In this episode we do some Q&A and then cover the Sino-French War of 1884-1885 and the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895.
A couple names from this episode:
Emperor Qianlong: ruled China from 1735 to 1799
Li Hongzhang: high level Chinese statesman and advocate of self-strengthening
Welcome to episode seven of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast!
This episode, we’ll be taking some questions generated by past episodes, and then we will move on to talk about the Sino-French and Sino-Japanese wars.
So, first off, I heard from a listener that, while they hated to say it, they were having a lot harder time following who is who with the Chinese names than if the narrative were about people with names that the listener was more familiar with. This is perfectly normal for people from outside China who are starting to study Chinese history for the first time. It just a question of becoming familiar with the names and reading or hearing the language (even as badly as I no doubt am sometimes mangling the names). So, in order to help listeners to follow some of the important names that come up in the episodes, I will be including important names and short descriptors in the show notes, so you can look and see how names are spelled, and refresh your memory about who is who.
Another question that came up was whether I could clarify the contrast between traditional Chinese learning and the western ‘new’ learning that was being taught in places like the Beijing Translation College (which later became Beijing University). In particular, I mentioned in episode five a bunch of subjects that were taught at Beijing Translation College which were not part of traditional Confucian learning, and this included subjects like math, navigation and economics that one listener said clearly must have been studied in one form or another in old style Chinese schools.
So, let me clarify what I meant. Clearly, Chinese society had large stores of advanced knowledge about mathematics, navigation, economics, and other fields of knowledge. The question at issue is more one of, how were people being trained and educated for leadership in society. The imperial examination system based on classic Confucian texts and commentaries meant that aspiring Chinese leaders had to devote years to learning a highly specialized way of discussing politics and ethics based on ancient texts. In contrast, the sort of knowledge that the industrializing European nations of the late 19th century prized had to do with applying practical knowledge to the world in order to do things like make and run steam ships and railroads and factories, and of course to make money. So when I say that the Beijing Translation College was teaching math and economics, what I mean is that they were teaching particular late 19th century European capitalist ways of thinking about math and economics, and other sciences, which were seen by their European and American (and Chinese) proponents as having a dynamic impact on the world, leading to industrialization, modernization and progress. It wasn’t that China didn’t already have its own ways of thinking about and applying most of these fields of knowledge, it’s that it:
a) didn’t prioritize broad education in these fields, because
b) it hadn’t prioritized the harnessing of this knowledge in the service of industrializing modernization.
So Chinese knowledge in these fields had lagged behind many of the recent advances that had been made in Europe and America (although this lagging was a relatively new thing, historically China had usually been more advanced than Europe in many fields); and also the habit of mind did not yet exist broadly in China that all this knowledge must be harnessed for the purpose of industrial progress.
Another question I got from episode five was: what’s up with Jardine, Matheson and Company being able to build a railroad across Shanghai in 1876 without getting Chinese government approval?
So, yes, it sounds implausible that a company could build a railroad in a major city without government approval. So, the short answer is that the foreigners in Shanghai had so much power on the ground that they could do things like build a railroad, without anyone stopping them from doing it. The local viceroy objected, but he couldn’t stop construction.
The Qing buying the railroad and dismantling it was a kind of compromise. Of course they would have been totally in their rights to seize it and dismantle it, but they were justifiably afraid of antagonizing the foreigners. The British government had told Jardine, Matheson and Company, who still dealt in opium of course but also traded in other goods, that the British armed forces would not protect the railroad from the Qing since it had been built without permission. But even so, the Qing thought it wiser to buy the railroad rather than just expropriate it.
Also, just to clarify on the nature of the railroad, I said it went across Shanghai, but that is a bit of an anachronistic thing for me to say. It went from Shanghai to the port of Wusong, about ten miles. Today, Wusong is part of Shanghai city, but at the time it was separate.
Alright, so, moving on, today we’re going to talk about the Sino-French war of 1884-85, and the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895.
The first of these wars took place mainly in Vietnam, and the second one took place mainly in Korea. And this raises an issue that we haven’t dealt with before and requires some background information: what was the relationship of countries like Vietnam, Korea and other countries that bordered China, to China historically and to the Qing Empire in particular?
Most of the regions bordering China were tributary states of the Empire. What this meant was that they recognized Chinese superiority, and every so often, depending on how far away they were, they sent tribute missions to China and received gifts in return for recognizing the superiority of China. Often, the gifts received in return for tribute missions were of greater value than what was sent, and so the tribute can also be thought of as a ritualized way of understanding international trade. Certainly, formal obeisance to Chinese authority did not mean that tributary states actually thought that they were inferior to China. Rather, they saw benefit in recognizing Chinese authority both in order to maintain peace with their large neighbor, and to engage in trade through the tribute missions. Tributary states were basically independent, but they formally recognized Chinese supremacy, and this meant that China assumed a responsibility for mediating conflicts among tributary states and for defending those states if they were attacked by a foreign power.
A partial list of tributaries includes Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma, Laos, Sikkim and Nepal. Japan had been a tributary until the mid-1500s.
The idea, on China’s part, was to have secure borders while avoiding costly military commitments. China could let its neighbors, especially those who shared a Confucian and Buddhist cultural heritage with China, run their own affairs in exchange for formal acknowledgement of Chinese supremacy and orderly border regions. This meant that a high level of ambiguity about just what the status of the tributary state was in relation to China was easy to tolerate. For example, in the case of the Ryukyu Islands, to the northeast of Taiwan, the Ryukyus (or Liuqiu Islands, as they are known in Chinese), were tributaries of both China and Japan for most of the Qing Dynasty. There are 18th century accounts of Japanese ships retreating out of sight when Chinese diplomatic missions visited the Ryukyus, and then coming back after the Chinese left.
Another example which I think illustrates China’s priorities with the tributary system is the rebellion of 1788 which overthrew the Le Dynasty in Vietnam. When the rebels forced the Le ruler to escape to China, he called upon the Chinese obligation to defend him as a tributary. When the Chinese troops which were sent in to meet this obligation faced a difficult counter-offensive from the Vietnamese rebels, however, the Chinese Emperor Qianlong announced that the Le Dynasty had been fated to fall, and reached an agreement with the Vietnamese rebels to recognize them as the new legitimate tributary rulers of Vietnam. Essentially, China didn’t care who was ruling Vietnam, as long as they were willing to formally recognize Chinese superiority and maintain order.
The Sino-French War
In our last episode dealing with Chinese history, episode 5, we talked about Chinese efforts from the 1860s up until the mid-1890s to modernize, and in particular to become strong enough militarily that it would be able to defend itself against foreign powers.
The first test of China’s new self-strengthening efforts came in the 1880s in Vietnam.
During the 1850s and 1860s, France had established colonial control over southern Vietnam. In 1873, the French had followed up their earlier conquests by trying to take over northern Vietnam, in the area around the Gulf of Tonkin, and inland to the north of the Gulf. But they had been defeated by the local Vietnamese and their allies in the Chinese Black Flag Army, a local militia that operated in the border region between Vietnam and China.
The Black Flags had originally been either a self-defense militia or a bandit group, depending on what source one looks at, and had joined the Taiping Revolution in the 1850s. When the Taiping were defeated and the Qing forces were mopping up armed groups in Guangxi province, the Black Flags retreated into Vietnam, where they struck a deal with the Vietnamese Emperor and helped to suppress ethnic rebels in the Vietnamese uplands near China’s Yunnan Province. In exchange, they were given the right to tax the trade on the Red River, which flows from Yunnan through Vietnam to the Gulf of Tonkin.
In 1882 the French struck again, and this time they managed to capture Hanoi. Vietnam appealed to China for help, and Chinese troops were sent in and occupied strategic positions. In an effort to head off further conflict, the French minister to China met in Shanghai with Li Hongzhang. If you’ll recall from episode 5, Li was one of the big proponents of Chinese self-strengthening. But here we can see that he either did not think that Vietnam was worth fighting for, or he didn’t think that China was ready to take on France, because he and the French minister came to an agreement to divide Tonkin into French and Chinese spheres of influence. (And they did this without consulting the Vietnamese.)
The French in Vietnam, however, decided to disregard the agreement and decided to keep pushing on toward the Chinese border. Initially the French faced a major defeat when the Black Flag Army defeated their main force and killed their commander, just as they had back in 1873. But the French got reinforcements and when pressed the Qing armed forces, whose commander agreed with Li Hongzhang that it wasn’t worthwhile to fight the French in Vietnam, decided to retreat rather than engage the French. In light of everything that China had lost over the past few decades, it simply didn’t matter much to the Qing court to keep a hold on their tributary relationship with what remained of independent Vietnam.
In May 1884, Li Hongzhang signed the Treaty of Tianjin with the French, which recognized French control of all of Vietnam. The French decided that Chinese troops in Vietnam had to withdraw immediately, but the Treaty in fact set no timetable to withdrawal, and the French move to bring their troops to immediately occupy positions on the border with China raises some question as to whether the French intended to disregard the treaty and continue advancing into China itself, just as they had earlier disregarded the accord signed with Li Hongzhang in Shanghai to divide Tonkin into separate Chinese and Vietnamese spheres of influence. The French military moves were doubly suspicious as the Tianjin treaty called for further talks to settle the precise border between Vietnam and China. So, in August, when advancing French troops reached Bac Le, where the Chinese forces were still stationed in Vietnam less than 100 kilometers from the Chinese border, a battle was fought and the French were soundly defeated.
The French claimed Chinese treachery and the Chinese claimed French aggression, and open warfare broke out on a larger scale between China and France. Li Hongzhang’s earlier capitulation to France was wildly unpopular, and there were high level officials in the Qing court who urged a more forceful attitude toward France. Initial fighting in Vietnam quickly reached a stalemate, but in March 1885 the Chinese forces defeated the French on land in the only decisive land battle in the main theater of the war.
At sea, however, things went very poorly for China. At the outbreak of renewed hostilities, the French attacked the naval shipyard in Fuzhou and sunk the Chinese flagship in the first minute of battle. After an hour, every Chinese ship was either sunk or on fire, and the dock and arsenal had been destroyed. The French went on to attack other Chinese coastal cities, and tried to invade Taiwan, but were repelled and had to settle for blockading Taiwanese ports. Li Hongzhang held back China’s northern fleet from going to fight the French, both saving that fleet from near certain loss but also strengthening his own power base at the same time.
In June 1885, a new Treaty of Tianjin was signed, which essentially restated the treaty of the previous year, recognizing France’s control of Vietnam, but also recognizing special French interests in southwestern China. For example, if China wanted to build railroads near the border with Vietnam, it would have to consult with France, and allowing trade with France over the Sino-Vietnamese border. The Black Flag Army disbanded at the end of the war, although former members of the army and many Vietnamese continued to resist French colonialism. Emboldened by the French annexation of Vietnam, in 1886 the British declared Burma a protectorate.
As a test of China’s self-strengthening efforts, the Sino-French War was somewhat ambiguous. On the one hand, the Chinese navy in no way could stand up to the French navy. Here, the difference in firepower that an industrializing power like France could muster far outgunned China’s small and modernizing navy. On the other hand, the Guangxi Army, the official Qing armed forces fighting the French in Vietnam, was able to best the French on the ground. In the end, however, China opted to deescalate hostilities and sign yet another unequal treaty with France. When you think about how France quite possibly might have advanced into China and tried to take over parts of Yunnan and Guangxi Provinces had a Chinese Army not put up a fight, however, one has to see the Chinese war effort as being partially successful.
The Sino-Japanese War
Meanwhile, in the North…
Korea was the most important of all of China’s tributaries. It was bordered by the Manchurian heartland of the Qing rulers, and was easily the closest tributary state to the capital of Beijing, much closer than many parts of China. And this closeness was cultural as well as geographical.
But Korea is even closer to Japan, and this was going to cause problems.
Those problems began in 1875 with an incident between a Japanese armed survey mission and the Korean garrison on the island of Ganghwa. But first, in order to understand what happened in 1875, we need to give some context. Because the people of Ganghwa had been having a bad few years when it came to dealing with non-Chinese foreigners.
Ganghwa Island sits just off the western coast of Korea, right in the middle of the peninsula. It’s in South Korea today, but it’s right on the border with North Korea. Ganghwa’s trouble started in 1866, when France occupied the island for six weeks as part of a retaliatory campaign against Korea for executing French Catholic missionaries who had been illegally proselytizing in Korea. The French were eventually driven off, but it was a rough six weeks for the island.
A few years later, in 1871, an American expedition came to Ganghwa. The Americans came with five warships, and their goal was to establish diplomatic and trade relations with Korea and to find out what had happened to an earlier American attempt to force open Korea a few years earlier. Korea had been keeping itself closed off to trade with foreigners, except for China, but if you’ve got anything from past episodes of this show, you’ve probably understood that this was a position that the newly industrializing European powers and the United States were unwilling to accept. So, in 1866 a US merchant marine steamship, the General Sherman, arrived on the Korean coast, determined to open Korea up to foreign trade. Local officials gave them some food and provisions, but refused to trade with them. Not willing to take no for an answer, the General Sherman forced its way up the Taedong River to Pyongyang, trying to force Koreans to trade while also surveying the river for future trading missions. This resulted in a confrontation in which the Americans seized a local official and opened fire into a crowd of people, killing seven. Eventually the General Sherman was made to retreat, but it ran aground and after four days of fighting the whole crew of the General Sherman were killed.
The 1871 American expedition told the locals at Ganghwa Island that they were going to sail around and survey the river and coast. This was not something that Korea was going to allow, so the local garrison fired on the Americans. As a result, the Americans bombarded and then occupied the local Korean military fort, in another incident where the superior firepower of modernized armed forces created a totally disproportionate level of casualties, with 243 Koreans killed and just three Americans. The Americans hoped their occupation of Ganghwa would force the Korean court to open relations with the United States, but Korea refused to negotiate and eventually the Americans just left.
So, these prior incidents with the French and Americans can give you some idea what the people in Ganghwa were thinking when the Japanese showed up with an armed surveying expedition in 1875. Since the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan had ended its old isolationist policy and was engaged in a swift modernization campaign. As part of its new policy of industrialization and building up its military (the Japanese slogan was “enrich the country and strengthen the military”), it had sent out this expedition to survey the Korean coastline. The Korean garrison on Ganghwa Island had had enough of foreign militaries coming and surveying their island, and they attacked the Japanese ship. Once again, Korean fortifications were bombarded and better armed troops landed and made quick work of the Korean military.
This time, however, things seemed like they might be different. The opponent was an Asian nation, not France or the United States. The Korean court felt able to appeal to China to defend Korea against Japan. The Zongli Yamen (which you will remember from episode five was the new body in charge of Chinese foreign affairs), the Zongli Yamen, fearing getting involved, now disavowed any responsibility for Korea, and declared that Korea was an independent country. Cut loose by China all of a sudden, Korea had no choice but to sign a treaty with Japan, allowing Japan to trade with Korea and giving Japanese citizens in Korea the right of extraterritoriality (which meant that Korean laws did not apply to Japanese citizens in Korea).
For the other foreign powers competing to open up Korea, this looked like a disaster, with Korea about the fall into Japanese hands. As a result, the British pressured China to reassert her claim of dominion over Korea and to set up a Chinese resident diplomat in Seoul, who then pressured Korea to open up to all the foreign powers, not just Japan. Prior to this, Korea had been very strict about following a policy of not interacting with foreign powers, having summed up that China had suffered greatly from the recent attentions of the Europeans. But now that Korea had been forced to open up, different factions emerged within the ruling elite.
The pro-Chinese faction was dominant, but a pro-Japanese faction emerged which saw the fast pace of modernization happening in Japan and wanted to see Korea pursue modernizing reforms more rapidly. Taking advantage of China’s war with France in 1884, the pro-Japanese faction attempted a coup d’etat. However, there were still 1500 Chinese troops garrisoned in Seoul, as opposed to just 140 Japanese troops assigned to defend the Japanese legation, so the balance of forces did not favor the pro-Japanese conspirators and the coup was put down.
Despite the loss of the pro-Japanese faction on the ground, Japan was able to take advantage of the situation to press China to agree that both Japan and China would withdraw their troops from Korea, which implied a kind of joint hegemony in Korea shared by China and Japan. With this breakdown in order, other powers had jumped in as well. The Russians seized Port Lazarev in northeast Korea (today the North Korean city of Wonsan), and the British occupied Port Hamilton, which is actually a set of small islands just south of the Korean Peninsula which are called Geomun-do and are part of South Korea today.
Japan’s withdrawal from Korea was a diplomatic feint, however, while it strengthened its forces and waited for a more propitious moment to strike in Korea. That moment came in 1894, when a major peasant rebellion broke out, called the Donghak Rebellion, because most of the rebels were followers of the Donghak religion, a new religion that had been founded during the 1860s and blended a number of different belief systems with a strong egalitarian ethos. The Korean army faired poorly against the rebels, and the Korean emperor, Gojong, asked China for help against the rebels.
China sent several thousand troops to Korea, but according to the agreement that China and Japan had reached after the events of a decade earlier, China was supposed to let Japan know in advance if it was sending troops to Korea, which it didn’t. Japan declared China in violation of their agreement and sent its own troops to Korea, seized the palace and installed their own pro-Japanese king on the throne, who promptly asked the Japanese to expel the Chinese army.
Japanese troops outnumbered the Chinese and easily defeated them in a series of battles. When China contracted a British ship to transport more Chinese troops and supplies to Korea, Japan sunk the ship, allowing most of the Chinese crew and troops to go down with the ship and rescuing the Europeans. The northern Chinese navy, which Li Hongzhang had preserved from fighting the French precisely because of the Japanese threat, was beaten badly in a naval battle at the mouth of the Yalu River. After retreating to Weihaiwei, a naval base on the Shandong Peninsula, the Chinese admiral thought that his fleet was safe under cover of the guns of the base’s defensive forts and behind a field of mines laid across the harbor. However, Japanese troops landed on the other side of the peninsula and marched across to seize the forts, and then turned the Chinese navy’s shore guns on the Chinese fleet. Just as the French had done in Fuzhou, the northern Chinese fleet was sunk in its own harbor by the Japanese.
After defeating China in Korea, Japan marched its troops across the Yalu River, the border between Korea and China, and also landed troops to occupy the city of Lushun, at the end of the Liaodong Peninsula. To end the war, China had to sign the humiliating treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. In this treaty, China gave Taiwan to Japan and had to pay a massive indemnity of 230 million taels of silver, which comes out as roughly 7.2 million kilograms of silver (and would be worth a bit over 4 billion dollars today). It also recognized Korea’s complete independence, which in reality meant that Korea was now a protectorate of Japan.
If China’s loss of Vietnam to France was an ambiguous verdict on the self-strengthening efforts of the Qing Empire, the loss to Japan and Treaty of Shimonoseki represented an unambiguous failure. China’s neighbor and former tributary, Japan, had quickly modernized to the point that it was able to crush China militarily. This highlighted China’s shortcomings more than a loss to any European power could, and the effects on the psyche of Chinese reformers was profound.
The aftereffects of the war with Japan were very important for the whole world. A decade later Japan would formally make Korea a protectorate, after beating Russia in a war, and then soon afterwards it would formally annex Korea. Japan beating Russia in 1904 would lead directly to the 1905 Revolution in Russia, which Lenin described as a dress rehearsal for the 1917 Russian Revolution. And in China, Japanese expansion would lead to an invasion of China, and the fight against Japan would become one of the main struggles of the Chinese Communist Party on its way to power.
There would also be an immediate reaction in China, which would be an important milestone in the development of the story of Chinese reactions to imperialism which ultimately culminated in the creation of Maoism. We’ll pick that story up in our next episode.