Rediscovering China and the World in the Nineteenth Century, Part II

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Learn more about China and the Modern World: Imperial China and the West Part II, 1865–1905 in this blog post – or register below for a live webinar!

|By Liping Yang, Publishing Manager, Digital Archive and eReference, Gale Asia|

Gale has recently released China and the Modern World: Imperial China and the West Part II, 1865–1905. Consisting of volumes 873–1768 in the highly acclaimed FO 17 series of British foreign office files plus seven volumes of Law Officers’ reports relating to China from FO 83, Part II covers the latter half of the nineteenth century (see my first blog post about this module – Rediscovering China and the World in the Nineteenth Century for the main topics covered in Part I). The complete Imperial China and the West provides a vast and significant primary source archive for researching every aspect of Chinese-Western relations from 1815 to 1905.

Here, with the help of Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) technology, researchers will be able to conduct full-text searches across more than one million pages of manuscripts relating to the internal politics of China and Britain, their relationship, and the relationships among Britain and other Western powers—keen to benefit from the growing trading ports of the Far East—and China’s neighbours in East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Imperial China covers a wide range of topics including diplomacy and war, trade, piracy, riots and rebellions, treaty ports, Chinese emigration, and railway building. In this blog post I’ll walk you through some of the fascinating topics and themes covered in the approximately 600,000 pages of manuscripts included in Part II.

The First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895)

This war was triggered by the competition between the two East Asian empires for the control of Korea. It started in the Korea Peninsular and then spread to northern and eastern China, resulting in the defeat of the Chinese Qing Dynasty. Despatches from the British legation in Peking and consulates based in other areas affected by the war provide a good coverage of the event in terms of the evolving situation on the battleground as well as the Western powers’ responses.

In a despatch of October 4, 1894 (paraphrase of telegram), British Minister to China Sir Nicholas Roderick O’Conor reported that the Chinese army had withdrawn behind the Yalu River – which separates China and Korea – in the hope of suspending the hostilities with Japan. The despatch also touched on the planning of the powers (especially Russia and France) to intervene if Japan would invade China.

Diplomatic Telegrams and Paraphrases. Despatches. 1894
Mr O’Conor. Diplomatic. Telegrams and Paraphrases. Despatches. 1894. MS FO 17 Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence, China FO 17/1204. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). China and the Modern World, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/IZRJVZ593648703/CFER?u=omni&sid=bookmark-CFER&xid=c882629b&pg=285
Sir Nicholas Roderick O'Conor, 1916
Sir Nicholas Roderick O’Conor (1916).
Available on Wikimedia.

The war culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki (馬關條約) on April 17, 1895. In a despatch of May 20, 1895, to the foreign secretary, O’Conor enclosed the full text of the treaty in English published in the Peking and Tientsin Times, and commented that, to his disappointment, Japan had secured commercial advantages which the British had wanted but failed to obtain from China in 1869.

oreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence, The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom).
Sir N. O’Conor, (Mr O’Conor), Mr Beauclerk. Commercial and Treaty. 1895. MS FO 17 Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence, China FO 17/1246. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). China and the Modern World, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/ITQRML099897239/CFER?u=omni&sid=bookmark-CFER&xid=a63402f9&pg=20

The Boxer Rebellion

Anti-foreign riots in China reached a peak in 1900 with the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion that swept across many parts of northern China, including Shandong, Hebei, Tianjin, and Beijing. The movement led to the siege of the international legations in Peking, the Boxer War launched by an alliance of eight powers to relieve the siege and suppress the rebellion, and the signing of the Protocol of Peking.

In a despatch of June 10, 1900 to Foreign Secretary Lord Salisbury, British Minister to China, Sir C. MacDonald described the deteriorating situation in Peking and surrounding areas created by the approaching Boxer movement, and the importance of bringing legation guards to protect the legation quarter in Peking. Soon afterward, the siege of the international legations started.

Sir C. MacDonald. Volume 3. Diplomatic. Dispatches. 90-119. May 14-September 20, 1900.
Sir C. MacDonald. Volume 3. Diplomatic. Despatches. 90-119. May 14-September 20, 1900. MS FO 17 Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence, China FO 17/1413. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). China and the Modern World, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/IENMER035192265/CFER?u=omni&sid=bookmark-CFER&xid=4434fd88&pg=191
Sir Claude MacDonald, British Minister, c. 1900
Sir Claude MacDonald, British Minister, taken before 1901. Available on Wikimedia.

After the siege was relieved in August, the allies continued their suppression campaigns to areas surrounding Peking. At the same time, peace negotiations started with the Chinese imperial government, and these lasted till the signing of the Protocol of Peking and annexes on September 7, 1901. Below is a page extract from the full text of the Protocol as part of the enclosure to a despatch of September 12, 1901, from Sir Ernest Satow who replaced Sir C. MacDonald in October 1900 as the British Minister to China.

Protocole Final, China and the Modern World
Sir E. Satow. Volume 9. Diplomatic. Despatches. 326-350. September 1-19, 1901. MS FO 17 Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence, China FO 17/1477. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). China and the Modern World, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/IHANXR566797474/CFER?u=omni&sid=bookmark-CFER&xid=1b585e5f&pg=112

Relations with China’s Southern and Western Neighbours

China’s southern and western neighbours include Southeast Asian countries such as French Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos), Siam (Thailand), and Burma, as well as India. Some of these (e.g., Thailand and Vietnam) had been China’s tributary nations for centuries before the arrival of Western powers. China’s relations with these neighbours as well as theirs with the West are covered in both parts 1 and 2 of Imperial China. Regarding Southeast Asia alone, there are about 50 volumes of files dedicated to the affairs of Burma and Siam (Vol. 1059–1065, 1094–1095, 1150–1153, 1175–1188, 1219–1226, 1265–1272, 1293–1296, and 1742–1743).

Negotiating the boundary between Burma and China

Following the British conquest of the whole territory of Burma and its incorporation into British India as a province in 1886, defining the boundary with China became an important subject in their bilateral relations. The two sides established a Burma-China Boundary Commission to investigate and negotiate their boundary. Below is a page from the commission’s report for its work during 1899–1900 and an enclosed map indicating the frontier between Burma and China’s Yunnan Province with English and Chinese captions.

Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence
Various. Volume 10. Diplomatic. August 21-31, 1900. MS FO 17 Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence, China FO 17/1445. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). China and the Modern World,
Left: https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/IEPBAL641146192/CFER?u=omni&sid=bookmark-CFER&xid=f4866821&pg=204,
Right: https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/IEPBAL641146192/CFER?u=omni&sid=bookmark-CFER&xid=f4866821&pg=216

Competition for control of Siam

Thailand or Siam was sandwiched between French Indochina to the east and British Burma and Malaya to the West. Both Britain and France wanted to bring Siam under their own control, leading to a rivalry between the two European powers. The following despatch from the British Foreign Secretary, the Earl of Rosebery, to the British Ambassador to France, the Marquis of Dufferin, describes British reactions to – and worries about – the French ultimatum given to the Siamese government, requesting the latter to withdraw their troops from Laos, and the terms of a treaty France proposed for signing with Siam. The British did not want to see their rights in Thailand infringed on and would have “strong objections to any proposals which would give to France a permanent hold over” ports and provinces of Thailand.  

Affairs of Burmah, Siam, Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence
Affairs of Burmah, Siam; French Proceedings Etc. Volume 23. September 1-13, 1893. MS FO 17 Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence, China FO 17/1184. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). China and the Modern World, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/GCRAUX325569317/CFER?u=omni&sid=bookmark-CFER&xid=f1a9c1fd&pg=207
The Earl of Rosebery, 1909
The Earl of Rosebery (1909), available on Wikimedia.

Railway Development

Railway building was one of the concessions Western powers had secured from the Qing Dynasty through various treaties and conventions from the 1890s onward. The benefits of promoting trade and commerce aside, railway construction itself was a very lucrative venture as it would require huge investments in the form of bank loans. Therefore, it was no surprise that from the 1890s to 1905, nearly all railways in China were planned, financed, built, and operated by foreign powers including Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and Germany.

The rights to build railways were sometimes very contentious as both Chinese and foreign companies wanted to have a stake. The concession for building the Canton-Hankow Railway was first granted to the United States but was recovered in 1904 due to a diplomatic crisis involving Belgium and the heavy pressure from Chinese merchants in the provinces of Hubei, Hunan, and Guangdong. To redeem the concession, the Chinese government needed foreign loans. After rounds of negotiations, China and Britain reached an agreement for the British Hong Kong government to lend £1.1 million to the three provinces through the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. Below are two pages of the loan agreement signed by the Viceroy of Hukuang Chang Chi-tung (張之洞) and the British consul-general at Hankow E. H. Frazer on September 5, 1905.

The Chinese campaigns to recover the railway building rights started in Sichuan Province in 1905 and escalated into the Railway Protection Movement in 1911. Triggered by popular discontent with the Qing regime, the movement galvanized anti-Qing groups and contributed to the outbreak of the Xinhai Revolution inspired by Dr Sun Yat-sen. The Revolution overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty and ushered in a new chapter in the history of modern China.

Canton-Kowloon Railway, Foreign Office, General Correspondence
Canton-Kowloon Railway. 1904-1905. MS FO 17 Foreign Office: Political and Other Departments: General Correspondence, China FO 17/1761. The National Archives (Kew, United Kingdom). China and the Modern World, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/GASIVK253639077/CFER?u=omni&sid=bookmark-CFER&xid=7ffa226d&pg=343

Hear from the experts!

To learn more about the value of Imperial China and the West for research and teaching, you’re welcome to join a Gale webinar taking place at 10am GMT on November 5, 2021. Registrants will also receive a recording of the webinar, should you be interested but unable to attend the session live.

Webinar Agenda

  • Introduction and Welcome – Liping Yang, Publishing Manager, Gale
  • Research and Teaching on China’s treaty ports with the FO 17 Collection – Dr Isabella Jackson, Trinity College Dublin
  • Using FO 17: A Case Study of Hu Xueyan and China’s First Foreign Loans – Zhiqing Hu, PhD candidate, Birkbeck, University of London

Webinar Speakers

Dr Isabella Jackson

Dr Isabella Jackson Headshot

Dr Isabella Jackson is an assistant professor in Chinese History from Department of History, Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin. Her main research interests are in the modern history of China, and she has published extensively on the global and regional networks that shaped the Chinese treaty ports, and the Shanghai International Settlement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She is now Principal Investigator on an Irish Research Council Laureate Grant, CHINACHILD: Slave-girls and the Discovery of Female Childhood in Twentieth-century China.

Dr Jackson is the author of Shaping Modern Shanghai: Colonialism in China’s Global City and co-editor of Treaty Ports in Modern China: Law, Land and Power. She has also published in such journals as Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History and Modern Asian Studies. Click here for more about Isabella’s research and teaching areas.

Zhiqing Hu

Zhiqing Hu Headshot

Zhiqing’s research (co-supervised by Prof. Julia Lovell at Birkbeck and Prof. Hans van de Ven at Cambridge) examines late nineteenth-century financialisation through the career of the celebrated banker Hu Xueyan, who arranged the first official foreign loans to the Qing government which led to the creation of an international market for China loan bonds. In 1883, the collapse of his business empire precipitated the first major financial crisis in modern Chinese history.

Before starting her PhD, Zhiqing was a lawyer at the international law firms of Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP and Sherman & Sterling LLP. She has an MA in Law from the University of Cambridge and a MSc in China in Comparative Perspective from the London School of Economics and Political Science.


If you enjoyed reading about the second module in Gale’s Imperial China and the West archive, you may like to read Liping’s blog post about the first module:

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To read more about the fascinating material included in this archive, check out these Content Highlights in the Archives Explored hub of the Gale website, which cover:

Blog post cover image citation: montage of images from the blog post, combined with photos of individuals featured in this blog post – Sir Nicholas Roderick O’Conor, British Minister to China (available on Wikimedia), Sir Claude MacDonald, British Minister (available on Wikimedia) and Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery – 1890s (available on Wikimedia).

About the Author

Liping Yang Author Headshot

Liping Yang is a member of the Gale Primary Sources publishing team. Based in Singapore, he focuses on acquiring and developing Asia-related products, including print, eBooks, and digital archives.