Imperialism in China

I am a bit confused, and hope someone can enlighten me. I understand that after the sino-japanese war, China looked weak and Europe “took” parts of the country. The imperialism began. But what I am confused about is what does imperialism entail? China must have had some power. They weren’t completely controlled.  How did imperialism effect China and its politics and society? How did it all play out?

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One Response to Imperialism in China

  1. Dr. K says:

    Imperialism didn’t begin after the Sino-Japanese War, it just intensified. It really began with the first Opium War. Imperialism usually means the construction of an empire (e.g., when Britain took over and ruled India). What makes China’s situation confusing is that, by and large, there was no direct territorial control over China by European powers. There were a few “concessions” where the Europeans ruled (most notably, Hong Kong, but some other areas as well, but by and large the Europeans contented themselves with “spheres of influence” where each European power had particular, usually economic, privileges (say, the right to build and control all railroads). Foreign power also imposed certain limits on the powers of the Chinese government. For example, the customs system was run by a Westerner, and treaties with foreign powers forced the Chinese to lower tariffs on foreign imports. So there was economic influence, but usually not direct rule.

    Sometimes this is described not as Western imperialism (since there usually wasn’t formal political control) but rather Western “penetration”–some combination of political influence, economic control, and spread of population (particularly missionaries moving in to spread Christianity, but also businessmen, and various adventurers). And remember that all those Westerners moving into China were, due to extraterritoriality, not subject to Chinese law. And all this in a country which for centuries had limited its contact with the outside world and which regarded itself as superior to the “barbarians” (as we saw in that letter from Qianlong). So you can hopefully see why Chinese were unhappy, even if they never formally lost their independence.

    I hope that clarifies things a bit.

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