For four or five thousand years China remained isolated from the rest of the civilized world, its only relations being with the surrounding peoples of its own race, notably with the Tartars of the steppes. Then, in the nineteenth century, the wall of isolation suddenly broke down, and it was forced to enter into relations of trade and amity with Europe and America. This revolution did not come about peacefully. The thunder of cannon was necessary to break down the Chinese wall of seclusion. But the result seems likely to prove of the greatest advantage to the so-called Celestial Kingdom. It has swung loose from its moorings in the harbor of conservatism, and it is not safe to predict how far it will drift, but it is safe to say that a few years of foreign war have done as much for it as hundreds of years of peace and isolation.
From time to time in the past centuries Europeans made their way to China. Some were priestly envoys, some missionaries, some, as in the case of the Polos, traders. Afterwards came the Jesuit missionaries, who gained an important standing in China under the early Manchu emperors, and were greatly favored by the emperor Kanghi. After his death a change took place, and they were gradually driven from the land.
The first foreign envoy reached China from Russia in 1567. Another came in 1653, his purpose being to establish freedom of trade. A century later a treaty was made establishing a system of overland trade between Russia and China, and since then a Russian missionary station has existed in Peking. In 1516 came the first vessel to China under a European flag, a Portuguese trader. Others followed, and trade began through Canton and other ports. But the foreign traders soon began to act rather as pirates than as peaceful visitors, and in the end the Chinese drove them all away. About the middle of the sixteenth century a foreign settlement was begun at Macao, on an island near the southeast boundary of the empire, and here the trade grow so brisk that for a time Macao was the richest trading-mart in Eastern Asia. But so hostile were the relations between the Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch, and so brigand-like their behavior, that the Chinese looked upon them all as piratical barbarians, and intercourse did not grow.
The English had their own way of opening trade relations. A fleet under Captain Weddell came to Canton in 1637, and, as the Chinese fired upon a watering boat, attacked and captured the forts, burnt the council-house, carried off the guns from the forts, and seized two merchant junks. About fifty years afterwards they were accorded trading privileges at Canton and Ning-po.
To England, indeed, is due the chief credit of opening up China to the world, though the way in which it was done is not much to England's credit. This was by the famous—or infamous—opium war. But in another way England was the first to break through the traditional ceremonies of the Chinese court. All who approached the emperor's throne, foreign ambassadors as well as Chinese subjects, were required to perform the kotow, which consisted in kneeling three times before the emperor, or even before his empty throne, and each time bowing the bead until the forehead three times touched the marble flooring. This was done by the Russians and the Dutch, but the Earl of Macartney, who came as English ambassador in 1792, refused to perform the slavish ceremony, and was therefore not permitted to see the emperor, though otherwise well received.
The first event of importance in the nineteenth century, that century so vital in the history of China, was the hoisting of the American flag at Canton in 1802, which marked the beginning of American trade with the Celestial empire. From this time the trade of Canton rapidly grew, until it became one of the greatest commercial cities of the world, while its mercantile activity gave employment to millions of natives in all parts of the empire in preparing articles of commerce, particularly tea. It was also of great importance to the imperial government from the revenue it furnished in the way of duty and presents. It is of interest to note, however, that the emperor and his court looked upon these presents as the payment of tribute, and the nations that sent them, unknown to themselves, were set down as vassals of the Chinese crown.
We have now an important feature of the Chinese trade to record. Opium was a favorite article of consumption in China, and its use there had given rise to an important industry in British India, in the growth of the poppy. In the year 1800 the emperor, perceiving the growing evil in the use of opium by his people, issued an edict forbidding its introduction into China. This did not check the trade, its only effect being to convert legitimate into smuggling traffic. The trade went on as briskly as before, the smugglers being openly aided by venal officials not only at Canton but at other points along the coast. By 1838 the disregard of the law, and the quantity of opium smuggled into the empire by small boats on the Canton River, had become so great that the Peking government determined to take more active steps for the suppression of the illicit trade. At this time there were more than fifty small craft plying on the river under the English and American flags, most of them smugglers. Some of these were seized and destroyed, but as the others were then heavily manned and armed the revenue officers declined to interfere with them, and the contraband trade went briskly on.
At length the difficulty reached a climax. Arrests and punishments for the use of opium became common throughout the empire, three royal princes were degraded for this practice, a commissioner with large powers was sent from Peking to Canton, and the foreigners were ordered to deliver up every particle of opium in their store-ships and give bonds to bring no more, on penalty of death. As a result, somewhat more than one thousand chests were tendered to the commissioner, but this was declared to be not enough, and that official at once took the decisive measure of cutting off the food-supply from the foreign settlement. This and other active steps brought about the desired result. Captain Elliot, the British superintendent of commerce, advised a complete delivery of all opium under British control, and before night more than twenty thousand chests of the deleterious drug were surrendered into his hands, and were offered by him to the commissioner the next day.
News of this event was sent to Peking, and orders came back that the opium should be all destroyed; which was done effectively by mixing it with salt water and lime in trenches and drawing off the mixture into an adjacent creek. Care was taken that none should be purloined, and one man was executed on the spot for attempting to steal a small portion of the drug. Thus perished an amount of the valuable substance rated at cost price at nearly eleven million dollars.
We have described this event at some length, as it led to the first war between China and a foreign power. The destruction of the opium deeply offended the British government, and in the next year (1840) Captain Elliot received an official letter to the effect that war would be declared unless China should pay for the goods destroyed. As China showed no intention of doing so, an English fleet was sent to Chinese waters in the summer of 1841, whose admiral declared a blockade of the port of Canton, and, on July 5, bombarded and captured the town of Ting-hai. Various other places were blockaded, and, as the emperor rejected all demands, the fleet moved upon Canton, taking the forts along the river as it advanced. In the end, when an attack had become imminent, the authorities ransomed their city for the sum of six million dollars.
But the emperor did not know yet the strength of the power with which he had to deal, and still continued silent and defiant. The fleet now sailed northward, capturing in succession Anioy, Chin-hai, and Ning-po. Cha-pu was the next to fall, and here the Manchu Tartars for the first time came into conflict with the English. When defeated, great numbers of them killed themselves, first destroying their wives and children. The forts at the mouth of the Yangtse-Kiang were next taken. Here the governor-general took care to post himself out of danger, but in a grandiloquent despatch declared that he had been in the hottest of the fight, "where cannon-balls innumerable, flying in awful confusion through the expanse of heaven, fell before, behind, and on every side, while in the distance were visible the ships of the rebels standing erect, lofty as mountains. The fierce daring of the rebels was inconceivable; officers and men fell at their posts. Every effort to resist the onset was in vain, and a retreat became inevitable."
The result was the capture of Shanghai. The British now determined on a siege of the important city of Nanking, the ancient capital of China. The movement began with an attack on Chin-Kiang-fu, the "Mart-river city." Here a fierce assault was made, the Manchu garrison resisting with obstinate courage. In the end, of the garrison of four thousand only five hundred remained, most of the others having killed themselves. This victory rendered the capture of Nanking certain, its food-supply was already endangered by the English control of the river, and the authorities gave way. The emperor was now convinced that further resistance was hopeless, and the truce ended in a treaty of peace, the Chinese government agreeing to pay twenty-one million dollars indemnity, to open to British trade and residence the ports of Canton, Amoy, Foo-Chow, Ning-po, and Shanghai, and to cede to the English the island of Hong-Kong, with various minor stipulations.
This war, which was fought with the discreditable purpose of forcing upon China an injurious drug against her will, had nevertheless several very useful results. Other European nations hastened to claim the same privileges of trade that were given the English, and in 1844 a commercial treaty was signed between China and the United States, in the conduct of which a favorable disposition towards Americans was shown. The eventual result was the breaking down of the barriers of intolerance which had been so long maintained, that ancient and self-satisfied government being at last forced to throw open its gates for the entrance of the new ideas of international amity and freedom of commerce.
But much had still to be done before these desirable results could be fully achieved. Hostile relations were not yet at an end, annoying restrictions being placed on the promised intercourse. In 1856 a native vessel flying the British flag was seized by the Chinese, who refused to apologize to the British for the act. As a result, the city of Canton was bombarded and the forts were destroyed. A warlike demonstration was decided upon by Great Britain and France, the first result being the total destruction of the Chinese fleet and the capture of Canton. A revision of the former treaty and the concession of greater privileges were demanded, which China, warned by the lesson of the opium war, found itself obliged to grant.
The English and French, however, refused to treat at Canton, as the Chinese desired, but sailed to the mouth of the Pei-ho, the port of Peking, up which stream their fleets proceeded to the city of Tien-tsin. Here arrangements for a new treaty of commerce and the opening of new ports were made, Russia and the United States taking part in the negotiations. But on proceeding to the mouth of the Pei-ho in 1859 to ratify the treaty, the river was found to be obstructed and the forts strongly armed. The American and Russian envoys were willing to go to Peking overland, in accordance with the Chinese request, but the British and French determined to force their way up the stream and to take as many soldiers with them as they pleased. They attacked the forts, therefore, but, to their disgust, found themselves defeated and forced to withdraw.
This repulse could have but one result. It gave the Chinese for the first time confidence in their ability to meet the foreigner in war. It humiliated and exasperated the English and French. They determined now to carry the war to the gates of Peking and force the Chinese to acknowledge the supremacy of the nations of the West.
The events of this war we can give only in outline. In the summer of 1860 a new attack was made on the Taku forts, troops being landed to assail them in the rear, in which direction no arrangement for defence had been made. As a result the forts fell, a large body of Tartar cavalry, which sought to stop the march of the allies with bows, arrows, and spears, being taught a lesson in modern war by the explosion of shells in their ranks. The capture of the forts left the way clear for a march on the capital, which was at once made, and on the 5th of October, 1860, a European army first came within view of this long-hidden and mysterious city.