Today, we tend to take China for granted as a communistic colossus. And though people generally have some notion of the long and rich Chinese history of empire, far less common is any notion of how and when the China transisitioned into its modern form, and how it all might easily have turned out very differently.

By the late 18th century, China had long considered itself the center of the Earth. Highly self confident in this way, the empire had been unimpressed with the emergence of Great Britain, and uninterested in their efforts to broaden trade relations. For centuries, China had been remarkably insular empire. But British merchants eventually found an effective entry point with the illicit sale of opium. As the Chinese addiction to opium grew to staggering proportions, so did the British addiction to the profits.

When Chinese officials finally began enforcing its opium prohibition with more seriousness, British merchants were not cooperative. The Chinese seized huge stockpiles of the opium contraband, which prompted an indignant British response. As Britain demanded reimbursement for its seized property, conflict quickly escalated into violence, and then came war.

The Opium Wars changed China.

The industrialized British military quickly pounded China into submission. Various unfavorable trade agreements were forced upon China, including the formalized legalization of the opium scourge, with all of its vampiric effects. As a result, the Chinese empire which had long considered itself to be the center of the world, was now brought to bear witness to a very different geopolitical reality. No longer could China deny the wide margin of military superiority in the hands of the western "barbarians". Nor did China any longer have the luxury of choosing its preferred level of economic involvement vis-à-vis the West. The Earth seemed to have shifted overnight.

Japan, coming to grips with similar geopolitical revelations, chose to steam headlong directly into the new phenomenon of "westernization". The situation presented a critical precipice for China. How would China respond? The nature of the Chinese response was to be of enormous consequence.

The Response

Chinese leadership, by contrast, did not proceed with nearly as much solidarity. Some voices did urge immediate adoption of western technology and institutions. However, many others insisted instead on a stringent conservatism, and were deeply reluctant to abandon any part of their Confucian world which had indeed proven so enduring. When the Chinese emperor died in 1861, he left only a four year old son to take the dragon throne. The resulting power vacuum only magnified the challenges for an imperial court which already lacked a unified voice.

Nevertheless in 1861, Prince Gong managed to spearhead China's "Self Strengthening Movement" to effect western reforms. For the first time, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs was established and the study of foreign languages was promoted. Western arms and shipbuilding projects were set in motion. Railroads, telegraph lines, and western schools were introduced. But Prince Gong's voice, and pro-western voices like his, were soon overshadowed by another figure.

Empress Dowager Cixi

The Empress Dowager Cixi was the mother of the young boy emperor, and virulently anti-western. Cixi soon demonstrated an uncommon level of political shrewdness, thoroughly consolidating power around herself. Indeed Empress Cixi proved to be such a politically irrepressible force of nature, that she dominated the Chinese Imperial Court for the next 47 years, all the way until her death in 1908.

While the "Self Strengthening Movement" officially continued until 1895, critical momentum steadily faded. Cixi and her cohorts saw to it that this would be the case, as they continuously undermined and sabotaged various aspects of the movement along the way. At one point, Cixi insisted that the train cars in China be pulled by horses. At another point, Cixi embezzled 30 million taels of shipbuilding silver, redirecting necessary funds to instead restore the imperial summer palace. From this point on, no new naval ships were put into service.

With so much internal resistance, it is little wonder that China fared poorly when tested militarily during this period. In 1885, China was badly beaten by the French in IndoChina. In 1895, China was badly beaten by the Japanese, losing Korea. When in 1898, a young emperor made yet another concerted effort to institute sweeping westernization with "Hundred Days' Reform", it is suspected that poisoned the emperor and dispensed with him.

The Empress Cixi died in 1908, just before the fall of the empire in 1911. In the twentieth century, with the Chinese Civil War and the ensuing Communist reign of Mao Tse Tung, the Chinese people experienced more death and destruction than perhaps any other single nation in history. In hindsight, it is a wonder how much longer the Chinese Empire might have lasted, and how much differently the twentieth century may have turned out if Empress Cixi had embraced the pro westernization voices within her royal court.

Source: Baum, Richard. University of California, Los Angeles. The Fall and Rise of China. The Great Courses, 2010.

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