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Did the Forced Opening up of China by European Nations Bring about the Collapse of Imperial China?

Info: 2247 words (9 pages) Essay
Published: 23rd Sep 2019 in History

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  1. The British government justified the Anglo-Chinese Opium Wars (1839-42 and 1856-60) in the name of free trade.  The Chinese view is that the arrival of Western gunboats was the start of its ‘century of humiliation’ (1839-1945). Did the forced opening up of China by European nations bring about the collapse of imperial China?

The collapse of Imperial China seems inevitable; however this essay looks to explore what factors are important in bringing about this contention. The corpus of this essay will be divided into the different events that I see as crucial to bringing about the collapse of imperial China and these include: The Taiping rebellion, corrupt officials at the trading ports, the failure of the Macartney mission and finally consequences of the Opium war. It has been seen that internal problems within the Qing dynasty due to corruption, their lack of modernisation and importance on rituals and hierarchy and the inability to recognise European powers as equals. Ultimately, brought about the collapse of the imperial rule. On the other hand, it has been also been argued the fact that China was forcibly opened up by the West and thereby allowing the West to take advantage through the subsequent unequal treaties, leading to the collapse of Imperial China. Ultimately, this essay will argue that it was the internal problems caused by the factors mentioned above within the Qing dynasty led to the weakening of the imperial rule, therefore brought about the ultimate collapse of Imperial China.

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that the internal problems that faced the Qing rulers, “no high-ranking official viewed the foreign adversaries along the coasts as a major threat to the survival of the Qing dynasty. The trouble they caused could not be compared to the danger posed by the internal adversaries” (Ebrey 2010: 240). This is crucial to show us that collapse of imperial China was the result that was caused due to the fact that they were faced with bureaucratic inefficiency and widespread corruption resulted in them unable to meet the problems caused by increased population pressure and concentration of land ownership as a result of this, the corruption, peasant unrest, population growth, and the new administrations led to the Taiping rebellion (“Qing China’s Internal Crisis: Land Shortage, Famine, Rural Poverty, 2009”). The Taiping rebellion is crucial to show the ongoing internal problems within the Qing dynasty and therefore highlighting the decline in imperial rule, as it portrayed the ruling Qing dynasty as a focus of discontent after Hong Joo Tuan a religious preacher who preached against the Qing dynasty and in favour of great social and land reforms, therefore appealing to the population in this period of turmoil. “Which eventually spread over sixteen provinces and led to the destruction of six hundred cities and the deaths of twenty million people” (Ebrey 2010: 242).

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On the other hand of the argument it is been seen that imperial china collapsed due to the forcibly opening up by the west. “Some historians argue that China’s failure to modernise effectively was caused primarily by foreign aggression” (Grasso et al 2018: 41). This is due to the fact that there was an imbalance in trade caused by the high demand for Chinese tea but a low demand for British goods in china. This is because China was self-sufficient and did not need British goods. As a result of this, Great Britain was in debt to China. Britain started to sell silver to make the imbalance better, despite this Britain was still behind in payments. Thus, this led them to start selling opium. And this meant that the Chinese people became quickly addicted and traded the silver originally from Britain to get Opium.  “Even senior officials in charge of coastal protection grew very rich indeed from smuggling, or smugglers’ kickbacks” (Gelber n.d: 2). This once again is important as it shows that the internal problems within the Qing dynasty due to corruption which weakened the imperial rule, therefore allowed for the Europeans to take advantage because even within the official channels of trade, merchants began to train at these limitations as they were more interested in making profits.

Moreover, the Chinese emperor saw all these foreign traders as a potentially destabilising influence as it had huge economic impacts. “Most importantly, too much silver was being paid to foreign merchants for opium, and thus leaving China” (Gelber n.d: 2). This as a matter of fact resulted in all foreign trade being restricted to a single port, Canton. Indeed this collided with Britain’s view on trade, an employee of the Honourable East India Company, pushed by what he saw as the abuses of corrupt officials and undue restrictions on free trade decided it was time to openly break the rules that the Chinese imposed. He left Canton and took his grievances upriver, wanting to be heard by someone in the Chinese hierarchy, who was outside the Hong, outside the monopoly set up in Canton. And here’s where divides of culture come in and the importance placed on hierarchy, which failed to see to the European powers as equals. Because it is possible that he was not acting in a way that he saw as inappropriate. In fact he thought he was acting in a way perfectly reasonable in England but not in China because they lacked the modernisation due to focusing more on hierarchy. The arrogance of this traitor just deciding that his complaint should be elevated to the imperial court, rather than going through the proper authorities, was unbelievable to the Chinese.

Therefore, drove resentment amongst the European traders, who saw limitless opportunity for profit. Those Europeans trading in China were a self-selecting group. If you are going to make your living transporting goods thousands of miles away from your home, you probably believe in the inherent value of unrestricted trade, which meant that these rules did not sit well with the Europeans, piracy and smuggling began to raise causing destabilisation of the imperial rule.

Furthermore, the importance given to rituals and hierarchy once again shows the failure to recognise the Europeans as equals and causing the collapse of imperial rule. This is because China’s economy was in a dire situation and could have benefitted from the British trade if the emperor looked beyond the importance of hierarchy and ritual and see the need to modernise and thereby allowed for more trade to benefit the country economically. This is because “unprecedented population growth between 1750 and 1850 severely limited China’s economic strength and at the same time spawned conditions for social unrest” (Grasso et al 2018: 43). However, in the presence of the emperor, it was expected for everyone to kowtow. And Macartney, hailing from what he believed was the most powerful and civilised nation in the world refused to do so. Despite this, the meeting carried on and Macartney showed of the marvels of British science, but even here signals were crossed. “The Qing authorities viewed Macartney’s group as subordinate trade tribute mission, while Britain considered it a meeting of politically equal states” (Scott 2008: 16). This once again shows that the internal problems within the Qing dynasty due to their lack of modernisation and importance on rituals and hierarchy led to the inability to recognise European powers as equals. As, the Chinese court took this as a tribute mission and yet the British thought they were demonstrating all the reasons that China would benefit from opening up trade with them.

This therefore resulted ultimately resulted in war, “for Britain the preceding events at Canton were grounds or pretext for war” (Scott 2008: 22). Which did ultimately result in of course Britain to come out on top because it was far more technologically advanced as being evidenced by the fact it had better artillery, compared to the Qing navy composed entirely of wooden sailing ships all severely outclassed by the modern tactics and firepower of the British Royal Navy. “The inability to react more forcefully to outside aggression and corresponding failure to build a viable industrial base to buttress the strength of the dynasty” (Grasso et al 2018: 45). This clearly once again emphasises the fact that the first opium war revealed the old dated site of the Chinese military and also establishes the fact that the internal problems within the Qing dynasty due their lack of modernisation and ultimately bringing about collapse of the imperial rule. This is because the defeat forced China to sign the treaty of Nanjing, this was only the beginning of Western influence through unequal treaties on China because now more ports were opened and all trade was put under European control causing more western ideas and culture to spread to China and destabilise the Qing.

Ultimately, the Qing surrendered, which showed that the dynasty had weak spots and their defeat attracted humiliation that showed all of China’s subjects, neighbours and tributary states that the once multi China was now weak and vulnerable. The imperialist design of European powers and the instability of Qing government caused by the internal problems within the Qing dynasty due to corrupt officials, their lack of modernisation and importance on rituals and hierarchy created conditions that led to the emergence of rebellion groups. “The Qing dynasty, established in 1644, was weakened by the Boxer Rebellion. Following an uprising in 1911, the dynasty came to an end and China became a republic in 1912” (History.com Editors 2009). After the Boxer rebellion the Qing dynasty tried to reform itself to please both the Chinese people and other nations but despite its efforts the dynasty needed to be replaced. Sun Yet-Sen formed the revised Chinese society in 1905 a conventional seldom order to unite the radical groups of China to overthrow the Qing. These groups became known as the Nationalist party of China which will embrace nationalism, democracy and freedom. In 1908 the empress of the Qing dynasty died, and just an infant heir existed, which lack of stability the government was overthrown, marking the collapse of imperial China.

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In conclusion, it can be seen as argued throughout the corpus of this essay that is the internal problems within the Qing dynasty that brought about the collapse of imperial rule rather than forced opening of China by European Powers. Firstly, high corruption occurred even within the official channels of trade, merchants began to train at these limitations as they were more interested in making profits. This allowed for more smuggling and piracy to occur which ultimately started to destabilise the economy. Secondly, the inability to recognise European powers as equals and thereby refusing the Macartney mission which could have been beneficial for trade, considering the unprecedented population growth which was having major economic impacts but the importance given to ritual and hierarchy meant the Chinese only recognised it as a tribute mission rather than a demonstration of politically equal states that could both benefit from trade. Resulting in war that could have been avoided if the Qing would have modernised and seen the benefits of opening up trade because ultimately war only highlighted the lack of modernisation, as they were easily defeated due to lack of modern weaponry. The defeat led to an influx of western ideas which generated radical thinking and need for modernisation through nationalism, democracy and freedom to overthrow the instable Qing dynasty and marking the collapse of imperial rule in China.

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