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The 19th century saw the rise of one of the largest, most powerful empires of the modern era. The sun never set on the British Empire, whose holdings spanned the globe, in one form or another. Its naval supremacy linked the Commonwealth of Canada with the colonies in South Africa and India, and through them trade flowed east and west. An integral but underutilized part of this vast trade network included China, a reclusive Asian kingdom closed off from the Western world that desired none of its goods.
Unfortunately for China, the British had the might of an empire and economic force, not to mention modern arms, on their side. Breaking into China’s lucrative trade markets nearly destroyed the nation, severely discredited the Chinese dynasty, wreaked havoc on its people, and further propelled Britain’s empire into a dominant economic and military position.
The collision of these two empires took many years and caused much bloodshed. In fact, the troubles started well before the eventual hostilities, festering as frustration mounted until finally boiling over. Such was the state of relations between the British Empire and Qing Dynasty for the better part of the century, its footing upended from the very start of relations.
On July 3, 1858, both parties signed the Treaty of Tianjin, the culmination of over half a century of Chinese-British diplomatic relations. For the first time, Great Britain, along with France, Russia, and the United States, could establish ambassadors in Peking. The treaty also opened 11 more ports to foreign trade, established the rights of foreign vessels to freely travel the Yangtze River and for foreigners to travel inland in China, and guaranteed religious freedom for Christians.
The Second Opium War ended with the same lopsided diplomatic victory as the first. This time, however, the international scene painted a different picture, with very different consequences. While in the first war other foreign powers did not muscle their way into China until after the war, in the second foreign powers followed right after the British. Where once the British loomed over China unchallenged, now new powers made their presence felt, and they had no intention of leaving anytime soon.
The French would broaden their empire in Asia along with the British, the consequences of which would involve both China and the United States over a century later. Russia would look eastward toward China and the Pacific, until its disastrous defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, and its relations with China would ebb and flow until the late 20th century. The United States, established in China, opened Japan to foreign trade the same year as the signing of the Treaty of Tianjin. In less than half a century, Japan would supplant China as the dominant power in the region.
For these reasons, as well as others, the Opium Wars marked a dramatic shift in Asian history, and they understandably caused frustration among the Chinese, both at the foreigners and their own rulers. Eventually, the ire of the Chinese populace against the Westerners boiled over into open rebellion, not against the state, but against the foreigners themselves. With the tacit approval of the Chinese government, the Boxer Rebellion rattled the Western nations, but it would have unintended consequences at home as well.
The Boxer Rebellion: The History and Legacy of the Anti-Imperialist Uprising in China at the End of the 19th Century examines the origins of the uprising, the results, and the aftermath.