A very sketchy history of China as a mirror for a History of Italy for Chinese Part 3

The first Opium War (1839–42) opened the floodgates to modernity for China. Yet at the time the imperial court underestimated the significance, busy coping with the Russians who once again were pressing from the north. There was indeed debate at the court over whether the threat of the English in Canton was greater than that in the north. But actually, despite its massive trove of reserves (possibly 70% of all global silver was in the possession of Beijing), resources were stretched and politically Beijing was not prepared to face war on two fronts at the same time[1].

Therefore trade concessions to the English were considered a minor pain in order to have time to deal with the traditional threat from the north, historically the more dangerous one. Opium started flowing in, sapping the national spirit and funneling back out the precious silver. Furthermore, new ideas moved in. Christian Protestant Bibles were translated, and its message was more comprehensible than the complicated Catholic liturgies. Jesuit priests, after their early immense success, had been expelled from China in 1723 over the controversy of the rites, i.e., the emperor wanted the Jesuit priests to comply with Chinese practices and the Holy See forbid them from doing so.

These Bibles started inspiring some Chinese to convert, and one in particular, Hong Xiuquan (1814–1864), went on to start massive civil war, the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), possibly the largest conflict by number of casualties so far. Up to 70 million people died directly or indirectly because of the rebellion, some 20% of the Chinese population at the time and perhaps more than the total amount of victims of World War II.

Hong had visions, he believed he was Jesus’ younger brother and set out to create a new dynasty, similar to what many Taoist or Buddhist cults had done in the past. The court reacted and a senior mandarin-general Zeng Guofan reorganized the army and the countryside to confront and defeat the Taiping threat. Foreigners for a time also played with the idea of supporting the pseudo-Christian Taiping against the court, thinking they would be more amicable to the West. But the Taiping’s extremism and xenophobia pushed the foreign powers to side of the emperor.

As civil war in China was rapidly spreading and depleting the imperial coffers, the neighboring area, which for over a thousand years had been China’s cultural and political area of influence, was rapidly changing. In 1854, the American Commodore Perry led a small fleet to force open the port of Tokyo and impose on Japan free of trade, ending centuries of closure. It was something similar to what had happened just a decade earlier with China, but Japan reacted differently. The country embarked on a plan of radical reforms that were to transform the archipelago in some 30 short years and have it to join the other Western powers in their attack on China.

In 1856, right in the middle of the Taiping war, an alliance of powers (the British and the French, later joined by Russia and America) struck China from the northern port of Tianjin and marched directly to the capital, Beijing. This time there was no room for misunderstanding. The expedition, small compared to the theoretical forces of China, crushed the imperial forces, which proved to be no match for a modern army. In October 1860, after the killing by slow slicing of an English envoy, the British took the old imperial Summer Palace (the grand Yuanming Yuan), ransacked it, and burned it to the ground. It was an architectural masterpiece, inspired by the French palace of Versailles, and a fusion of Asian and European sensibility sketched initially by the 18th century Qing court painter Giuseppe Castiglione, an Italian Jesuit monk left behind by the order.

At about the same time, in 1859 the French started to occupy Vietnam and all of Indochina, until then a sort of Chinese protectorate. In 1862 the southern third of the country became the French colony of Cochinchina. By 1884, the whole area, modern Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, had come under French rule.

The mounting disasters didn’t impose a massive change of heart in Beijing. Reform-minded Zeng Guofan had been encouraged to take his army to Beijing after beating the Taiping, topple the government, and impose drastic reforms. He was too loyal for that, but despite his loyalty, he was shunned and had to fear for his life. Pro-reform prince regent Gong was sidelined by Empress Cixi, a maverick in court policies. The ongoing disposition at the Qing court in the last decades of the 19th century was to take the foreign tools but preserve the Chinese spirit. The idea was that China was still culturally strong and better than western powers. The western powers had just an advantage because of their inventions, the firearms, the new weapons. Once armed with western weapons old China would prevail. Clearly it was a gross misunderstanding of the whole situation and confused the root causes of Chinese problems. But in any event, huge sums were spent in purchasing foreign weaponry and on paper in the 1890s the Qing was formidable again. China was a paper tiger.

In 1894–1895, after 30 years of radical reforms, the revamped Japanese army proved able to destroy once again the Chinese army, despite being larger and better armed. The modernized Chinese Beiyang fleet lost against a smaller Japanese force, simply because the Chinese used old naval command techniques while the Japanese had thoroughly modernized their command structure. The Japanese wrested control of the Korean peninsula and the island of Taiwan. It was a political watershed and yet the court still dithered.

Young emperor Guanxu promoted a radical program of reforms, guided by mandarins still selected through the old official exam system, Kang Youwei and young Liang Qichao. The program started on June 11, 1898 and ended with a coup set up by Cixi on September 22 of the same year. Guanxu was arrested and later poisoned; Kang and Liang were forced to flee abroad.

It was the end of the reformers in the court, and Cixi thought she could also take care of the foreigners. She sponsored and abetted a Taoist cult, the Yihetuan, the righteous and harmonious brigade, or the Boxers, as they were called in English. They attacked foreigners and Christians, considered traitors because had given up their old faith for the beliefs of the “alien devils.” The climax came when the Boxers, aided by imperial forces, attacked the foreign legations in Beijing. The vastly outnumbered foreigners resisted and didn’t surrender, as the court was hoping.

An expeditionary force of eight foreign powers then reinforced the legations and hurried Cixi and her cronies out of Beijing. Cixi could return to the capital only after agreeing to pay massive reparations. Repressive foreign forces were unleashed in the countryside, giving chase to the last remaining Boxers. It took one more decade for the imperial system to collapse.

With hindsight two main features seem weird and almost beyond belief. The Chinese court for seven decades, since the first Opium War, failed time and again to realize the danger of the situation and missed every possible chance for radical reforms—even after the Japanese had shown clearly that reforms were possible, but also that reforms had to be radical, not half baked. Why the court resisted these urges for change is a point still hotly debated by historians. Certainly the Chinese structure was massive, very well entrenched, and very difficult to uproot. Possibly this was also the reason why the Chinese court outlived a massive civil war and several bitter defeats and didn’t collapse. The system was extremely resilient to change, for better or worse. Then it all came tumbling down when all reserves of energies were spent, and there was nothing else to do.

In 1902, after the defeat of the Boxers, Cixi returned to Beijing and promoted a series of sweeping reforms. The exam system was stopped in 1905, and young students were sent abroad to learn, as the Japanese had done half a century earlier. But it was too little, too late. China and the world needed something far more radical. When Cixi died in 1908, she had a baby ceremoniously installed as emperor. However, the real power force was Yuan Shikai, general of the Beiyang army.

Only three years later, in 1911, a military revolt in Wuchang put a definite end to the imperial rule. Revolutionary forces assembled in the south and proclaimed the republic. Their leader was an American-educated medical doctor, Sun Yat-sen. Sun was elected president by the revolutionaries and struck a deal with Yuan, who put an end to the monarchy and assumed the title of prime minister.

However, while Sun had the moral upper hand, Yuan held the reins of the army and knew how to run the country, while Sun and the Republicans were complete newcomers. Yuan was the man in real control, and tried to have himself appointed emperor. There was huge opposition to the move—even some of his closest allies threatened rebellion—and Yuan abdicated in 1916.

The Republicans were unable to step in and take control of the government. China rapidly descended in a situation of de facto separation, where military commanders took control of the different provinces with the Republicans based in the south.

Despite the grand confusion of the time, China did decide to take part in World War I, on the side of the Allies. They sent about 800,000 sappers to France. They didn’t have the honor of taking part in actual combat but helped to dig the trenches for the troops of the Allies. The hope was to have some of the concessions given to Germany and Austria, the losing side, returned to China. This didn’t happen. German concessions in China were distributed among the winners.

Grievances against the government, too weak to deal with powerful foreigners, sparked a major wave of protest in 1919, the May 4 Movement, demanding democracy and science. The protests further weakened the Duan Qirui government and emboldened Sun’s southern Republicans.

The fall of the empire and the betrayal of the grand powers’ agreement at the end of the war all set in motion what had been waiting for some 80 long years: a massive move for Westernization. The intellectual circles came to the agreement at long last that China needed a full-fledged radical change. However, in the 1920s, the direction of this new travel to the West was unclear.

The West didn’t present a unified model. There were soon two, maybe three, types of West. There was America and England, with their liberal systems; there was Russia that promised to be the future, the latest idea/ideology/fashion/technology of politics; and there was for a period also fascism. The intellectual split at the time was roughly: shall we learn from the “traditional” West, or shall we jumpstart the process and go for the latest trend? Most were undecided, but many young people were keen on a jumpstart.

In this atmosphere, the Republicans reorganized themselves and set up a new military academy in Wampoha that was to train a new breed of modern military and cadres, largely inspired by the Soviet experience. The Communist Party was founded in 1921 under the guidance of the Comintern, and set up a clandestine organization within the Nationalist party, the KMT. At the new military academy, the political commissar was Zhou Enlai, who returned to China after a period in France, Germany, and Russia, where he had joined the local communist party. The military commander was Chiang Kai-shek.

In 1925, Sun died, and after an internal power struggle, Chiang emerged as the KMT leader. He then started an expedition to the north to conquer the rest of China, and entered Beijing in 1926. Feeling secure in his victory, Chiang set out to eliminate his difficult Communist partners. In 1927 he suddenly launched a violent campaign aimed at eliminating all Communist members in their headquarters in Shanghai and in the KMT. Zhou Enlai managed to escape through the sewers and reached a stronghold in the countryside held by Mao, then still not the party leader.

Chiang’s main objective was to wipe out the Communists who succeeded in holding off the KMT attacks until 1934. Then for almost two years, the Communists ran around China looking for a place to hide. Almost 90% of them were killed or deserted. It was a tiny, insignificant, exhausted force that reached Yan’an, on the border of the desert, in 1936. But through their flight many places in China that were not familiar with the Communists learned about them. The flight turned into a propaganda campaign. However, they were on the verge of annihilation if not for the Japanese invasion that was to change the priorities of the KMT.

Actually, in those years the Communists were the least of the KMT’s problems. In 1931, Japan had taken over the northeast of China, the historical Manchu homeland, and expanded their foothold against the Russia, which they had defeated already in 1905. In 1934 the Soviets, backing White Russian and Chinese Muslim forces, occupied the western frontier, what is now Xinjiang. The KMT, fully aware of its weaknesses, withdrew in the face of these massive encroachments.

The Japanese occupation had dislodged from the North East a powerful warlord, Zhang Xueliang, who in 1936 kidnapped Chiang in Xi’an to force him to reach an agreement with the Communists to fight the Japanese. Chiang agreed and was released.

The episode is strange. Zhang was in contact with the Soviets, and so was Chiang, who also had been training in Russia and a son sent there. The Russians were worried about the Japanese advance in Siberia, which could eventually deprive them of their Asian territory. Did they try to force Chiang to give up on the Communists and concentrate on the Japanese? The Japanese themselves at the time were apparently unsure about whether to go for Siberia or China. Shortly after Chiang’s kidnapping, in 1937, the Japanese decided to follow the path of the Manchu 300 years earlier, give up Siberia to Russia, and concentrate on China.

The Japanese attack found the KMT wholly unprepared. The Japanese soon overwhelmed the KMT and implicitly relieved the Communists, who were trapped in Yan’an and on the verge of extinction.

These events in the 1930s brought a further intellectual change in China. New “neo-Confucians” popped up, arguing that China had to rediscover its roots, and Chiang Kai-shek supported them as a new national ideology. This cultural flirtation came at a time when the Communist Party felt squeezed by Russia[2] and was looking for new ways to break free.

Then the onus of the fight with the Japanese fell on the KMT, and the Communists were relieved of much of the pressure (they were not the main target of either the KMT or the Japanese). At this time, the Communists also reached out to the Western liberals who felt left out by the KMT, which was keener on neo-Confucian revivals. Many liberal intellectuals became more sympathetic to the Communist Party, which at the Yan’an conference in 1941 was more receptive to non-communist ideas and markedly anti-Confucian. Confucianism was considered by the liberals the root of China’s disgrace.

This was also a time when the Americans had a crush on the Communists, considered only nationalist and more reliable than the KMT. Historians still debate what the US could have done in order to not “lose China” to the anti-American Communists. The Japanese also were uncertain about what to do, and whether to expand to war on the Americans, who were openly supporting the KMT, or to get a truce in China and fight the Russians.

From 1932 to 1939, Japanese and Soviets fought an undeclared war with a series of border skirmishes culminating in a major engagement in May 1939, the battle of Lake Khasan. (German-Russian invasion of Poland was in September 1939.) The Soviets inflicted a decisive defeat on the Japanese, who then changed objectives. A year later, the British air attack on the Italian fleet in Taranto gave them the inspiration for the ensuing much larger and more daring attack on the US fleet in Pearl Harbor.

When the war was almost coming to an end, around the end of 1943 and 1944, the Americans, still undecided about the future of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), tried to broker an agreement between the KMT and the CCP, which then was still a minuscule group. It was possible that they would both take part in a democratic electoral system, as, for instance, happened in Italy after World War II. The much weaker CCP saw it as a bonus and agreed; the KMT, feeling military much stronger, didn’t agree.

The end of the war, however, turned the tables. The Soviets were keen on splitting China in two, as they did with Germany and Korea, something that would further protect their weak hold on Siberia. The Americans, who de facto won the war against Japan and gave a seat in the permanent council of the newly established United Nations to China, themselves were not unwilling to entertain the idea. The result was that the CCP was armed and equipped by the Russians. With better morale and fighting spirit, they crushed the KMT forces, who had low morale and were tired of decades of war.

The CCP also seized the moment and didn’t stop at the Yangzi River, the agreed border, pushing the KMT out of China. The US kept aloof, largely unhappy with the KMT that had been flirting with Italian fascists and German Nazis and was refusing to have land distributed to small farmers. This latter was actually a policy applied by the communists who then gained the support of the countryside.

The real split between the US and the CCP occurred in 1950, when the CCP, under pressure from Moscow, decided to back North Korea. For the Soviets, it was proof of fealty from the CCP, which had been quite disloyal at times, as Mao for instance had taken over the control of the party in 1941 against the command of a group of Soviet trained Chinese communists. The US intervened by sending their fleet and blocking any possible Communist attempt to take over Taiwan.

At the same time, Beijing took over Xinjiang, where the Soviets left the local Uighurs without their support, and sent troops to Tibet, which didn’t pose much resistance and didn’t call the British, who had offered support at the time, still mindful of an English attempt to take over the region in 1919. Mongolia was split in two, with one part to Russia, as a semi-independent state, and one to China, as an autonomous region.

Almost seventy years later, these territorial issues are still fundamental problems for China, and they are linked. Taiwan is not only an island, it is also the place where some of the best and the brightest Chinese sought refuge when fleeing the Mainland. It is not a place like a Southeast Asian country, where Chinese tried to do their best to recreate an identity in a foreign surrounding. It is a branch of their own identity, represented also by the KMT bringing to Taipei the best treasures of the imperial Forbidden City. For decades Taiwan thought of itself as the true heir and representative of China.

Then for Beijing it is very hard to allow Taiwan, mostly populated by Chinese people, to become de jure independent, when the regions of Xinjiang, Tibet, and Mongolia, making up some 50% of China’s territory and with people of non-Chinese heritage, are part of China. If Taiwan can become independent, why shouldn’t Xinjiang, Tibet, and Mongolia? Why shouldn’t the Guangxi province in the south, with its 40 millions Zhuang people? Or the areas of Guangdong speaking a dialect with the same heritage as the Minanyu spoken in Taiwan?

All these remain thorny issues, the solutions to which will define the future of China. The history of the past 70 years, however, remains too controversial to be dealt with in a few scant pages.


[1] I am indebted to Charles Horner for these observations.

[2] See also Li Shulei’s 1941 Wangxiang Minjian, Beijing, 1999.