This article is part of the Chinese Meiji universe.

Economic and Social Transformation

In practice, China was ruled by a small cadre of top ministers who had a far-reaching program to modernize the country, and the Emperor was nothing but a figurehead. In order to be able to catch up to the European powers, the Chinese needed to learn Western knowledge. In the 1850s, the government sent hundreds of thousands of students to Europe and the United States and hired foreign experts to teach the Chinese the how to build railroads, operate a modern economy, and run an efficient bureaucracy.

The government was particularly interested in Western technology and science. In order to be among the most advanced nations in the world, they reasoned, they must have a good educational system. The government set up vocational, technical and agricultural schools and founded ten Imperial Universities, among the most prestigious in Asia.

The Chinese government also highly encouraged industrialization. They set up state-owned enterprises that sold items in the global market in order to pay for their modernizing efforts. The government also sparked a boom in private enterprises by providing loan guarantees and governmental subsidies to entrepreneurs. This new capitalist environment stimulated innovation due to increased competition between industries and companies and led to a growing middle class. In 1880, innovations in electrical generation and distribution made Beijing the first city in the world to have a modern power grid. At the turn of the century Beijing was nicknamed "Paris of the East" after another famous City of Lights.

The Ming constructed railroads to link their major cities, which spurred commerce in previously underdeveloped areas. In 1866 the Great Northern Railroad was completed, which ran from the Pacific in Outer Manchuria, across Mongolia, to the edge of Chinese East Turkmenistan. The Great Western Railroad was built in 1870, which allowed rapid travel from Canton to the snowy peaks of the Himalayas. By 1885, one could travel between any two points within the borders of China in under three weeks.

The government-backed modernization was expensive, however. Chinese farmers were taxed heavily and many lost their land. The displaced peasants were encouraged by the government to migrate away from the densely populated fertile plains to cultivate the "wastelands" farther to the west and north.

Early Years

Relationship with Europe and the United States


The old bund

Shanghai attracted foreign investors and its financial district was filled with European-style buildings.

European nations greatly benefited from the less restrictive trade provisions in the 1841 Treaty of Peking. Ports were opened, and the volume of trade between China and the West tripled by 1852 from pre-1841 levels. Foreign imports, which was almost non-existent in the Qing era, flooded the vast and newly-exposed Chinese market. No longer did European nations have to worry about trade imbalances and the depletion of national gold. Chinese products in demand in Europe, such as porcelain, silk, tea, and the new tulip craze – Chinese paintings, were traded for European textile, steel, and technologies. Those that were rich enough took up interest in Western products, and farmers were introduced to more efficient tools like the McCormick Reaper.

Foreign investment in China increased as well. Throughout the 1850s, 60s, and 70s, the Ming government made numerous contracts with Western companies to construct railroads, build factories, and industrialize major cities. By 1868, most major corporations had Chinese branches with headquarters in Beijing, Shanghai, Canton, Tianjin, or Hong Kong. Many foreign investors saw the huge potential behind the rapidly expanding Chinese market, and sought to take advantage of good opportunities offered.

The American Civil War led to a blossoming cotton industry in China, and by 1864, China supplied 27% of the cotton used in British textile mills. Colonial cotton producers in India, fearful of Chinese competition, successfully lobbied the British Parliament for a series of tariffs collectively known as the Cotton Acts, which would later culminate in the Duar Crisis.


Throughout this period the Ming government tried to maintain fair relations with European nations and the United States. Friction with Russia, however, was frequent and the situation was often quite volatile. The Ming felt threatened by Russian maneuvers in Central Asia and its encroachment upon the borders of Outer Mongolia. Imperial Russia’s apparent desire to exert influence on the Amur valley region resulted in its refusal to officially acknowledge the sovereignty of the Second Ming as the inheritor of the terms of the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk, further contributing to the tension.

Walk-In War: Involvement in the Crimean Conflict

When Ottoman and Anglo-French forces clashed with Imperial Russia in 1853-1854, China initially declared its neutrality in the conflict. However on July 25th 1854, Chinese surveyors reported Russian settlement on the island of Sakhalin offshore Manchuria. This was a direct violation of the Treaty of Nerchinsk, which stated Chinese ownership of Sakhalin. The enraged Chinese Parliament declared war on Russia and mobilized its armies and fleets. Millions were conscripted, and most of the fighting was done by recruits and new officers. This because the Chinese Army high command realized that the Asian theater would be insignificant compared to the intense fighting in Europe, and used the conflict essentially as training ground for officers and other military personnel.


The fortress of Petropavlovsk, the site of China's largest battle during the Crimean War.

On September 18th, the Imperial Chinese Army crossed the border from Manchuria and seized several minor outposts while a fleet assaulted Russian settlements on Sakhalin. The Chinese swept through the poorly defended Russian frontiers with minimal fighting. However, the largest Chinese contribution to the allied cause in the war was in August 1854, during the Siege of Petropavlovsk. When an Anglo-French force failed to take the Kamchatka city, a large Chinese force showed up and conquered the fortress with the help of its European allies. The Chinese forces then proceeded to take much of the rest of the undefended peninsula.

With the Treaty of Paris, signed on March 12, 1856, Russia officially recognized the sovereignty of the Second Ming and Chinese ownership of Sakhalin's Oil Companies . In addition, China returned all territories north of the Outer Xing'an (Stanovoy) Mountains to Russia, although the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky would remain as a major WW2 naval base to Japan.

In China, the war was commonly nicknamed the Walk-in War because the Chinese did very little actual fighting and simply “walked in” Russian land and seized territories.

British and French relations with China remained cordial for several years. Chinese involvement in the Crimean War was unexpected, and the two imperialistic powers were a bit uneasy with its potential interference in Asian affairs.

United States Reaction

The United States was not pleased with China’s expansion into the Pacific following the Crimean War. In addition, following the Chinese victory, large influxes of Chinese immigrants, both laborers and intellectuals, arrived on the West Coast cities of San Francisco, Vancouver, and Seattle. The United States was in particular concerned with growing Chinese influence in the northern Pacific, as Chinese footholds in Kamchatka and the Komandorski Islands allowed the newly-created Modern Imperial Chinese Navy to potentially project significant power in that area.

In 1860, President Buchanan of the United States mediated an agreement between the Ming and Imperial Russia for the return of most of the Kamchatka peninsula, on the basis of protecting the “territorial integrity” of Russia. The following year, Chinese troops occupying the area withdrew to Petropavlovsk, which remained in Chinese hands.

Relationship with other Asian nations


Daimyo troops

Daimyo armies revolting against the Shogunate.

Japan’s isolationist Tokugawa regime was deeply affected by the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. The shoguns in Edo increasingly felt betrayed and alienated by their Asian neighbors, who had come under the sway of the “barbarian nations” of Europe. In an effort to prevent the spread of European influence, Japan closed its borders to China in 1852.

This decision was extremely unpopular among many local daimyo, especially those on the fringes of the empire not entirely under the firm grip of the Shogunate. Those lords had enjoyed centuries of prosperity from trade with China and Korea. An extensive black market between China and Japan quickly appeared, operated by the disgruntled lords, and it seemed as if nothing had changed. The large volume of illegal trade was so immense that the shoguns had no power to stop them. In June 1859, a few tozama daimyo (outside lords) on the island of Kyushu revolted and established a republic.

Several other lords on Eastern Honshu and Hokkaido followed suit, and civil war raged in the Japanese countryside until the Tokugawas were overthrown in 1861. The rebels declared a Japanese Empire with the Emperor as the supreme head of state, which was mostly a figurehead position, and abolished the position of shogun. Japan maintained close ties for the next decade with China, which exerted significant influence on the fledgling “Empire” during its upheavals.

Korea, Nepal, and Bhutan

Although Korea (Choseon), Nepal, and Bhutan were all tributary states under the Qing, they gained economic and political independence from the Chinese following the 1848 Revolution. The Second Ming was at first more interested in forming alliances with these Asian countries in the periphery rather than attempting to exert direct influence on them. These three territories kept close ties with the Ming, becoming de facto protectorates over the next half century.

The Oriental System

Early chinese cotton picking

Cotton was an important crop in China. In the aftermath of the British Cotton Acts, Chinese merchants and Japanese textiles manufacturers formed stronger relationships.

The economies of China and Japan in the early days of their industrialization fueled each other in ever-strengthening ties, and it soon became apparent that there was a need to regulate commerce between the two nations. In the cotton-textile boom between China and Japan following the American Civil War and the British Cotton Acts, Chinese and Japanese governments gradually adopted laws to facilitate the Yellow Sea trade. In 1875 these were formalized in the Oriental System, a universal system of taxes and tariffs throughout China and Japan governed by a council made of representatives from the Chinese Department of the Treasury and the Japanese Ministry of the Exchequer. In 1887, China and Japan allowed Korea to join the Oriental System.

Duar Crisis

Public opinion in China had already been turned against the British when the British government passed the Cotton Acts to protect Indian cotton produces from Chinese competition during the American Civil War. When the British threatened to declare war on Bhutan in November 1864, the Chinese government deliberated whether to respond to the potential attack on its ally and risk war with the powerful empire “where the sun never sets”. The issue was hotly debated in Parliament, with pacifists opting for peaceful negotiations with the British, against the war hawks led by Yuan Bo who claimed a “domino effect” would make all Asian countries vulnerable to Europeans once Bhutan falls. The stalemate in a divided Cabinet was finally broken by the intervention of former Prime Minister Zhang Luoxing, who had retired from public life a year earlier. In a series of defensive military maneuvers, large numbers of Imperial Chinese forces were transported to the Himalayas, where they secured strategic positions in Bhutan while ambassadors sought a peaceful end to the issue. Unwilling to take the risk, the British eventually backed down and signed a peace treaty with Bhutan.

Though the crisis in Bhutan quickly blew over, the British were still adamant in their refusal to repeal the Cotton Acts. In the wake of the Duar Crisis, Chinese cotton producers found new markets in Japan and fueled the island nation’s budding textile industry.

Yonghe China in the Age of New Imperialism

Emperor Yonghe held the Imperial throne until his death in 1909. During his reign, China saw great internal changes as well as the entry of China into the global stage. After the Congress of Berlin, the world entered into a period of new imperialism in Africa and Asia. China, though anti-imperialistic in doctrine (“Asia For Asians” was a popular phrase at the time), nonetheless sought new markets and sources of raw material.

The Oriental Alliance

The success of the Oriental System economic union between Japan and China led to the public signing of Mutual Protection Treaty in 1889, which was purely defensive in nature. Nevertheless, this move alarmed the United States, where public opinion and discrimination against Japanese immigrants reached apex. Fearing the “yellow peril” of a powerful “Oriental Alliance”, Californian legislators pressured the US government to pass the Japanese Exclusion Act, following the example of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed in 1882.

Sino-German Relations


China had always maintained friendly relations with Prussia, the one European Great Power that did not seem to meddle in Asian affairs. The Chinese were greatly impressed by its spectacular victory over France in 1870, which was achieved in six weeks and seemed to usher in a new era of warfare. A number of overseas students and officials were present in France and Germany during the Franco-Prussian War and was able to experience first-hand the might of the Prussian military machine.

Following the creation of a unified Germany, the number of hired German advisors in China rose dramatically, as the Chinese Army underwent a succession of reforms known as “Mauserization” (named after the German standard-issue Mauser Model 71 rifle), which sought to imitate the Germans in organization and doctrine. The colloquial Chinese nickname “arrowhead”, now used to denote all Germans, originated with these military advisors, who wore distinctive pickelhaube helmets.

The Sino-German Alliance

The Congress of Berlin following the 1878 Russo-Turkish War placed restrictions on Russian expansion in the Balkans and in Central Asia, much to China’s satisfaction. During the ensuing diplomatic rift between Russia and Germany, Otto von Bismarck issued the Chancellor’s Assurance, in which he pledged to remain neutral in the event of a Sino-Russian war, and to try to pressure other nations to remain neutral as well. Though Bismarck had spent most of his life trying to prevent hostility between Germany and Russia, he was forced into retirement in 1890 and Kaiser Wilhelm II allowed the German peace treaty with Russia to expire.

Meanwhile, Franco-Russian relations improved steadily, and by 1892, the two countries had signed a secret alliance. In 1894, Germany and China signed the Leipzig Agreement, their own secret mutual-defense pact promising aid should either country find itself at war with Russia. Thus the Leipzig Agreement linked the Oriental Alliance of Japan and China with the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. When Great Britain and France signed the Entente Cordiale in 1904, and Russia and the United States signed the Honolulu Pact in 1906, the last pieces of the complex web of alliances clinked in place and the stage was set for the Great War.

Nam Đình Incident

The French had maintained a presence in Indochina since 1859, as merchants were interested in exploiting the region’s resources and potential markets for French products. In 1863, the Nguyễn Dynasty of Vietnam ceded three southern provinces to France, which would become the colony of French Cochinchina. For the next few decades, the French could continue to erode the power of the Nguyễn’s Vietnam and neighboring Siam. In 1874, France and Vietnam signed the Treaty of Hue, which expanded French control of Cochinchina to include the entire Mekong River delta, while guaranteeing the integrity of the rest of Vietnam.

In 1881, Commandant Henri Rivière led a French force to northern Vietnam (Tonkin) to investigate the complaints of French merchants against local bandits. After a brief encounter with some bandits, Rivière over-stepped his authority and seized the city of Nam Đình and imposed martial law over the territories under his control. The French government, then under the pro-imperialistic Prime Minister Jules Ferry, did nothing to censure Rivière’s actions, and hoped to set up a protectorate over the rest of Vietnam.

Vietnam appealed to China, which feared the French were planning to seize the rest of Vietnam directly, promptly transported a contingent of troops to Hanoi. Rivière, who had expected to be reprimanded, was emboldened to march on Hanoi, not knowing the movements of the Chinese. The two armies met outside Hanoi and confronted each other for days, and it appeared to the rest of the world that France and China were about to go to war. Credit for defusing the situation belonged, in large part, to the French minister to China, Frédéric Bourée, who worked to have both France and China send diplomats to negotiate an agreement.

The Nam Đình crisis was resolved by the Treaty of Hanoi, which granted China a sphere of influence in Tonkin and France a sphere of influence in Annam, while the Nguyễns kept nominal sovereignty. Vietnam was not invited to the negotiations.

Malay Canal

Spanish-Japanese War


The Japanese achieved a decisive victory over the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay.

In 1896, Philippine rebels rose up against Spanish rule. That same year, Japan demanded Spain to allow it to build a naval depot on Guam to fuel and supply Japanese ships patrolling the Pacific. When Spain refused, Japan declared war Spain on July 21st amid “Asia For Asians” rhetoric. China pledged neutrality, since the Mutual Protection Treaty was defensive only, and Japan was the clear aggressor. However, the Chinese General Staff puts the Navy on full alert, ready to strike should any Spanish ships enter Japanese territorial waters. However, by accident, the Spanish fired a torpedo on an American warship, which bought USA to the Japanese-Chinese side.

Two days after the declaration of war, the Japanese caught the Spanish Asia Squadron in harbor in Manila Bay and annihilated it in a fierce shootout. The Japanese landing force that pushed its way through the thick Philippine jungle soon found itself short of men needed to hold the large swaths of captured territory. After a series of diplomatic communications collectively known as the Yoritomo Dispatches, China agreed to send men in exchange for joint control of the Philippines. Ostensibly a “peacekeeping force”, the Chinese Expeditionary Force of 30,000 troops followed the heels of the Japanese combat soldiers to secure captured land.

By the Treaty of Seoul on 19 December, Spain ceded Guam and Wake Island to Japan. The Philippines became a part of USA. In return, Japan, and China would get control of a Guam area so they would get oil for their ships.

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