By Pat Welsh, contributor
While the Taiping Rebellion was gaining ground, the Qing Dynasty also had to contend with another foreign incursion from France and England. Russia and the United States also were involved, but only in diplomatic efforts.
This second war was really only a series of military ventures. Dismayed at the slow response of the Chinese to implement the terms of the Treaty of Nanjing of 1842, it only took a spark to reignite hostilities between China and the West. That spark occurred in 1856. At that time, pirates and merchants had been smuggling opium along the Chinese seacoast of Fujian and Guangdong along China’s southeastern coastline. They had been using Hong Kong as a safe asylum and had been flying the Union Jack, the British flag, for protection. One of these vessels, named the Arrow, was entering the Pearl River Delta from the South China Sea in October 1856. The Chinese water patrol boarded the boat because it believed that pirates were aboard using the British flag for protection. The patrol arrested 12 Chinese sailors and hauled down the British flag.
The British governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring, and the British Consul at Guangzhou, Harry Parkes, filed a protest to Ye Mingchen, the Chinese governor of Guangdong Province. They advised Ye that the lowering of the British flag on the Arrow was viewed as a great insult to Britain. Ye had a strong dislike of the West. He also had a brief success against the British in Guangzhou in 1852 when he had refused to let the British into Guangzhou. Yet here in 1856, he overplayed his hand and, seemingly out of arrogance, replied to the British that the British flag had not been displayed and that the vessel was manned by Chinese at that time.
Unsatisfied with Ye’s reply, Parkes and Bowring demanded the return of the 12, an apology and a promise to refrain from similar incidents in the future. Ye refused and claimed that the boat was a Chinese craft even if it had been registered in Hong Kong. Ye also claimed that the British license had expired when it was seized and that those taken off were Chinese. Parkes and Bowring replied back by giving Ye 48 hours to comply with their demands, after which the British were free to take further action.
Ye’s refusal this time allowed the British navy to bombard several Qing forts along the Pearl River and on Oct. 23, 1856, the British seized Qing forts at Whampoa (Huangpu District) east of Guangzhou. Since Ye was still refusing to take any conciliatory measures, a British force of a thousand seized Guangzhou on Oct. 27 for the purpose of subduing Ye. Having no success in this and no intention of occupying the city, the British then withdrew. Organized by Qing officials, a Cantonese mob followed the British retreat and burned factories in the suburbs of the city. Fortunately for the Chinese, a great mutiny had broken out in India in May of 1857 causing the British to shift resources from Guangzhou to India leaving the British unable to wage a serious war against China for about six months.
The murder of a French missionary in February 1856 motivated France to promise to send troops to China to assist the British. In December 1857, Anglo-French forces seized Guangzhou and occupied the city for three years. They also arrested Ye for violating diplomatic procedures by trying to flee Guangzhou. They then exiled him to Calcutta, India, where he became ill and died shortly thereafter.
Guangzhou having been seized, the Anglo-French authorities turned their attention to securing a revision of several treaties. Russian and American officials also were invited to Shanghai to meet with a chief grand councilor from the Qing court who was requested to commission a sole plenipotentiary who could confer with the Western Powers. The Qing court’s unwillingness to comply, led to the Anglo-French envoys in Shanghai to dispatch their fleets to the mouth of the Beihe River that leads to Tianjin, where they sacked the Qing forts at Dagu on May 20, 1858.
Alarmed, the Qing court sent Grand Secretary Guiliang and Minister of Civil Appointments Hua Shannai as the emperor’s plenipotentiaries to arrange a truce in Tianjin. Instead of negotiations, the British and French produced a total of 98 items and articles, which the Qings were forced to accept and to sign. This became the Treaties of Tianjin in June 1858.
The main points of British treaty included provisions that allowed Chinese and British envoys in Beijing and London. This provision would make it clear to the Qing court that Chinese emperor was dealing with an equal, Queen Victoria. Also allowed were new trade ports, some of which had to await the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion. British subjects were now allowed to travel into the interior of China and 2,000,000 taels of silver were to be paid as reparations. Finally, the rate of tariff duties was to be revised by negotiations between the two countries.
The Sino-French Treaty contained the same main points as the Sino-British treaty above plus the permission of missionaries to propagate Christianity in the interior of China. Legal disputes between the two sides were first to be judged by French consuls. Then if a French consul could not decide the legal suits, he could invite the Chinese officials to assist with a joint decision. Lastly, France was to enjoy a most-favored-nation treatment whenever China granted special privileges to other nations.
Feeling humiliated by these treaties, the Qing court ordered a well-known Mongolian, Senggelinqin, to repair and strengthen the military defense around Tianjin as soon as the foreign fleets sailed away from Dagu. These actions were designed to bar future foreign incursions and protect Beijing from threats to its safety. The British and French envoys mistook these actions as reluctance of the Qing court to ratify these treaties. As a result, the British and French envoys commanded their fleets in June 1859 to force their way into the mouth of the Beihe River.
The Qing court sent a request to the British and French envoys to meet Chinese representatives at Beitang near the mouth of the river. The British and French refused and fired on the Chinese defenses. Senggelinqin ordered the fortresses on both banks to return fire. Suffering severe damage, the Anglo-French forces withdrew southward. This success of the Chinese led the Qing court to believe that the Anglo-French forces would never dare to attempt a similar assault again and that the unequal treaties with the British and French could be abolished.
Sadly, in March of 1860, a reinforced Anglo-French force reappeared, defeated Chinese resistance and forced their way into Beijing. The Chinese Xianfeng emperor (咸豐), fled to Rehe, just northeast of the great wall. In Beijing, the summer palace was looted and destroyed, the remains of which are now a tourist attraction. In October 1860, separate treaties were signed with the British and French, which reaffirmed the articles of the Treaty of Tianjin, opened Tianjin as a treaty port and leased the Kowloon peninsula across from Hong Kong to the British.
Up until these new treaties, Chinese diplomatic negotiations had been managed by local provincial authorities. As China had considered all foreign nations as vassal states, the Office of Colonial Affairs (Li-fan-yuan 理番院) had managed the Qing Court’s relation with Mongol, Tibetan and other barbarian nations. Lifanyuan means “regulate the barbarians bureau” and it implied that nations other than China were inferior and less civilized. This office had been considered as the legitimate organ in charge of foreign affairs with the Western Powers. Under its purview, negotiations with the West were undertaken at provincial cities near the coast by officials chosen in Beijing. Now with envoys in both London and Beijing, the Qing court had gradually found itself forced to recognize the Western rulers as their equals with negotiations in Beijing rather than only in provincial cities.
The death of the Xianfeng emperor in Rehe in 1861 ushered in a brief interregnum period that eventually lead to the rise of the dowager-empress Cixi. These events will be the topic of my next article.