseverance.”

Sun Yat Sen

Amidst this civil war, Japan also started a full-scale encroachment in 1937. Mao offered to form the second United front with the KMT to fight the foreign invasion. However, the KMT faced a direct confrontation with the Japanese and suffered huge losses. Thus, the Communist Red army preferred Guerrilla warfare. Furthermore, this alliance broke down in 1945 with the end of World War II. At this time, the Communists had huge membership and support. They were also supported by the USSR. The USA, on the other hand, supported the KMT. Aa a result of this, a civil war broke out in June 1946, which the communists called the war of liberation. The Chinese Communist Party fought with the local support, and Mao declared the People’s Republic of China on 1st October 1949. He ruled it until his death in 1976. Chiang Kai-shek was forced to flee to the island of Taiwan, which he ruled till his death in 1975 as the Republic of China. However, the war never officially ended, and tensions recur in the news even now.

8. Conclusion

This series of events, from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries, form the collective national memory of today’s China. The diplomatic and military humiliation by Westerners stirred the nationalist feeling of the Chinese intellectuals. They called it the ‘century of humiliation’, which remains a major component of the modern China’s founding narrative. The promise is to ‘never again’ let China fall into this state. Understanding this history is important for understanding Chinese foreign policy and worldview. 

  • According to UPSC Syllabus
  • Includes Previous Year Questions
  • PYQ Analysis
  • Plenty of Maps, Images for Illustration
  • Also useful for State PSC Examinations
  • A must-have book for all UPSC Aspirants

9. Multiple Choice Question

1] What was the main idea behind the Cefeng system?
a) To overthrow the Qing dynasty
b) Ceremonial submission to the Son of Heaven
c) Form a constitutional monarchy
d) Bring state controlled economic system

Show Answer

Ans: b) Ceremonial submission to the Son of Heaven

2] Which was the last Chinese dynasty?
a) Qing Dynasty
b) Tang Dynasty
c) Han dynasty
d) Qin dynasty

Show Answer

Ans: a) Qing Dynasty

3] What was the impact of opium on the Chinese society?
a) Increased use of opium by people
b) Decreased productivity of the society
c) Both a and b
d) None of the above

Show Answer

Ans: c) Both a and b

4] What is the Kowloon incident?
a) Killing of a villager by the British
b) Violent revolution against the Government.
c) Britain invasion of China
d) Burning of the Opium stockpiles.

Show Answer

Ans: a) Killing of a villager by the British

5] How the First Opium War was concluded?
a) Treaty of Paris
b) Treaty of Peace
c) Treaty of Nanking
d) Treaty of Kowloon

Show Answer

Ans: c) Treaty of Nanking

6] Who was the First President of Chinese Republic?
a) Dowager Cixi
b) Ho Chi Minh
c) Sun Yat Sen
d) Chiang Kai Sheik

Show Answer

Ans: c) Sun Yat Sen

7] From which place did the Long March of 1934-35 started?
a) Southeast of China
b) Manchuria
c) Nanking
d) Tibet

Show Answer

Ans: a) Southeast of China

8] When the People’s Republic of China came into being?
a) June 1946
b) July 1947
c) October 1949
d) March 1950

Show Answer

Ans: c) October 1949

9] Who was the leading personality behind the formation of the People’s Republic of China?
a) Mao
b) Chiang Kai Sheik
c) Yuan Shikai
d) Sun Yat Sen

Show Answer

Ans: a) Mao

10] The unified Tongmenghui consisted which of the following?
a) Guangfuhui
b) Huaxinghui
c) Revive China society
d) All of them

Show Answer

Ans: d) All of them

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