Celestial Empire—part six

Celestial Empire—part six
A troubled century 變更
11 May 2016

China in the late nineteenth century was a country undergoing rapid change.This was due in no small part to the opening of the treaty ports. Some of these were located deep inland, like Wuhan, bringing an unprecedented level of direct contact between members of the local population and foreign merchants.

Lying on the Yangzi River amid a network of waterways nearly 1,000 kilometres upstream from the sea, Wuhan is an amalgam of the three cities of Hankou, Hanyang and Wuchang. Since it can harbour ocean-going vessels, Hankou was opened as a treaty port in 1861 after the second Opium War. The woodblock-printed map displayed below depicts the city in 1875, less than two decades after the establishment of foreign concessions (visible at bottom left). The map depicts a view across the Yangzi, which bustles with Chinese and foreign shipping. Hankou lies in the foreground, with Hanyang off to the right; they are separated by the Hanshui River, a major tributary of the Yangzi. Across the water is Wuchang, its walled interior dominated by the Yellow Crane Tower.

 Map of Wuhan, with foreign legations visible at bottom left

Map of Wuhan, Hankou: Gallery in the Studio of Ocean Clouds, 1876, National Library of China

Inside the country, population growth through the eighteenth century had placed the bureaucracy and the economy under greater strain. Since the size of the administration had not appreciably expanded, local officials found themselves governing ever more people. The expanded demand for food and resources was partly met by putting more land under the plough and by the introduction of New World crops, but the resulting environmental damage also contributed to the increased frequency of natural disasters. The authority of the court waned, leaving it less able to enact its policies as the scale of corruption throughout the bureaucracy grew. Changes in the structure of economy were not matched by any adjustment in the methods of administration and taxation. Increasing hardship prompted some among the hungry and the dispossessed to join protests or engage in outright revolt.

For a time, the Qing court managed to assert its authority in managing these problems. But in the nineteenth century some major challenges to Manchu rule appeared from abroad. European powers were expanding their trade in the East, and by the early 1800s Great Britain and other Western countries had struck on a product they could market in China – opium – and were shipping it in huge volumes. Qing attempts to prevent this trade led to the state’s defeat in the Opium Wars and the forced signing of treaties favourable to foreign powers. This led to the opening of the treaty ports.

Depcition of Western Hospital from The Sights of Shanghai

The Sights of Shanghai, Shanghai: Studio of Realised Longevity, 1884, nla.obj-56642620

Shanghai was opened as a treaty port in 1842, following the first Opium War. Located at the mouth of the Yangzi River, concessions to Britain, France and the United States saw Shanghai enlarged and transformed. Within decades Shanghai had become an energetic home to people from around the world. Western buildings crowded the waterfront and trading vessels filled the river. The mixing of cultures was reflected in the newspapers and periodicals produced by the city’s publishers. The author of The Sights of Shanghai writes of the city with affection and humour. He provides many vignettes of life in Shanghai, describing the experiences of Chinese and foreigner alike. The preface playfully places Shanghai in a land of dreams as viewed from outside the mortal realm, drawing on a common device in popular fiction of the time.

The opening of the treaty ports and the gradual opening of the interior brought new opportunities for trade and interaction. Foreigners were travelling throughout the country in unprecedented numbers. But they had not all come as merchants; many had come to spread the word of God. Protestant missionaries made use of the greater freedom of movement to establish missions around China. One unintended result of this protestant campaign of proselytization of the 19th century was the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64) – one of the bloodiest conflicts in all human history – which arose out of the founding of a millenarian movement. In the 1830s a young man in Guangdong province named Hong Xiuquan (1814–1864) fell ill after failing yet again in the civil examinations.

In his delirium Hong dreamed of meeting two men who identified themselves as his father and brother and revealed to him his mission on earth. The Christian tracts he had read led Hong to conflate these apparitions with God and Jesus. He became convinced that he was in fact the younger brother of Christ, descended from heaven to create an earthly paradise for believers.

In January 1851 Hong declared the founding of a ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’ (Taiping Tianguo, hence the English title for the movement), and his followers soon took up arms against the Qing. After a series of victories against a sometimes disorganised Qing army, they captured Nanjing in 1853. For the next ten years the Heavenly Ruler, and the various kings in his service, ruled a huge swathe of China from the city. The Taiping forces mounted further campaigns, but internal division among the leadership matched with a strengthening resolve among the Qing troops and the Western forces around Shanghai eventually curbed their advances. The Heavenly Kingdom fell finally in 1864, but not before the movement had led to the deaths of an estimated 20 million people. While ultimately unsuccessful, the Taiping Rebellion left a deep impact on the structure of Qing rule and on the nature of subsequent popular uprisings.

Page from Calendar of the Third Year of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, with Taiping seal at right

Calendar of the Third Year of the Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace, Nanjing: 1853, nla.obj-49774089

This is an excerpt from Celestial Empire: Life in China, 1644–1911 by Dr Nathan Woolley—available through our online bookshop.