China’s colonial escape

At the end of the nineteenth century, it looked likely that the age of imperialism would reach its apogee with the carve up of China. The world’s most populous and once most powerful state faced colonial rule, as Western powers considered ‘carving the Chinese melon’ following their ‘scramble for Africa’. In the end, China retained her sovereignty, but this was not the most obvious outcome. 

I’m doing a course at the moment on world history since 1760. It is throwing up some pretty interesting concepts and ideas. At the moment, we are studying the dizzying swirl of nationalistic imperialism that swept Western nations at the end of the nineteenth century and resulted in the ‘scramble for Africa’.


What I was less aware of was the ‘scramble for Asia’. Of course, Britain had imperial pre-eminence in the region. When it added Burma to its Indian possessions it was merely polishing the so-called jewel in the crown. With interests in modern day Malaysia, Brunei, Hong Kong and Singapore, Britain was well positioned to exploit Asian markets.

The French had also staked a big claim to a significant chunk of Asia – French Indochina would eventually revert to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos but only after bloody civil wars involving the French, Americans and Chinese.

Cartoon of Chinese Imperialism After Opium War. This illustration is a commentary on the state of China during the Age of Imperialism. Cartoon reads: Chinese man, "China," wearing yoke and ball and chain with tags: "This iron yoke from Japan," "Kind regards of England," "In token of Russia's regard," "Compliments of Germany," and "France's gift." "At peace with all the world, compliments of [...]

Russia was busy extending its vast Eurasian land empire ever eastwards and becoming increasingly keen on securing warm water ports as gateways to the Pacific Ocean. Across the vast steppes, the Trans-Siberian Railway provided a fragile but vital umbilical cord to the Muscovite heart of the motherland.

Germany was frantically elbowing its way to a place in the sun, with a motley collection of Pacific islands, colonies, concessions and trading factories and, perhaps most importantly, a modern and powerful Pacific fleet. Japan, having modernised itself in a generation, was now looking to end centuries of isolation in the most explosive way imaginable. Her leaders looked across the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea towards Korea, Formosa (modern day Taiwan) and Manchuria.

China - the cake of kings and... of emperors" (a French pun on king cake and kings and emperors wishing to "consume" China). French political cartoon from 1898. A pastry represents "Chine" (French for China) and is being divided between caricatures of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, William II of Germany (who is squabbling with Queen Victoria over a borderland piece, whilst thrusting a knife into the pie to signify aggressive German intentions), Nicholas II of Russia, who is eyeing a particular piece, the French Marianne (who is diplomatically shown as not participating in the carving, and is depicted as close to Nicholas II, as a reminder of the Franco-Russian Alliance), and a samurai representing Japan, carefully contemplating which pieces to take. A stereotypical Qing official throws up his hands to try and stop them, but is powerless. It is meant to be a figurative representation of the Imperialist tendencies of these nations towards China during the decade.

Even America found itself in the strange position of being the beacon of liberty, home of the free and colonial master to millions of former subjects of the Spanish Empire.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, China was on the cusp of becoming the target of a new imperial feeding frenzy as colonial lions, new and old, circled around the tired, broken body of a weakened dragon. As anyone who has read or seen the Hobbit knows, dragons may appear to be old, tired and mouldering, but they can still summon epic strength. The Western powers saw this in the fearsome Boxer Rebellion, which finally prompted the Western powers to intervene and send in the troops.

In the wake of the foreign intervention and the collapse of the Boxer Rebellion, many in the west thought it was inevitable that China would be divided amongst the imperial powers. Political cartoons portrayed the Chinese dragon weakened and defenceless before the British lion, German and American eagles, French cock and Russian bear. In the Puck cartoon, even Austria-Hungary is represented, its twin-headed eagle approaching the Chinese corpse.

Cartoon showing animals representing the international force that put an end to the Boxer Rebellion in China and re-esetablished their own economic influence. The armed lion is England, the bear is Russia, and China is the dragon. The other nations are the United States, Germany, France, Austria, Italy, and Japan.

So what stopped the Western powers from ‘carving up the Chinese melon’? In my UVA course, Professor Zelikow puts forward several reasons – competition amongst the Western powers, fear of Russia or Japan becoming too powerful, America’s desire to see a strong, independent China, China’s own possibility of reform and a mounting distrust for the social, economic and moral cost of imperialism.

Whatever the reason, China avoided the fate of Africa and much of the rest of the world in being formally apportioned to the imperial powers. It remained a weakened country and would see invasion, revolution, civil war and cultural struggles before a more stable and economically successful period allowed it to reassert itself.

As China surges to what seems an inevitable superpower status, perhaps the dragon analogy is misplaced. Its rise is nothing less than that of a phoenix rising from the fire and fury of its turbulent last two centuries.