Ch'ing China

The

Europeans

   The Ch'ing period was the era in which China came into conflict with Europe. Spreading around the globe, Europeans more and more confidently asserted economic monopolies and political power all around the globe, from the Americas to Africa to India and, eventually, to China itself. As the Ch'ing dynasty wore on, Europeans increasingly began to enforce their economic and political will through the use of arms; this practice would eventually be called "gunboat diplomacy" in the nineteenth century. The history of conflict between Europe and China slowly developed over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; by the middle of the nineteenth century, Chinese and European relations had so degraded that England sent warships in order to preserve its despicable trade in opium to the Chinese people.

   The relationships between Europeans and the Chinese did not begin auspiciously. The Portugese had reached Canton in 1516 and the Chinese, accustomed to peaceful trading with Islamic traders, freely granted the Portugese access to the markets. But the Portugese soon began to attack and rob Chinese ships; to the Chinese, they were no better than pirates. Because of their predation on Chinese shipping, the Chinese dubbed Europeans, "the Ocean Devils."

   The pressures exerted on the Chinese government by foreign powers were certainly exacerbated by the lack of any official mechanism for dealing with foreign powers. Despite its complexity and efficiency, the Chinese imperial administration had no ministry of foreign affairs. Its only formal mechanism for dealing with foreigners was the Office of Border Affairs, whose primary task was relations with Mongols (and later Russians). Commercial relationships with other Asian countries were managed by the Ministry of Rituals. However, foreign countries could only trade in China if they formally entered into a subservient role under the emperor. Even then, trade with foreign powers only took place in Canton during the winter months.

   By 1740, the British East India Company had become the largest international corporation in the world. It controlled directly and indirectly vast amounts of land in India and was steadily conquering more land. Sensing profits to be made by trading not just with Europe but with China as well, the East India Company persuaded the British government to negotiate for trading rights with China. The British delegation arrived in Canton in 1793 under the leadership of Lord George Macartney. The Chinese, though, demanded that Macartney present England as a "tribute nation" to China (which was required of all commercial delegations) and to perform rituals of obeisance to the emperor. Even though Macartney refused, he was allowed to see the emperor. The emperor, however, was not pleased by the British behavior and, after politely listening to Macartney, the emperor refused every one of his requests. Thus was set the pattern for European and Chinese relationships over the next two hundred and fifty years. The Macartney mission was a failure because both cultures could not understand the other; this communicative failure still characterizes relationships between European countries and China. More than anything else, however, both cultures believed themselves to be superior both militarily and culturally. Neither would cede to the other on this account, and the history of European and Chinese relations went downhill from there.

Christianity

   The Chinese had always had an uneasy relationship with Christianity. The Nestorian mission set up in 635 was driven out of China in the ninth century and the Franciscan mission begun in 1289 was largely driven out by the Yüan. The third active Christian mission was begun by the Jesuit priest, Francis Xavier; when he failed, the Jesuit, Matteo Ricci targetted the imperial court and met with profound success. The Jesuits continued their activities in the imperial court after the establishment of the Ch'ing, but the Manchus were primarily interested in their mechanical devices, such as telescopes and clocks. Still, they respected the learning of the Jesuits, particularly their learning in the Chinese Classics and Confucianism, so they granted them respect and a certain amount of liberty. The Jesuits openly attacked both Buddhism and Taoism, but they felt that Confucianism was a rational philosophy completely in accord with Christianity.

   There were, however, other Christian missions led by Dominicans and Franciscans. Jealous of the success that their Jesuit brothers were enjoying, the Dominican and Franciscan missionaries reported to the Pope that the Jesuits were promoting Confucianism. After a bitter series of debates, the pope issued two bulls, one in 1715 and another in 1742, that condemned Confucianism and prevented Chinese Christians from participating in any of the Confucian rites. The Ch'ien-lung emperor banned Christianity from China. All Christian churches were seized, the European missionaries were expelled, and Christianity slowly died out in the Empire.

Next
Prelude to Modern China


World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-2-97