History Lessons: What happened to China?

by R. Brian Roser

At the end of the 18th century, China was on top of the world. They had invented: paper, movable type, the compass, gunpowder and nail polish. They had built canals hundreds of miles long. They were the wealthiest, most populous, most powerful nation in the world. When the British sent a trade ambassador to the emperor in 1793, he was told that there’s nothing Britain had that China wanted. The Qianlong Emperor told George III ‘Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There is therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.’

In 1916, the last dynasty to rule China was gone forever. There was no central government to speak of and warlords ruled the countryside. Their technological position had slipped far behind Europe and their canals started to look a lot less impressive next to the one in Panama. Their navy had been so often and so thoroughly defeated that their ships were comparatively junk.

So what happened?

The short answer is Empress Cixi and Yuan Shikai happened. The slightly longer answer is that they had a rough 19th century. The tl;dr answer is as follows:

The first third or so of the century was actually pretty peaceful. There wasn’t too much fighting going on; no big barbarian invasions occurred and civil unrest was kept at manageable levels. The British were allowed their trade as long as it was done in one port and under strict adult supervision.

Right, so Britain had nothing China wanted, but China had stuff that Britain wanted and they were running out of silver to pay for it. What to do in this situation? What would Han Solo do? That’s it! We’ll smuggle drugs into the country.

The emperor was less than happy to have a growing population of addicts baked out of their minds and not working, or paying taxes. To combat this, he appointed Lin Zexu to stop the drug epidemic. Lin came up with a plan to help the addicted and figured a good place to start was destroying all the opium. He confiscated everything in the warehouses and set them on fire.

And The British were all like: Oh no you didn’t.

The U.K. decided to go to war and sent in their navy. The debates in Parliament focused on free trade, because going to war to make the world safe for drug dealers doesn’t look good in the papers. They took over Hong Kong, humiliated the Chinese navy and were sailing up the Yangtze river to Nanjing before the Chinese surrendered. The British made them sign a treaty allowing them to deal drugs to their hearts’ content.

You’d think that it would be a wake-up call for China, but no….

Around the time that war was gearing up, a man by the name of Hong Xiuquan (Pronounced  火秀)

had just failed his government exam. Not a big deal, most people did. It was a tough exam. The thing that he then did, which was unusual was have a nervous breakdown, which included passing out and having visions of him being the younger brother of Jesus Christ (yes, really) . When he woke up from said visions, he tried to take over China. The Imperial court thought he was an odd-ball nuisance until he conquered Nanjing and fielded armies in the tens of thousands.

At first the West thought: Hey these guys are sort of Christians, why don’t we support them? Then then sent envoys to talk to them and realized that Hong was nutty as a fruitcake. That’s why, in the end, they decided to support the Manchu dynasty instead. Well, first Britain wanted to fight another Opium War, because they thought they had been slighted by the Chinese and felt like looting the Summer Palace. Once that was over they decided to help the Manchu dynasty. Between the Ever Victorious Army under Charles “Chinese” Gordon (note: not actually Chinese) and the locally raised Hunan army, China was eventually able to put down the rebellion. The Imperial army itself, however, proved completely incapable of anything approaching competence.

No teacher in my high school history classes ever mentioned the war, but it turns out that after World War Two, it was the bloodiest conflict in human history. By some estimates, there were twice as many deaths in the Taiping Rebellion as in the First World War.

You’d think that would be a wake-up call for China, but well…

Some did try. They tried to set up a modern shipyard at Fuzhou. That is, until France decided they liked Vietnam and wanted to wear it as an accessory. They started a war with the Chinese in 1884 and despite losing some battles on land (I mean they were French) they did win at sea and also managed to flatten said shipyard like a crêpe. To be fair, China had ordered some shiny new battleships from Germany, but they hadn’t arrived in time.

You’d think that would be a wake-up call for China, but…

Now it was Japan’s turn. They saw how pretty Vietnam looked around France’s neck and thought maybe Korea might make a nice brooch. China was supposed to be protecting Korea, but it turns out they kinda sucked at it. Chinese generals routinely embezzled funds and the Empress Cixi decided she would much rather have a new summer palace than an army with ammunition. Needless to say, China lost. Japan, who had, for thousands of years lived in the shadow of China had just kicked their butts. I turns out that when the Japanese got the wake-up call, they didn’t hit the snooze button.

That one woke China up…

Well, most of China, anyway. The Guangxu Emperor himself started the process of reform. He issued orders to restructure everything to bring China into the modern era: education would include science and engineering, rather than just Confucian texts. Sinecures would be abolished to fight corruption, a deliberative body would be created to turn the government into a constitutional monarchy, the military would be overhauled and the economy would become more capitalist. This managed to last just over three months in 1898. The Empress Cixi decided the changes were too liberal and led a coup against the emperor. She put him under house arrest, stopped the imperial reforms and executed the leaders of the reform movement.

The last thread of hope for the dynasty finally snapped and the sword of Damocles began to fall.

In 1900, the Boxers led a brief rebellion targeting foreigners. For two months they laid siege to Beijing, but the Westerners quickly had reinforcements on the way. The Empress Cixi gave the Boxers her backing, but if China couldn’t beat any one of the Western powers, they stood exactly zero chance facing a coalition of eight of them together.

Once the rebellion was over, there was another round of concessions to the foreign powers. Japan, however, was unhappy with Russia trying to take over the parts of China that they wanted to take over, like Port Arthur, (Or Lüshun if you, you know, live there) so they started the aptly named Russo-Japanese War. This was a war on Chinese soil and in Chinese waters in which the Chinese were too weak to actually participate.

Now that the last bit of punctuation was in place and the neon lights turned on, Cixi was finally able to read the writing on the wall. At this point, she did try to implement some kind of reforms, but they were too little and too late. It’s no good spotting the iceberg if you only see it after half the passengers have already drowned.

A few years later, she finally died, but the last thing she did before she gave up the ghost was to order the death of the reformist emperor by poisoning him. He died one day before she did.

Meanwhile, a revolutionary named Sun Yat-sen had come to the conclusion that the empire was done for. China needed a representative government and he dedicated his life to putting it into place. He sponsored uprisings in China and one of them in Wuchang finally brought about an end to Qing dominance in the region. Once it did, the dominoes began to fall and other provinces slipped through the emperor’s fingers. They elected Sun Yat-sen as provisional president. The emperor’s power was waning and democracy for China was imminent.

Only… Yuan Shikai wanted to be president… and Yuan Shikai led the army. Yuan was allowed to be provisional president in order to broker the last emperor’s abdication. I mean, it was only temporary right? Elections were held in 1913 and Sun’s party, the KMT won. Yuan didn’t like that, so he assassinated the new head of parliament. Then threw KMT out of parliament. Then got rid of parliament. Then declared himself emperor.

After this, he lost any shred of legitimacy he had left and even his best friends stopped returning his calls. Pretty much the entire country was sick of empire and he effectively lost control of the country. He died in 1916 and when he did, the generals he put into place to run the country did just that. The warlords ruled their fiefdoms and central authority was gone.

Here’s the thing about China: This country was on top of the world. Unfortunately they thought that just because they were, then they always would be. Other nations came up with great innovations, but they were ignored, because they were foreign. They continued on the same path, because they had always done things like that, even when doing things like that was clearly not working anymore. The lesson we as Americans need to learn is this: if you are the leader of the pack, it doesn’t mean you can stand still, because if you do, you will be left behind.

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