The 1500’s to the 1900’s

The officials who opposed openness and trade had triumphed and China, under the Ming dynasty, had turned back on itself. Since the Ming emperors were considered the sons of Heaven, they were, by definition, superior to all other people on earth. They had no interest in the outside world and so this powerful nation, with probably the best technology, intelligence and natural resources, doomed itself to fall behind a rapidly expanding and energetic Europe.


Portuguese, English, Dutch, and French ships were now sailing the Asian seas and by the 1500s, Asia was being forced to welcome European navies to their ports. These navies had the least success with China (and Japan) who had resisted western attempts to trade on a large scale.


By the mid 1600s there was another invasion from the north. Known as the Manchus, their forces from Manchuria swept down and took over the government of China.

The first Manchurian emperor welcomed Christian missionaries, encouraged the teaching of western science and literature and, at the same time, imported canons from Europe. There was much political opposition to this openness and, by 1722, China was back in its isolationist mode, worried about news of the British and French interventions in India.

A Classic Letter!

As the Chinese continued to resist industrialization, they became obvious prey to European powers. These same powers were constantly pushing for opportunities to trade. They had sampled Chinese silk and tea and wanted more. European merchants eventually succeeded in obtaining rights to use the port of Canton now called Guangzhou (near Hong Kong). One port for such a vast country was hardly adequate and when in 1793 King George III of England sent a delegation requesting additional ports, he received this classic reply.

“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. … 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. … 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...

King George should be excused if he choked on his morning tea when he read it!


But Britain and the West were not finished with China. They were constantly buying silk (which was in huge demand in Europe) and tea (for an England where some people drank 20 cups per day). Since China did not require goods in return for these products, they had to be paid in gold. Trying to solve this balance of payments problem, the merchants came up with an unfortunate solution. In neighboring India opium smoking was long established and poppy seeds plentiful. If the British merchants could find a market for this destructive habit in China, they could solve their payment problem. The plan was highly successful and soon thousands of Chinese were addicted to opium.

The Chinese government, alarmed by what was happening, issued strict laws prohibiting the sale or smoking of opium. Smuggling developed and corrupt officials, some of them addicts themselves, closed their eyes and shared in the profits. Finally, in 1839, a Chinese official was ordered to go to Canton and abolish the opium trade once and for all. He acted decisively, seizing 20,000 chests of opium from warehouses and burning them publicly on a beach near the city.

The British responded by demanding payment for the destroyed opium and sending warships to settle this “Trade War.” The Chinese had another name for it, which has stuck in the history books, “The Opium War.”

The emperor’s forces were no match for the warships they faced and they watched in surprise and horror as “barbarians” bombarded Canton and captured Shanghai and Nanking. By 1842, China yielded to British demands, paying for the opium, opening five ports to British trade and giving Britain outright possession of the island of Hong Kong.

The west continued to bully China into trading and, in 1860, combined British and French troops fought their way to Beijing (Peking then) and forced the emperor to allow foreigners to live and trade there and in many other cities.


In 1900, Chinese nationals rose up against the foreign presence. A secret society named “Society of the Righteous Fists,” translated by Europeans as “The Boxers” started initiating recruits with the promise of making them invulnerable to bullets, and conducted some demonstrations to prove it. (One wonders how they did it. Possibly bulletproof thick silk) Burning and killing started and westerners left their missions and fled to Peking. Eventually there were 1700 people from eleven nations including British, French, Russian, Austrian, Australian and Americans, holed up and under attack in Peking, with the Chinese government apparently helpless to aid them. The internationals held on for 55 days until friendly forces, including British and American Marines relieved them.

The “Peace of Peking” which followed, further humiliated the Chinese and, by 1911, revolutionaries led by Dr. Sun Yat Sen took over the government and 2000 years of monarchy ended in China.


China made an attempt at democracy but, with absolutely no tradition of democratic rule, the system was abused. Officials were most concerned about laws which affected their salaries, and in selling their vote to the highest bidder.

By 1927, Sun Yat Sen’s brother-in-law, Chiang Kai Shek, had seized China under “Nationalist” rule. There were, however, two forces standing in his way to complete control — Japan (which invaded the northern province of China, Manchuria) and a communist revolutionary leader called Mao Ze Dong.