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19th Century- China's Century of Humiliation?


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#1 HappyHistorian

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Posted 10 June 2009 - 11:15 PM

A major theme about 19th century Chinese history is humiliation. China was in great strife-external and internal. Externally China was humiliated by Western powers, as the Chinese were forced to sign unequal treaties. Internally the moribund Qing dynasty was ridden with corruption, intrigues and violence. The Taiping Rebellion was one of the most destructive civil wars in world history. After the Taiping Rebellion, military power started to shift from the central government to the provinces. Initially decentralisation of the military was the best way to combat rebels, but afterwards it sowed the seeds of feudalism and the emergence of warlords. Plague and plight tore throughout 19th century China.

So was the 19th century China's century of humiliation? And if so, was it the most humiliating century ever in the history of China?

#2 Yizheng

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Posted 13 June 2009 - 12:02 AM

A major theme about 19th century Chinese history is humiliation. China was in great strife-external and internal. Externally China was humiliated by Western powers, as the Chinese were forced to sign unequal treaties. Internally the moribund Qing dynasty was ridden with corruption, intrigues and violence. The Taiping Rebellion was one of the most destructive civil wars in world history. After the Taiping Rebellion, military power started to shift from the central government to the provinces. Initially decentralisation of the military was the best way to combat rebels, but afterwards it sowed the seeds of feudalism and the emergence of warlords. Plague and plight tore throughout 19th century China.

So was the 19th century China's century of humiliation? And if so, was it the most humiliating century ever in the history of China?


This is a difficult question with no clear answer I think. Looking at Chinese history, there are many periods that could be seen as humilation, many periods of internal strife and external agression. The whole period with the Song in decline and first rise of the Jin and fall of northern Song, and then rise of Yuan and fall of southern Song, or the decline of the Ming, also marked by a lot of internal strife, corruption, increasing pressure from the Manchus, could be considered times of humiliation.

The difference with the nineteenth century is maybe in that the nineteenth century was a time when nations became much more aware of each other. China started to sense much more acutely the complexity of the world beyond its borders, and all the pressures and challenges it brought. The nineteenth century marked the peak of European colonialism and was thus a time of great humiliation for many non-European countries and peoples. The greater openness to the world and greater awareness of being one nation among many competing powers also made the sense of humiliation more acute through being able to compare with others. By the late nineteenth century, on the one hand, there was the example of subjugated colonised India to put fear in Qing hearts, and on the other hand the example of Japan on the rise, frustrating and humiliating for China to see.

In the past, humiliations and problems were measured only really against the country's own past experience. But the nineteenth century gave it more complex layers. The nineteenth century was a turning point time, a time of technological development and increasing friction and competition between nations that eventually led to the wars and revolutions that brought down old systems and rulers not just in China but also in much of Europe. For many reasons China was slow to realise the full extent of the changes and adapt swiftly enough, and so ended up weakened and facing many problems, but at the same time, it was a time of much awakening, of new thinking about how to make best use of what the rest of the world could offer while still preserving China's own unique culture and values etc. Ultimately, I think that some positive foundations were also laid.

#3 HappyHistorian

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Posted 13 June 2009 - 12:30 AM

Generally, the years close to the end of a dynasty were one of turmoil and humiliation. Fortunately, we can look at the past with the benefit of hindsight. The people in the past may or may not have known whether their dynasty would fall, but they certainly would know when they were humiliated. The 19th century was certainly a humiliating century for the Chinese. At the moment, I'm writing an undergraduate university essay analysing the 'humiliation' China suffered during the Sino-Japanese War and the Boxer Uprising. I have found three symptoms of Chinese humiliation: China's loss of self-esteem, fear and anger.

Does anyone have any good points that should be mentioned regarding the 'humiliation' China suffered as a result of the Sino-Japanese War and/or Boxer Uprising?

Edited by HappyHistorian, 13 June 2009 - 12:30 AM.


#4 Yizheng

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Posted 13 June 2009 - 04:26 AM

Does anyone have any good points that should be mentioned regarding the 'humiliation' China suffered as a result of the Sino-Japanese War and/or Boxer Uprising?

Overall, I think the Sino-Japanese War and Boxer uprising were pretty disastrous for China. But it is often the case, unfortunately, that only drastic events become the catalyst for change and action that has become overdue. There was a certain amount of complacency in China before the Sino-Japanese War, and lack of realisation of just how fast the world was changing. It was precisely the humiliation of the defeat in that war that became the catalyst for a real awakening, especially among many young scholars, to the need to develop modern education, modernise the country, industrialise, modernise the military. That led directly to the 1898 100 Days Reform, for example, which though it failed, sowed seeds that later did go on to develop, especially in the area of education.

Along with the things you mention, loss of self esteem, fear and anger, I think there is also in that period a strong sense among an increasing number of people of the urgent need for change, the sense of belonging to a proud and great civilisation, and having now to secure a worthy place for this civilisation in the wider world. They are angered by China's defeats, angered to see the country humiliated, but this anger also gives them resolve. This is the time of Chinese students starting to go abroad in big numbers, and especially to Japan, which though it was the enemy that defeated China, also become the model to emulate in many young Chinese people's eyes.

The Boxer uprising came to late to be a wake-up call of any real effect, because though it forced the Qing court to start political reform that was essential, it was already too late. It was a defeat for the most conservative side of the Qing court, and perhaps that was its only positive consequence, in removing some of those obstacles to reform.

#5 HappyHistorian

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Posted 13 June 2009 - 05:42 AM

Thank you Yizheng! I appreciate that you helped me. You have raised a good point about the Chinese clamouring for reform amidst the Century of Humiliation.

#6 William O'Chee

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Posted 13 June 2009 - 06:35 AM

It is hard to answer a question that asks to compare "humiliations". Humiliation is a personal experience. It therefore arguably cannot be experienced or "suffered" by a country.

For these reasons, I don't believe one can say whether any other period is "more" humiliating or the "most' humiliating.

#7 HappyHistorian

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Posted 13 June 2009 - 07:08 AM

It is hard to answer a question that asks to compare "humiliations". Humiliation is a personal experience. It therefore arguably cannot be experienced or "suffered" by a country.

For these reasons, I don't believe one can say whether any other period is "more" humiliating or the "most' humiliating.

To be honest, I don't really like the questions my professor has set. I have to answer two essay questions:

1. Analyse the humiliation China suffered as a result of the Sino-Japanese War, 1894-1895.

2. Analyse the humiliation China suffered as a result of the Boxer Uprising, 1899-1901.

These questions don't leave much room for debate, rather I have to jot down points that demonstrate how exactly China was 'humiliated'. I agree that humiliation is a personal experience. However my professor has personified the experience of humiliation on China in the 19th century. So I'll need to answer these historic questions metaphorically by presenting a case that China felt the symptoms of humiliation which were anger, fear and loss of self-esteem. Then back these symptoms with primary and secondary sources. The professor has absolute authority on the answer, as he is the only marker. So I need to placate, rather than innovate (I need at least a credit average!!!). If anyone can help me in my predicament (the essays are due on Monday, 10 am), I would be very grateful!

Edited by HappyHistorian, 13 June 2009 - 07:09 AM.


#8 Yizheng

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Posted 13 June 2009 - 10:19 AM

It is true that humiliation is a personal experience, but what is a country really if not the creation of people who identify themselves as belonging to a particular place? It is all those personal feelings of defeat and humiliation that come together to create a sense of national humiliation.
Not just the Sino-Japanese war itself was humiliating in that it ended with China's military defeat and Japanese occupation of territory, but also the treaty of Shimonoseki was perceived by many as a real national disgrace. In 1895, when the treaty was signed, it happened to be the time of the imperial exams, and so scholars from around the country had gathered in Beijing, and they wrote a petition to the court to plead for the treaty not to be signed and for reform to begin to make the country stronger.
The Guangxu Emperor felt intensely humiliated by the war and the treaty that resulted, and though forced to sign it, he then issued an edict recognising the catastrophic state the country ended up in and calling on everyone to unite and work now to change this situation and help China grow strong. This sense of urgency and thirst for new knowledge, change, desire for reform became very visible at all levels, from the emperor right down. It gave birth to a variety of different groups of course, reformers like Kang Youwei who were willing to work with the Qing court for gradual reform, and more radical groups who also wanted reform, but saw it coming through revolution and overthrow of the Qing. But all of it was driven in big part by feelings of humiliation.
Unfortunately, the mixture of ignorance and poverty combined with manipulation of Qing conservatives trying to protect the status quo or acting out of a misguided patriotism that thought that it would be enough to 'drive the foreigners into the ocean' to fix all China's problems, produced the terrible sequence of events that led to the Boxer war and then brought the Qing down altogether.

#9 HappyHistorian

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Posted 14 June 2009 - 07:51 AM

That is a fair point that a nation can have its people collectively feel humiliated. I've finished my two essays, so I have to hope for the best. Thanks Yizheng and William for helping out!

#10 changsham

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Posted 14 June 2009 - 06:23 PM

It is easy to discuss who did or didn't do what. Not as painful as discussing the hidden shames. One point which is often overlooked at the decline of China in the 19th Century were social problems like the opium scourge and it's corrupting consequences in dragging China into a downward death spiral. Towards late Qing perhaps half the male population in Chinese cities were addicts. In the countryside there were many famines as the best arable land was turned over to plant poppies. Garbage tips were full of rotting corpses of children. How could the government function when Mandarins and others in authority were permanently stoned and corrupted? The window of opportunity for reform was missed after the 2nd Opium War. Instead the country was allowed to become a huge opium den. China at its grass roots and higher became disfunctional and it was inevitable that further political and military humiliations would be the norm to follow.

Edited by changsham, 15 June 2009 - 05:58 AM.

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#11 HappyHistorian

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Posted 15 June 2009 - 07:35 AM

It is easy to discuss who did or didn't do what. Not as painful as discussing the hidden shames. One point which is often overlooked at the decline of China in the 19th Century were social problems like the opium scourge and it's corrupting consequences in dragging China into a downward death spiral. Towards late Qing perhaps half the male population in Chinese cities were addicts. In the countryside there were many famines as the best arable land was turned over to plant poppies. Garbage tips were full of rotting corpses of children. How could the government function when Mandarins and others in authority were permanently stoned and corrupted? The window of opportunity for reform was missed after the 2nd Opium War. Instead the country was allowed to become a huge opium den. China at its grass roots and higher became disfunctional and it was inevitable that further political and military humiliations would be the norm to follow.

The Chinese in the People's Republic find it painful discussing what happened it the 19th century. The Chinese focus on Western 'invasion' of their land from a Marxist perspective. The Chinese should be taught to think more critically and balancedly about its past if it wants to look forward.

#12 changsham

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Posted 16 June 2009 - 02:20 AM

Hi HK, I agree with what you say but I would also add that the opium scourge is still rarely discussed in most Chinese circles unless it involves finger pointing towards the British and their vile role in the opium trade to China. But the scale of the later home grown problem and its consequences was of a magnitude that seems incredulous by todays thinking and very little critical analysis is available. The ravages of the drug could almost be compared to the Holocaust to what it did to Chinese society. I have tried to engage discussion on this topic in past posts with little traction. One of those truths that does not dare speak its name?

Edited by changsham, 16 June 2009 - 02:31 AM.

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#13 HappyHistorian

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Posted 16 June 2009 - 04:40 AM

Hi HK, I agree with what you say but I would also add that the opium scourge is still rarely discussed in most Chinese circles unless it involves finger pointing towards the British and their vile role in the opium trade to China. But the scale of the later home grown problem and its consequences was of a magnitude that seems incredulous by todays thinking and very little critical analysis is available. The ravages of the drug could almost be compared to the Holocaust to what it did to Chinese society. I have tried to engage discussion on this topic in past posts with little traction. One of those truths that does not dare speak its name?

The Chinese would not like to discuss about opium grown in China, because its linked with the shame of Western imperialism. Opium had a horrifying impact on China. The Chinese easily blame the Westerners for Chinese opium addiction, but corruption of the Qing government was also responsible for preventing the stop of the opium trade. Such as when Commissioner Lin was attacked by the Qing officials after he attempted to outlaw opium.

#14 brightness

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Posted 16 June 2009 - 01:03 PM

Parts of Jin and Song, even the beginning of Han, were probably more "humiliating." Qing never acknowledged titular subordination to foreign powers, whereas parts of Jin and Song did, at least nominally for some time periods. Jin, Song and early Han all paid substantial tribute to outside powers.

The problem with Opium was that Qing banned it. Corruption is quite inevitabble in any prohibition. After the ban was lifted, China became an exporter of opium towards the end of the 19th century. China was making rapid progress after the end of Taiping Rebellion and the Second Opium War (aka. the Arrow War). It just had a lot to make up for (after 6-700 years worth of stagnation); Japan being a quicker study in the competitive neighborhood didn't help either.

Lin was exiled for utterly mishandling the diplomatic fracas, wrongly estimating the relative military balance of power (no point resorting to violence unless one can win the inevitable fight), and subsequently lying and obfuscating in reports to the court after losing the battles.

BTW, military power started shifting from the central government to the provinces in late Qing not because of any design, but because of the utter incompetence and corruptness of the central government hirarchy. After 6+ centuries of bureacratic growth in the Chinese central government (starting from Ming if not Yuan), the provincials were the only place where modern ideas and competent administration, including those of military affairs, could be (sort of) effectively implemented. The warlords (including KMT and CCP) did a decent job of modernizing China: whereas in 1900, a small western expedition force was enough to vanquish China, no outside power cared to fight a land war in China half a century later.

#15 HappyHistorian

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Posted 16 June 2009 - 07:06 PM

China was under foreign occupation during the Yuan and Qing Dynasty, but that was not humiliating for the Chinese since the Mongols and Manchurians respectively sincized. On the other hand, Westerners did not sinicize and were not sensitive to Chinese traditions. Therefore the 19th century was the most humiliating century for China.




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