GCSE & A Level Revision Notes

Subject: History
Level: A Level
Exam Boards: EDEXCEL, AQA, CIE

The History of Modern China Notes

Preparatory Reading – The Qing Dynasty


  • The stereotype of a faceless and colourless mass with minds benumbed by powerful authorities, whether emperors, generals or Communist ideologues, is untrue.

  • Along with contextual sources, such as time and place of birth, ethnic heritage, parents’ occupations, socioeconomic status, schooling, personal characteristics etc., personal history is fundamental to identity.

  • Important to carry on the family line.

  • Remembrance of ancestors mattered and was conducted via rituals on birthdays and death days. The graves of ancestors were traditionally swept on the Qing Ming festival.

  • The strength and importance of lineages varied across China, strongest in the South. Some anthropologists suggest that this was developed there in order to deal with the labour-intensive irrigation facilities crucial in southern rice paddy agriculture. Others suggest that since the South was China’s frontier area, strong lineages developed for protection in an often violent and unpredictable context.

  • Friendship –one of the five Confucian bonds that neared equality rather than hierarchy was friendship. Certainly for this reason, friendship was more celebrated in Chinese literature than any other social relationship. Friendship also provided connections to the friend’s family. If a person came from the same hometown or county of even province (called in Chinese “native place”), he or she had an automatic connection with anyone else from that place; the connection was stronger the more local the common place, even if people had not previously known one another.

  • Social connections – though important across cultures, in Chinese culture they are a must to get things done. Networks may encompass many people, but their structure was based on two people, and then two others, and so on.

  • Social debts – the product of individuals helping one another. The accumulation and repayment of obligations was a continual social reality.

  • The relevance of these points about connections to identity – if the person with whom one spent years establishing and cultivating connections lost his job or life, one would have to begin anew to establish one’s social position. As the process of nurturing personal connections was a full-time, lifetime undertaking, it gave a person his social identity. Therefore identity also derived from those with whom one had no connections, and thus to whom one had no ethical responsibilities, i.e. the rationale behind queue-jumping. Such strangers were causes for suspicion, and were kept at arms-length.

  • China was home to nine minorities with a population of four million or more by 1990, such as the Mongols, Tibetans and Uighurs as well as the Zhuang, Hui, Miao, and Yi.

Chinese and the Manchus:

  • Outsiders from the Northeast, the Manchus, took power in China in 1644 and established the Qing dynasty.

  • Difficulty of balancing enough aspects of Chinese cultural identity to be acceptable to the Chinese majority while maintaining enough distance to preserve their own cultural identity.

  • The Manchus were clan-based peoples, keen for martial values based on skills of horsemanship and archery whereas Chinese society stressed civilian values based on skills of the writing brush.

  • National identity was maintained via:

 • Banner forces – after the Manchu defeat of the Ming forces, they preserved these former enemies as the Army of the Green Standard.
        • Martial values – Manchuria was set as a permanent Manchu homeland.
        • Shamanism – once in China, the Manchus promoted their belief in shaman (person thought to have had a spiritual death and rebirth and thus was able to work with the supernatural).
         • Manchu women were forbidden to bind their feet, as most proper Chinese women did.
  • The Qing, for all their Manchu identity, accepted the Chinese political, social, and cultural system.

  • Success in major examinations, offered at three levels, brought degrees which brought legal, economic, and social privileges, i.e. they alone were allowed to wear furs, brocades, and fancy embroidery. The honour was not hereditary, although the wealthier families could hire tutors to educate the next generation. Degree-holders could be judged as educationally superior. At any time in the nineteenth century, there were over 800,000 shengyuan degreeholders (1.8-2.4 % of the population), 18,000 to 19,000 juren degreeholders, and about 2,500 jinshi degreeholders.

  • Confucianism as a religion – depends on definition. Confucius, “We do not yet know about life; how can we talk about what happens after death?” Over the centuries, the Chinese state developed a different system of dealing with foreigners who did not come from the northern and western steppes. The Chinese had no name for the procedures. Western scholars have called it the “tributary system.”

         • Early in China’s past, the country had been known as Everything Under Heaven (tianxia), everything that was worth anything.
         • Another name was Central Country (Zhongguo) – central in terms of culture.
         • The Chinese believed that their role was to train and educate the foreigners, not by physical force but as elder brothers to younger brothers so as to receive the blessings that the Chinese believed their culture could offer.
  • Relations with the kingdoms of Korea and Vietnam, located along Chinese borders, were strongest.

  • Prosperity.

          • The state treasury in the first year of the Qianlong emperor’s reign had a surplus of 24 million taels of silver. Fifty years later, the surplus had tripled.
         • On four occasions the Qianlong emperor was able to cancel the collection of annual taxes.
         • Increasingly significant availability of regional cash crops – cotton, tea, and tobacco – expansion of trade between regions.
        • Successful military conquest of inner Asian frontiers more than doubled Chinese territory.
        • Subsequent social development – the population rose from 177 million in 1749 to 301 million in 1790, an increase of 70 % in 40 years.
         • Due to:
         • Food crops from the Western Hemisphere.
         •  Double cropping techniques.
         • Declining mortality rate.
         • Rising birth rate.
         • Conclusion – population growth was both a reflection of-and a contributor to-prosperity.
         • Potential dangers:
         • Population tripled from 1685 to 1780,, but the amount of cultivated land only doubled.
        • Two crucial services were public works and the distribution of charitable relief at times of poor harvest or famine.
        • In ascending the throne, the Chinese emperor was said to have received the Mandate of Heaven, obliging this “Son of Heaven” to rule benevolently and fulfil his ritual responsibilities. Natural disasters were interpreted as signs that the emperor was not performing his functions properly and that his Mandate was in jeopardy, i.e. risk of being overthrown.

From Frontier Policy to Foreign Policy, Matthew Mosca

  • The Qing empire deliberately shunned international engagements and made ready to defend its territory, if necessary, on the frontier itself.

  • Official Qing strategic thought between 1790 and the 1830s is that it remained unaltered by the rise of British power in Asia.

  • The Qing court was blinded by its own grandiose rhetoric and Sino-centric assumptions, looking inward, caring little for the outside world, and rating their strength higher than did foreign observers.

  • Internal documents and diplomatic letters made clear that the Qing government wanted neither allies nor enemies: as long as a foreign state respected the frontier, no action would be taken against it. The enormous expense and constant vigilance needed to engineer a grand coalition made sense only if the Qing empire faced enemies larger than itself. As long as they were safe from this, neutrality offered better value than engagement.

  • Qing rulers were also sceptical of military alliances for practical reasons – in India, the Company enforced military cooperation with local states via “subsidiary alliances” whereby those states paid for the British garrisons that guarded them.

  • In the early 1830s, the Qing commentators regarded the British empire as fundamentally unsustainable. Although all three essayists - Xiao, Ye, and Yan – realised that British power was expanding, they remained confident that it posed no grave threats to China.

  • By the close of the Opium War, there was a qualitative shift to a united conception of the outside world and a corresponding reconsideration of the empire’s foreign relations.

Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China

  • European expansion was impelled by:
         • Merchants
         • Missionaries
         • Military
         • All three groups were propelled by a missionary-like urge to spread the gospels of Western capitalism, Western religious truth, and Western state power.
  • By the turn of the nineteenth century, tea made up 80 % of Chinese exports to Europe. To the Chinese, Western merchants and diplomatic emissaries were first simply eastern barbarians.

  • Chinese views of the westerners were limited and flawed by inexperience with the westerners.

  • The problem for western merchants is that they had nothing that the Chinese wanted to buy.

  • British ships arrived in Canton with 90 % of their stock composed of bullion, mostly silver. The annual flow of silver into China reached over three million taels in the 1760s but soared to sixteen million twenty years later. But then opium came to the rescue.

Opium War

  • The Chinese had begun to spoke opium in the seventeenth century. Around 10 % of the population smoked it, the number of addicts perhaps reaching 3 – 5 %. Without daily fixes, the user experiences the hellish misery of withdrawal, with a variety of wretched physical and psychological symptoms. When imperial edicts forbade opium importation in 1800 and 1813, opium importation became opium smuggling.

  • Interesting parallels to the contemporary status-quo with drugs! – Some advocated legalising the drug so that it might be traded and taxed, with the goal of taxing it so greatly that the expense might decrease some of the use; at the least, such a policy would make up for the outflow of silver. Others argued that legalisation would only make the social problems stemming from opium worse.

  • By 1839, official Lin Zexu had arrested 1,700 Chinese and confiscated 44,000 pounds of opium and over 70,000 opium pipes.

  • Fascinating case-study: When the British ignored and then refused the order to turn over the opium, Lin stopped all trade and sieged the factories and their 350 foreigners for six weeks, until they delivered over 21,000 Chests to Lin. He had five hundred labourers dig three immense trenches, put in more than 2.6 million pounds of opium, decomposed it using salt and lime, and flushed it out to the sea.

  • The siege and seizure of opium were treated by the British as a national affront and a cause for war, as the British superintendent of foreign trade had been, since 1834, a representative of the crown and not a merchant company.

  • The war was an on-again, off-again struggle against a backdrop of negotiations. Both the Daoguang emperor and Prime Minister Henry Palmerston were upset that the settlement was too lenient for the other side.

  • For the Chinese, the military disaster underlined how the imperial forces were desperately outmoded.

  • Its historical context – the Opium War was the opening salvo of a century of aggression by Western nations against China Foreign nations continued to import opium despite Chinese laws forbidding its sale and use. Whereas the number of chest smuggled into China in 1839 was 40000, by 1884 the number had more than doubled to 81,000.

Impact of Treaties

  • The Treaty of Nanjing, which ceded Hong Kong Island to Great Britain, was the first of many treaties between China and foreign nations that were called “unequal” because the Chinese did all the giving and received nothing in return, gradually eroding China’s sovereignty. According to the treaties, China also lost its sovereign right to set, control, and collect its own tariffs. Tariff rates were set at above 5 percent of the value of the goods, which did not disturb many Chinese as the rates were not notably out of line with traditional tariff rates. Unable to raise tariff rates, the Chinese could not keep out unwanted items. Exposure to the west in the Opium War, i.e. against the modern ships and weapons, had encouraged the Chinese to buy from the west and discouraged manufacturing. The Treaty of Tianjin granted Western nations the guarantee that Christianity could be openly taught and practiced.

From Frontier Policy to Foreign Policy, Matthew Mosca

  • Lin’s intelligence gathering led him to believe that firm measures were unlikely to provoke a major war with Britain.

  • Lin believed that he faced a response from outport merchants, not the British state – opium was not a product of England, its traders held no public office, and it was grown and sold privately. To Qing authorities, Elliot had distanced himself from the opium trade as a representative of the British crown, maintaining that London had no cognizance of it, and in 1837 denying that he or his superiors had “formal knowledge” of it.

  • In the aftermaths, the coast of China’s shattered defences had to be rebuilt and improved, the military command structure reorganised, and the technological superiority of British gunnery and navigation offset.

  • If a single outline of the world’s shape was accepted, it remained almost impossible to populate such a map with the many locations named in textual geographic sources.

Imperialism, Colonialism, and China, by James Hevia

  • The Chinese government offence against private property and “free” trade was, however only the most immediate cause of friction between the British and Qing Empires. The deeper issue concerned the desire of British diplomatic and commercial agents to open China to greater intercourse with an expanding British Empire.

  • Unprecedented population growth placed significant pressure on the economic and political system while fiscal policies and poor administration created unrest among the subjugated populations of Central Asia, all of which suggests that Qing power was in decline. The mid-nineteenth century Taiping rebellion and outbreaks of armed resistance in many parts of Central Asia demonstrated that Manchu military might had waned.

  • In making China perfectly equal in 1860, the British had hoped that the Chinese monarchy would abandon the silly illusion that the emperor of China was superior to other monarchs in the world.

  • In 1875, the Tougen emperor died and was succeeded by the child emperor Guangxu. Once again, there was no sovereign to address and, thus, no opportunity to fully realise routine state-to-state relations.

  • When China was at war with Japan, the Qing forces were better equipped and trained in the past but Japan still took Taiwan and Korea, beginning Japanese colonisation. On the verge of partition, the Qing were forced to grant long-term leases to Great Britain and Germany in Shandong province, to Russia (? ) on the Liaodong peninsula, and to France on the Fujian coast.

  • Crucially, there was a combination of decline in Qing authority and an increase in western aggression.

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