Discuss the impact of imperialism in late Qing China, demonstrating its significance in causing the Boxer Uprising of 1899-1900.

This essay will focus primarily on the development of the foreign presence and foreign power in late Qing China following the first Anglo-Chinese War (the Opium War) of 1842. Before a discussion on the impact of imperialism can take place, it is necessary to define the term ‘imperialism’. A.N. Porter provides the reader with a useful summary of the variety of definitions in use both today and during the era of widespread imperialist expansion in the period 1860-1914. Porter states his own definition to be "….imperialism considered as the processes by which either formal empires or significant influence and control short of direct rule- ‘informal’ empires- came into being and then grew….dynamics of modern empire building and forms of domination or coercion" were employed as part of those processes1. He continues with the statement that ‘imperialism’ used in the broadest sense refers to "world-wide economic expansion and intensified international rivalry"2. Some alternative definitions are as follows:

"The tendency of one society or state to control another, by whatever means and for whatever purpose."3

Imperialism, perhaps, may be defined as a sufficient political function of the process "of integrating new regions into the expanding economy"4.

The deliberate act or advocacy of extending or maintaining a state’s direct or indirect political control over any inhabited territory."5

Effective long term political and territorial domination of the technologically superior nations over technologically inferior nations as colonies and semi-colonies."6

This essay will attempt to assess the impact of imperialism in China, with reference to the above definitions. Porter states that the period 1860-1914 can be described as the era of ‘New Imperialism’. This includes the period with which this essay is concerned, as 1859-60 marked the arrival of the Anglo-Indian and French armies in North China and the subsequent march on Peking. 1899-1900 saw the culmination of anti-foreign sentiment in the Boxer Rising.

There were a number of wide-ranging reasons for the increasingly expansionist policies of the European Powers, however, they were fuelled by the rapid growth of the international economy and the associated technological advance. This factor was linked to ambitions to dominate and rule overseas territories. Prior to the period of particularly aggressive foreign control in China referred to as the ‘Scramble for Concessions’ beginning in 1897, Britain’s involvement in China was almost entirely trade-based. Britain had no interest in annexation, except for Hong Kong and the adjacent Kowloon peninsula. All she desired was unrestricted access to China’s trade. During this initial stage in imperialist involvement, Britain maintained a dominant position, although by 1860 she had been joined by France, which was infiltrating Indo-China, and Russia, which desired Korea and territory along China’s northern boundaries. However, for forty years after 1860 Britain continued to dominate China’s commerce. In addition to a near monopoly of China’s markets, Great Britain had a stranglehold on the China customs. By 1873 the entire Chinese customs service was managed by Sir Robert Hart; over half of his staff were British. This guaranteed the country a reliable source of revenue and was a safeguard for foreign capitalists. British political paramountcy in China ended in 1895 due to the sudden and complete collapse of China as a result of the Sino-Japanese War and the ensuing Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895. China’s failure and humiliation in the Sino-Japanese War signalled the country’s weakness to the rest of the world. In the Treaty of Shimonoseki, Japan demanded sovereignty over Formosa, a £35 million indemnity, and the Liaotung peninsula. This final demand was, however, withdrawn after protest from France, Russia and Germany, who had combined in cynical conspiracy to protect China. In return, a grateful China granted French mineral rights in Yunnan and Kwangsi, and Hankow and Kwantung were delivered to Germany. Russia, who had already expressed her intention of establishing an empire in Manchuria, was allowed a controlling stake in the Chinese Eastern Railway which, when completed, would connect Northern China with the eastern terminus of the projected Trans-Siberian Railway.

The impact of Western Imperialism had been increasing steadily throughout the 1890s, causing tensions to develop between the foreign ‘Great’ Powers, Chinese officials and the local population. The officials greatly resented the fact that they were being dictated to by those groups of people formerly referred to as ‘barbarians’. The Chinese government were of the opinion that the foreigners were becoming too influential and were threatening their authority. The foreign presence was greatly intensified by the ‘Scramble for Concessions’ which occurred between 1897-99 "ushering in a new era of international relations of the Chinese Empire"7. This was the period whereby the Western powers each attempted to enhance their political, social and economic authority in China by carving out their own ‘spheres of influence’. This series of events was activated in November 1897 when Germany put in a bid for more territory, using as justification the murder of two German missionaries in Shandong (known as the Juye Incident). As a consequence of this event Germany seized Jiaozhou Bay, on the south coast of the Shandong peninsula, which was turned into a naval base and became the German sphere of influence. Germany also gained a monopoly investment in mines and railways in Shandong.

This incident provoked subsequent moves by Russia, Britain, France, Italy and Japan to establish their own individual areas of control. One example of this was Russia’s take-over of Port Arthur in March 1898. These brutal manifestations of the new imperialism caused dismay in Britain. Hitherto British governments, secure in the knowledge that their businessmen enjoyed supremacy in China, had supported a free-trade-for-all policy. The events of 1897- 98 suggested that China, like Africa, would be partitioned and Britain would lose valuable markets, both for imported goods, such as opium, and of Chinese raw materials, for example, cotton.

The situation was obviously regarded with great distrust by the Chinese government, as they viewed the foreign powers as being prepared to complete the ‘carving up of the melon’, i. e. China. The Western powers now began to press demands on the ruling Qing Dynasty and took a greater role in administration and policy making.

The quickening pace of foreign penetration provoked popular resistance inside China. There had been spasms of violent xenophobia, largely directed against missionaries in 1891-2. By the end of 1898, a new anti-foreigner movement had emerged; this was the Boxer movement. The Boxer Uprising originated from the northern province of Shandong and then, in the winter of 1899-1900, crossed the Shandong-Zhili border, from where it spread rapidly through a large part of the North China Plain, affecting in particular Zhili and Shanxi and, to a lesser extent, Henan province. Although the movement later became a national phenomenon with international consequences, its origins were in the Shandong province and it was as Esherick states "…really a regional movement".8

One particular area in which the powers attempted to extend their authority was through economic penetration of the region. The Germans were particularly active in this area. Although foreign investment did bring some advantages to the local population, in general, its impact proved to be negative. The import of foreign goods, especially of machine-made cotton goods and petroleum, rapidly increased between 1896 and 1899, detrimentally affecting the livelihood of the peasantry as the domestic, small-scale markets were unable to compete.

It was the opening of Tsingtao as a free port which led to this influx of foreign capital and merchandise to the interior. Shandong province now experienced the foreign ‘promoters’ who came to survey the land, investigating possibilities for mining and railway enterprises. The arrogant behaviour of the Germans in particular, "aroused intense antipathy among farmers, landlords and the gentry of Shandong".9 This feeling of animosity was heightened by the fact that the German firms invited no Chinese participation, thus there was no possibility of the local population benefiting from such ventures. The peasantry were also offended by the fact that no regard was paid to their ancient beliefs during this period of exploration, for example, it was maintained that the ‘feng-shui’ of an area was detrimentally affected by the exploitation of the region’s mineral resources.

The impact of the foreign financial penetration was markedly significant due to the fact that the peasantry were already experiencing financial distress due to the fiscal crisis of the state. This had arisen from the Treaty of Shimonoseki and the resulting indemnity imposed upon China. Economic resources were already exhausted due to the increased military expenditure during the war; the indemnity tipped the balance and bankruptcy resulted. In order to help cover the debt, large shipping, mining and railway concessions were made to the foreigners. Although this measure helped to reduce the imminent financial crisis, it caused problems to future development as the foreign powers were able to increase their authority by supervising government revenue.

One extremely influential (and as yet previously unmentioned) factor was the effect of the Christian missionary presence. In 1860 missionaries were first permitted to reside and preach in the Chinese interior under treaty protection. They were the first foreign group to leave the treaty ports and venture into the interior. It was the missionaries and their converts who experienced the most extreme anti-foreign sentiment, although this was primarily due to their harsh treatment of the local populations and their complete lack of regard for the traditional religious beliefs of the peasantry whom they attempted to convert. The sources of anti-Christian sentiment were many and complex. As this factor played such a significant role in causing the Boxer Rising, it will be discussed in another essay in the collection. It should, however, be recognised that this attempt at indoctrinating the Chinese with Western cultural values, was an important aspect of Western imperialism in China and played a notable role in bringing about the Boxer Rising.

A further consequence of the intensified Western expansionism was the T’ung-chih Restoration effort, which has been viewed largely as a response to the West. Reforms were initially implemented in the 1860s, although these tended to be "restorative (not innovative) in character."10 One significant area of reform was that of foreign relations. Whereas the old system had been based on tribute, in 1861 a new institution was created to deal with the Western nations- the Tsungli Yamen. China’s failure in the Sino-Japanese War encouraged a more far-reaching reform effort, under the control of the emperor Kuang-hsu, known as the ‘Hundred Days’ Reform Movement (June 11th-September 21st 1898). This went far beyond the previous efforts, with attempts made to remodel the exam system, modernise the army, navy, police and postal systems, and to promote commercial activity. However, as Cohen states "little was accomplished" and the attempts at reform were met on the whole with "stubborn resistance".11

There were a wide variety of short- and long-term factors responsible for the development of the Boxer movement. The conclusion can be drawn that not one individual element provides a sufficient explanation for the movement’s origins. Yet it is possible to claim that the impact of Western Imperialism is the most important reason as it has links with many other aspects, such as the Christian missionaries and economic penetration. However, had this factor been acting exclusively of all other elements, it would not have been sufficient in explaining why the movement should have developed at this particular stage in Chinese history. It was a culmination of all the factors which led to the development of the rising. These include; imperialism, natural disasters, Christian missionary activity, disbanding of the forces leading to civil unrest, the fiscal crisis, the role played by the Shandong governor, Yu Xian, official patronage of the Boxer movement, and popular culture in Shandong. When all these elements came together, they created an atmosphere of tension, animosity, and eventually violence in the form of the Boxer movement.


A.N. Porter, European Imperialism, 1860-1914 (1994), p. 2.

2 Ibid., p. 8.

3 D.K. Fieldhouse, Colonialism, 1870-1945 (1981), p.1.

4 Gallagher and Robinson, ‘The Imperialism of Free Trade’, Economic History Review (1953), p. 5.

5 William Baumgart, Imperialism: the ideal and reality of British and French colonial expansion (1982), p. 8.

6 D.K. Fieldhouse, Colonialism, 1870-1945 (1981), pp. 3-4.

7 Joseph W Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (1987), p. 181.

8 Ibid. p. 1.

9 Victor W Purcell, The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study, p. 178.

10 Paul A Cohen, ‘Ch’ing China: Confrontation with the West, 1850-1900’, in J B Crowley, (ed.), Modern East Asia: Essays in Interpretation (New York, 1970), p. 39.

11 Ibid. p. 46.